Agreement in Washington on a fresh fiscal package has set off dramatic rise in yields of US Treasuries and bonds across the world, threatening to short-circuit any benefits of stimulus. The bond rout raises concerns that the US authorities may be losing control over events.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard 8:03PM GMT 08 Dec 2010
The yield on 10-year Treasuries – the benchmark price of money worldwide and the key driver of US mortgages rates – has rocketed to 3.3pc, up 35 basis points since President Barack Obama agreed on Monday to compromise with Senate Republicans on tax cuts.
The Treasury sell-off has ricocheted through the global system, triggering bond sell-offs in Asia, Europe and Latin America. Japan's finance ministry braced as borrowing costs on seven-year debt jumped by a sixth in one trading session, while German Bunds punched through 3pc.
The White House deal with Congress will renew the Bush tax cuts for rich and poor alike for two years, as well as adding a further a 2pc cut in payroll taxes and an extension of unemployment aid.
David Bloom, currency chief at HSBC, said it is hard to disentangle whether investors are shunning bonds because they expect US stimulus to boost growth next year, or whether they are losing patience with profligacy in Washington.
"If this is all about growth, that's brilliant. But if yields are rising because people think Amirca's fiscal situation is unsustainable, then its armaggedon," he said.
"The US can get away with this only because it is the world's reserve currency. This would be totally unacceptable in any other country. We think these problems will start to crystallise for the US in the second half of 2011, once the European debt crisis has stabilised," he said.
The warnings were echoed by Li Daokui, a rate-setter for China's central bank. "The focus of the market is still in Europe, but we must be aware that the US fiscal situation is much worse than in Europe," he said.
The US tax deal adds $1 trillion of stimulus over two years, according to BNP Paribas. America's budget deficit will remain stuck near 10pc of GDP, not just in 2011 but also in 2012. This will push gross public debt to 110pc of GDP under the IMF definition, near the brink of a debt compound spiral. The contrast with fiscal tightening in Europe has become starkly evident.
Both Moody's and Fitch warned that the US must map out a credible strategy to control spending. "We have long-term concerns about the US rating outlook and they're not yet being addressed," said Stephen Hess, chief US analyst for Moody's.
Stephen Lewis, from Monument Securities, said the bond rout is a sign that Washington can no longer take global markets for granted. "We have reached the limits of tolerance for budget deficits. There is a feeling around the world that nobody in Washington is paying any attention to the implications of what they are doing, but there is a very real risk that this will backfire if it causes mortgage rates to keep going up," he said.
"At the same time we've seen a loss of confidence in Fed strategy. There is a feeling that the Fed doesn't care about inflation – in fact, wants more of it – and that is certainly not in the interest of bondholders," he said.
The standard rate for 30-year mortgages in US has moved up in tandem with Treasury yields. The rate has been creeping up ever since the US Federal Reserve first signalled plans for a fresh blast of quantitative easing, rising 85 basis points in three months.
The housing squeeze raises serious doubts about the Fed's plan to purchase a further $600bn in Treasuries over coming months, or QE2 as it is known. Fed chair Ben Bernanke stated on Sunday that the explicit purpose of the policy – which he calls "credit easing" – is to bring down yields.
"We're not printing money. What we're doing is lowering interest rates by buying Treasury securities. And by lowering interest rates, we hope to stimulate the economy to grow faster," he said.
US data on foreign holdings of Treasuries and agency bonds are published with a delay, but monthly figures show that China sold a net $24bn in September and Russia sold $10bn. The concern is that investor flight from US debt will overpower the monthly purchases of $100bn by the Fed, making it ever harder for Washington to raise the $1.4 trillion needed next year to cover the deficit.
The rise in yields risks becoming a textbook case of a central bank losing control over long-term rates. The danger is that market fears of future bond losses – whether from inflation or higher default premiums – will neutralise the stimulus, or lead to stagflation.
Tom Porcelli, from RBC Capital Markets, said the Fed rates might be nearer 4pc by now if the Fed had not acted. However, he said there was no justification for QE2 at a time when the economy is growing at more than 2pc, and core inflation – though the lowest since the 1960s – is positive at 1pc. "Nobody believes that we're slipping into deflation anymore. That phase has passed," he said.