The bond market is showing signs of activity, catching the attention of the business world and the Federal Reserve. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a key benchmark for fixed-income investments, briefly exceeded 5 percent, a milestone that hasn’t been reached since the start of the 2008 financial crisis. This suggests a significant shift in the bond market, with implications for both investors and borrowers.
Previously, low interest rates meant that businesses and investors didn’t have to pay much attention to bond yields. However, with higher rates now prevalent, speculators who bet on a decrease in interest rates are facing losses. On the other hand, for savers and retirees, higher rates mean the opportunity to earn greater income on their investments. This has led to a discussion on how risk-averse individuals can benefit from higher-rate fixed-income securities.
The impact of these changes in the bond market goes beyond personal investing. Many are looking at bond rates, particularly the 10-year Treasury, for indications on several critical issues. These include the burden of consumer loan rates, the ability of consumers and corporations to handle higher rates, the effect on the US economy and inflation, the impact on stock purchases, and the potential strengthening of the dollar and impact on global trade.
The Federal Reserve policymakers, who have a meeting scheduled next week, are closely watching the bond market. While the Fed sets short-term rates, the bond market determines longer-term rates, which are currently tightening financial conditions in the US. This aligns with the Fed’s goal of controlling inflation. It is expected that the Fed will maintain the federal funds rate at its current level, but the future path of bond rates remains uncertain.
The bond market plays a critical role in financing government debt. The global fixed-income market is valued at around $130 trillion, with the US accounting for 40 percent of it. US Treasury securities make up a significant portion of the country’s debt. The US government deficit has doubled in the last year, requiring the Treasury to auction larger quantities of securities. With the Federal Reserve shrinking its holdings of US debt, bond investors are taking on more Treasury debt and demanding higher interest rates to do so.
Historically, when Treasury yields rise, it catches the attention of politicians in Washington. This happened in the 1990s when the Clinton administration had to scale back its spending due to rising bond market rates. It embraced fiscal austerity and achieved a budget surplus for several years. The bond market’s power to influence policy was famously acknowledged by political strategist James Carville, who said he wanted to come back as the bond market and intimidate everybody.
This year, the US government has struggled to establish a sound fiscal policy, leading to a downgrade in its debt rating and concerns over the debt ceiling and potential government shutdown. While the bond market may not be intimidating everyone just yet, its increasing restiveness cannot be ignored for long.