When What Cannot Happen Happens, More Surprises Likely Await

After not feeling well for a few days, I am back to writing.  Let me start with a blast from the past from RealMoney, during happier times:

David Merkel
Swap Curve Inverts a Teensy Bit, for a Moment
2/17/2006 12:29 PM EST

Nothing big here, but the swap curve briefly inverted twos to tens a few minutes ago. There is no reason to panic here; I’m just pointing out something that is highly unusual in the bond market. Having successfully traded bonds 2001-2003, I can say that strangeness tends to beget more strangeness. If this inversion gets larger and persists, I will have a post on the topic, but for now, this is just a curiosity.

Position: none, but the swap market affects us all in a wide number of quiet ways…

David Merkel
The Deepening Inversion
2/22/2006 11:06 AM EST

I did not expect the inversion in the Treasury curve to get so deep so quickly. At present, the Treasury curve is inverted 15 basis points from twos to tens. Does this mean the market is falling apart? No, only the economics of spread-based lenders.

Whoever taught me (way back when) that the swap curve can’t invert deserves a few whips with a wet noodle. It’s small, but swaps are inverted two basis points twos to tens. What will I see next? Inverted corporate curves for BBB bonds? I can’t imagine what that would imply for the economy. It would deepen my feeling that we are in uncharted waters in a low nominal world.

On the CPI, it is an advantage for TIPS buyers that the bond market focuses on the core CPI, when TIPS buyers get paid off of the unadjusted CPI. It allows us to get more yield off of our TIPS.

Inflation is higher than the core CPI indicates for a wide number of reasons, but the simplest one is that they exclude food and energy, whose prices have risen at faster than everything else for the past 10-20 years.

Eventually the long end of the Treasury curve will react badly when market players revise their long run inflation expectations, which in my opinion are too low. But for now, international flows dominate because US yields are higher than those in most other countries, and pension fund flows dominate because of a need to fund long liabilities. Until those factors quit, we will continue to live in a weird bond market, with uncertain implications for GDP and the equity markets as a whole.

This doesn’t make me change any of my strategies yet, but it does leave me uneasy.

Position: long long-dated TIPS, bank floating rate loan funds

Back then the yield craze was upon us, and credit risk forgotten.  The swap curve was theoretically never supposed to invert on a yield basis.  That was then, this is now.  A new yield craze is upon us, where credit risk is omnipresent, even in securities of the highest quality.  It reads, “I don’t care about the yield, just give me guarantees for a long time, and keep me safe.

That is manifesting in (at least) three ways right now:

  • Failure to deliver in repurchase markets. (Alea, Jesse’s Cafe Americain)
  • Swap spreads going negative on the long end of the curve. (Across the Curve, FT)
  • What bond deals are getting done for investment grade names are getting done at amazing spread levels.  (Baker Hughes, Pepsi — in 2002, spread levels for single-A names never got this wide, though some cyclical BBBs got that wide.)

The grab for safety is relentless, and the efforts of our Government are small relative to the size of the economy.  The yields of the investment grade bond market are a truer measure of the troubles, because no one is fiddling with it yet.  Even so, the fiddling may not turn even the manipulated markets around.

PS — As a final note, a kind word for the CDS market — their netting procedures work admirably, as pointed out by Alea (numerous times), and Derivative Dribble (a valiant start for a new blog).  Here’s a wild thought: we need the same thing on a broader and more complex scale, allocating the embedded losses in our financial system to their rightful recipients, wiping out common, preferred equity, and subordinated debt as needed, and forcing the conversion of debt claims to equity, delevering the system in a colossal way.

CDS netting does that in a flash for synthetic debt exposures, but how do you do it for a wide number of assets at once?  I’m not sure it can be done.  My question is this: do the present actions of policymakers genuinely help, as they shift debts from private to public hands, or do they merely delay the inevitable?  I hope the former, but I think it is the latter.

Full disclosure: long PEP