Bond bubble talk is rife these days. Maybe it's because we've become, as one economist put it, "armageddon hypochondriacs." Recent experience leads us to believe that markets are always on the brink of insanity and meltdown.
Others disagree. Slate magazine's Daniel Gross, one of my favorite business writers, recently penned an article refuting the idea that bonds are in bubble territory. It's a good read, but most of his arguments aren't terribly convincing.
[B]ubbles are generally driven by greed and fearlessness. Investors jump in thinking they have nothing to lose and are certain they can get a massive return. ... But today's bond buyers are driven more by fear than by greed. They're not buying government bonds because they think they can double their money by December, or get a 50 percent return in a year by finding a series of greater fools. In fact, it's the opposite. U.S. government bonds are the ultimate safe haven, the least bad place to invest. People are buying government bonds with paltry yields because they can't think of anything better to do with their cash.
I'm not so sure. First, people used the same argument during the housing bubble: that investors were plowing into real estate -- an apparent "safe haven" -- only because they couldn't think of a better place to put their cash after being burned by the dot-com bust. Not knowing what to do with your cash doesn't make you any smarter. Much less so, in fact.
And I don't think bubbles have to be associated with dreams of massive returns, so much as dreams of impossibilities and unlikelihoods. That can happen in fear bubbles, as some would characterize the driver of today's bond market as, in just as powerful a way as bullish ones. The driver of fear bubbles is the same attitude that drives bullish ones: Investors take an extreme event that prevailed in the recent past and extrapolate it into infinity. In either case, the result is lunacy.
The neverending story
With 10-year Treasury rates well below 3%, what fear-driven hell is the bond market extrapolating into infinity today? A world with perpetually slow growth, negligible inflation, and a Federal Reserve capable of keeping interest rates low by purchasing public debt by the trillions. The last two points eventually become mutually exclusive (perhaps before long), which seems reason enough to think the bond market has lost its noodle.
That aside, the example most cite as justification for hibernating in bonds is Japan's infamous lost decade, where bond yields faceplanted in the '90s and have remained there ever since. Japan had a big deflationary recession. We've had a big deflationary recession. Thus, they say, our next 10 years should be just like their past 10.
But the differences between Japan and the U.S. are huge. Japan's citizens save like champions, allowing it to finance its own misery internally. Not so here. The U.S. is dependant on the kindness of foreign strangers to finance its debt, a point that alone makes mimicking Japan's malaise far-fetched. I'm comfortable predicting that foreign creditors will bail on the U.S long before it has a chance to run debt near 200% of GDP, as Japan has. History bears this point out.
Speaking of issuing debt, here's Gross again:
[L]ook at the behavior of the peddlers of the allegedly bubbly securities. During bubbles, when foolish investors are willing to place high valuations on companies in a hot sector, entrepreneurs and managers rush to give the public what they want. ... In a bond bubble, when borrowing costs are exceptionally low, you'd expect the government to increase its borrowing significantly, taking advantage of the idiots by issuing new bonds like crazy. But that's not happening. The federal government has actually borrowed less as bond yields have fallen -- much to the chagrin of liberal economists and progressives, who think the Obama administration is foolish not to borrow money at these insanely low rates and invest in high-speed rail, job creation, and infrastructure.
Not buying it. "Too little debt" isn't high on many sane people's list of government grievances.
In 2008 and 2009, the Treasury issued a net $1.2 trillion and $1.4 trillion in debt securities, respectively. Both are roughly three times larger than the previous record set in 2003. Some will always gripe that the government isn't doing enough. But when debt issuance triples previous records, it can't be accused of ignoring bond investors' insatiability, even if issuance has fallen in recent months.
And the Treasury is taking advantage of low interest rates in other ways. In early 2009, it released a memo saying it would favor issuing longer-dated securities as interest rates hit record lows -- an attempt to lock in rock-bottom rates for as long as possible. Sure enough, the average duration of Treasury debt is now 58 months, up from 48 months in 2008.
Then there are corporations. Junk bond issuance around the globe is at an all-time high -- odd given the state of the economy. High-quality companies from IBM (NYSE: IBM ) to Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) have been issuing piles of debt at negligible interest rates, yet corporations are almost universally sitting idle on their cash. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) went into debt for the first time ever last year. Why? Not because it needed the cash -- it's famously burdened with too much of the stuff. It was to take advantage of the idiots. Don't take my word for it. A Microsoft spokesman happily admits the deal was simply "taking advantage of good market conditions." Ahem.
For people who don't own calculators
Whether bonds are a bubble or not is just a silly exercise in semantics. What's important is whether they're a good deal or not. And when compared with available alternatives, namely high-quality large-cap stocks with high dividends, most are not. Today, you can buy a 10-year Treasury bond that yields 2.6%, or one of several high-quality stocks, including Altria Group (NYSE: MO ) , Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , and Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY ) , that yield more than double that.
No one knows if bonds are a true bubble. But what seems likely, extremely likely, is that 10 years from now, those buying bonds won't be nearly as happy as those buying high-quality stocks. That's all you should care about.
Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.