Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Will the Fed buy more bonds?

U.S. Treasury bonds have fallen over half a percentage point in the past seven weeks, the biggest fall since 1994. Mortgages rates on 30-year fixed loans are back to more than 5%... This sets the stage for a showdown between the government's lenders (bond buyers) and the Federal Reserve, which wants interest rates to remain low. The Street (BlackRock, American Century, Federated, and Pioneer Investment) thinks the Fed will buy Treasury bonds again (like it did last month) in order to force rates lower. No matter what the Fed does, long-term interest rates are going much higher and the bond market is going to get crushed.

What will more and more creditworthy borrowers do when they see the Fed engineering a huge new inflation? Borrow as much money as they can, at fixed rates. Take Microsoft, for example. Bill Gates' company has never borrowed a penny before – ever. It has no need for debt financing whatsoever – it's sitting on more than $20 billion in cash reserves. Nevertheless, Microsoft will borrow billions in five, 10, and 30-year debt. It will use the money from this sale to help fund a $40 billion share repurchase program – nearly 25% of the company's outstanding shares. Follow Bill Gates' lead: Buy high-quality equity. Sell government debt.

Another member of the ultra-wealthy, Bond King Bill Gross, is also betting on inflation. Gross reduced U.S. government-related debt holdings (which include Treasuries, agency debt, and government-backed bank debt) in his PIMCO Total Return Fund for the first time since January. His holdings are now 26% of the fund down from 28% in March - the most he's owned since April 2007. If his May 8 interview with CNBC is any clue, Gross may shift some assets into senior bank debt now that the government's stress tests are done... "The banking system is enduring," Gross said. "These types of spreads on the senior debt level are historic and quite attractive."
From Bloomberg:

BlackRock Inc., American Century Investments, Federated Investors and Pioneer Investment Management say it's time to buy Treasuries because the Fed will need to expand its purchases to keep consumer borrowing costs from rising further."

While government buying of Treasuries will temporarily keep yields down, and could make for a good short-term trade, it won't stop the eventual massive inflation hangover.

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