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Is Bond Market Scary?
World Economy

Is Bond Market Scary?

The prices of long-term government bonds have been running very high in recent years (that is, their yields have been very low). In the United States, the 30-year Treasury bond yield reached a record low (since the Federal Reserve series began in 1972) of 2.25% on January 30. The yield on the United Kingdom’s 30-year government bond fell to 2.04% on the same day. The Japanese 20-year government bond yielded just 0.87% on January 20.
All of these yields have since moved slightly higher, but they remain exceptionally low. It seems puzzling – and unsustainable – that people would tie up their money for 20 or 30 years to earn little or nothing more than these central banks’ 2% target rate for annual inflation. So, with the bond market appearing ripe for a dramatic correction, many are wondering whether a crash could drag down markets for other long-term assets, such as housing and equities, Robert Shiller, a 2013 Nobel laureate in economics wrote for Project Syndicate.
After all, participants in the housing and equity markets set prices with a view to prices in the bond market, so contagion from one long-term market to another seems like a real possibility.

  Long-Term Bond Market
The years 1952-1971 showed that the long-term bond market back then was pretty easy to describe. Long-term interest rates on any given date could be explained quite well as a certain weighted average of the last 18 quarters of inflation and the last 18 quarters of short-term real interest rates. When either inflation or short-term real interest rates went up, long-term rates rose. When either fell, so did long-term rates.
According to our model, long-term rates in the US should be even lower than they are now, because both inflation and short-term real interest rates are practically zero or negative. Even taking into account the impact of quantitative easing since 2008, long-term rates are higher than expected.
We will not see a crash in the bond market unless central banks tighten monetary policy very sharply (by hiking short-term interest rates) or there is a major spike in inflation.
Bond-market crashes have actually been relatively rare and mild. In the US, the biggest one-year drop in the Global Financial Data extension of Moody’s monthly total return index for 30-year corporate bonds (going back to 1857) was 12.5% in the 12 months ending in February 1980. Compare that to the stock market: According to the GFD monthly S&P 500 total return index, an annual loss of 67.8% occurred in the year ending in May 1932, during the Great Depression, and one-year losses have exceeded 12.5% in 23 separate episodes since 1900.
It is also worth noting what kind of event is needed to produce a 12.5% crash in the long-term bond market. The one-year drop in February 1980 came immediately after Paul Volcker took the helm of the Federal Reserve in 1979. A 1979 Gallup Poll had shown that 62% of Americans regarded inflation as the “most important problem facing the nation.” Volcker took radical steps to deal with it, hiking short-term interest rates so high that he created a major recession.

  Stock, Housing Markets
Regarding the stock market and the housing market, there may well be a major downward correction someday. But it probably will have little to do with a bond-market crash.
It is true that extraordinarily low long-term bond yields put us outside the range of historical experience. But so would a scenario in which a sudden bond-market crash drags down prices of stocks and housing. When an event has never occurred, it cannot be predicted with any semblance of confidence.

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