Tag Archive for 'Bonds'

Gold vs. US Treasuries

John Hempton writes:

We live in a strange world – the 10 year US Treasury is trading with a 2.63 percent yield.  The market is presuming that there will not be much inflation in those ten years.  However if there is deflation (as per Japan) then the 10 year will wind up being a very good investment (see my blog post on Japanese bond yields from the perspective of a Japanese household).

At the same time gold is appreciating very sharply – from $950 per oz to $1250 in the past year – and from $800 two years ago or $450 five years ago.  On the face of it the gold price is predicting inflation.

Try as I may – I can’t see any reason why both those prices are correct.  I have long held the view that prices are mostly sort-of-rational … [s]o either there is a theoretical way in which both these prices can be correct or even my weak version of the efficient market hypothesis is spectacularly wrong.

and then asks

My first question thus is can anyone tell me why these prices could possibly be consistent?  Is there a rational reason why the bond market is pricing low inflation and the gold market seemingly pricing high inflation?  Does anybody have the ingenious world view in which both these prices are correct?

Since Blogger rejected my comment over at John’s site as being too long, I may as well reproduce it here. I don’t know about “correct” and I’m no finance guy, so my first point is that  I have no freakin’ clue.  Nevertheless, here are five, somewhat contradictory ideas, three of which might fit in a weak EMH world …

Idea #1) Yes, yes, your whole post was predicated on some weak version of the EMH. However … Treasuries, despite what the arch-conservatives are saying, are unlikely to be in a bubble (see idea #4 below).  It might (and only might!) even be impossible for them to be in a bubble.  On the other hand, gold can experience a bubble (to the extent that you concede that bubbles can exist at all).  Just because it can doesn’t mean that it currently is in one, but if it is and treasuries are not, that would partially resolve your dilemma.

Idea #2) Gold, as a commodity, is a affected by global phenomena, whereas US treasuries, while obviously still influenced by global pressures, are more sensitive to the US economy than is gold.  This statement will become more true over time as the US economy shrinks as a share of global GDP.  Therefore, perhaps you should deduce that markets are predicting low inflation or deflation for America, but quite high inflation for the world as a whole.

Idea #3) Gold, as a commodity, partially co-moves with other commodities, many of which are seeing price increases because of real, observable events in their markets (Chinese construction, Russian drought, etc).  Perhaps it is being dragged up by those (this augments idea #2).

Idea #4) In the broad market for USD-denominated investment-grade bonds, there has, I believe, been a net contraction in supply despite the surge in US government borrowing.  This is the private-sector balance-sheet correction.  One might argue, from something of a monetarist point of view, that (disin|de)flation is occurring in the US precisely because the US government is not expanding its borrowing fast enough to replace the private-sector contraction.  I mentioned this briefly the other day.

Idea #5) Another non-EMH idea, I’m afraid:  Both the USD and gold enjoy safe-haven status.  An increase in generalised fear (Knightian uncertainty, unknown unknowns, etc) will shift out the demand for both at all price levels.  To the extent that such a dynamic exists, I suspect that it ebbs away only slowly and, while elevated, is susceptible to rapid increases in response to events that would, in normal times, not affect people so much.

Update 11 Oct 2010:

James Hamilton on essentially the same topic.

Believing the “experts”

One of my favourite topics – indeed, in a way, the basis of my current research – is looking at how we tend to accept the declarations of other people as true without bothering to think on the issue for ourselves.  This is often a perfectly rational thing to do, as thinking carefully about things is both difficult and time consuming, often resulting in several possible answers that serve to increase our confusion, not lessen it.  If we can find somebody we trust to do the thinking for us and then tell us their conclusions, that can leave us free to put our time to work in other areas.

The trick is in that “trust” component.  To my mind, we not only tend to accept the views of people widely accepted to be experts, but also of anybody that we believe knows more than us on the topic.  This is one of the key reasons why I am not convinced by the “wisdom of crowds” theory and it’s big brother in financial markets, the efficient market hypothesis. I’m happy to accept that they might work when individual opinions are independent of each other, but they rarely are.

Via Greg Mankiw, I’ve just discovered a fantastic example of a person who is not an expert on a topic, but definitely more knowledgeable than most people, who nevertheless got something entirely wrong.  The person is Mark Hulbert, who is no slouch in the commentary department. Here is his article over at MarketWatch:

I had argued in previous columns that inflation might not be heating up, despite evidence to the contrary from lots of different sources …

I had based my argument on the narrowing yield spread between regular Treasury bonds and the special type of Treasuries known as TIPS. The only apparent difference between these two kinds of Treasury securities is that TIPS’ interest rates are protected against changes in the inflation rate. So I had assumed that we can deduce the bond market’s expectations of future inflation by comparing their yields.

… My argument appeared to make perfect sense, and I certainly was not the only one that was making it. But I now believe that I was wrong. Interpreted correctly, the message of the bond market actually is that inflation is indeed going up.

… My education came courtesy of Stephen Cecchetti, a former director of research at the New York Fed and currently professor of global finance at Brandeis University. In an interview, Cecchetti pointed out that other factors must be introduced into the equation when deducing the market’s inflationary expectations from the spread between the yields on TIPS and regular Treasuries.

The most important of these other factors right now is the relative size of the markets for TIPS and regular Treasury securities. Whereas the market for the latter is huge — larger, in fact, than the equity market — the TIPS market is several orders of magnitude smaller. This means that, relative to regular Treasuries, TIPS yields must be higher to compensate investors for this relative illiquidity.

And that, in turn, means that the spread between the yields on regular Treasuries and TIPS will understate the bond market’s expectations of future inflation.

Complicating factors even more is that this so-called illiquidity premium is not constant. So economists have had to devise elaborate econometric models to adjust for it and other factors. And those models are showing inflationary expectations to have dramatically worsened in recent months.

I have never met Mr. Hulbert, nor read any of his other articles.  I cannot claim that I wouldn’t have made the same mistake and I have to tip my hat to him for being willing to face up to it.  There are remarkably few people who would do that.