Monday, December 20, 2010

An Omen of Financial Stress?

Something strange is happening in the short end of the Treasury securities market. Treasuries maturing in about 1 month are yielding around 0.01%. Just a couple of weeks ago, yields were above 0.10%. Perhaps this may all seem like peanuts (and it is, if you have, say, $10,000 invested). But a yield of 0.01% was last seen during the dark days of the credit crunch in late 2008 and in 2009, when the world's banking system faced a funding crisis. Such a low yield signified that no one trusted anything except the obligations of the U.S. government; that investors didn't care about getting a return. They just want to keep their money safe. The recent 90% plus drop in the short end of the Treasury yield curve in less than two weeks may be a sign that something is rotten somewhere.

Economists and other fortune tellers are raising their estimates for growth next year. Stock prognosticators are full of holiday cheer, predicting rosy returns for stocks in 2011. Consumers may be loosening their purse strings a bit for this year's holiday season. Recent tax legislation will widen the deficit for next year, ensuring that the federal spending spigot won't slow down. All systems are go, it would seem. What's to get stressed about?

Euro Mess. The European response to the Euro bloc sovereign debt crisis, generously assessed, has been tentative and muddled. The only clear impact has been to transfer risk of loss to European taxpayers and give the can a hard kick down the road. The continued uncertainty makes the U.S. greenback look good by comparison (once again demonstrating that it's easy to lose faith in America, until you look at the rest of the world). If you're going to dump Euros for dollars, it makes sense to buy the short end of the Treasury yield curve, where you're not competing against the Fed's quantitative easing program.

One group of potentially nervous investors would be money market funds that hold commercial paper of banks in shaky Euro bloc nations, like Greece and Portugal. Amazingly, in spite of the money market fund credit crunch in 2008, many money market funds bought this foreign issued commercial paper. (One wonders what happened to prudence, but then again prudence is something isn't brought up in polite company.) Those money market funds now may be quietly easing out of Euro bloc bank commercial paper and shifting into Treasuries before year end, when they'd have to disclose their holdings to investors.

Muni Mess. The muni market has fallen, about 5% in the past month. That may not sound like much, but if you held munis and it was your 5%, you'd be peeved. The future for munis isn't pretty. The federally subsidized Build America Bonds program turns into a pumpkin at the end of this year, and there won't be a fairy godmother for it next year. That means states and municipalities will face the harsh winds of the muni market without a quick fix from Uncle Sam. Many financially troubled states are still struggling with their budget problems. To make things worse, questions over states' pension accounting could compel larger state contributions to employee pension funds. Muni investors with battered portfolio syndrome may be seeking a port in the growing storm and heading for the safety of Treasuries.

Bond Mess. The bond market has fallen since early November, when the Fed formally announced its quantitative easing program. Investors who bet that QE would extend the 30 year bull market in bonds may now suspect that this time, things really are different. Those that aren't ready for the quicksands of the stock market may be parking at the short end of the Treasury curve, waiting to see whither the winds blow.

It's unclear that any of this will push the financial system back into the septic tank. Any analysis of that question would require information about who's holding what exposures in the derivatives markets. (Query: are major banks holding the hot tamale because they took the wrong end of the wrong credit default swaps?) But those markets are as opaque as ever, notwithstanding the enactment of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation this past summer. All we know is that the short end of the Treasury yield curve is at 0.01%, and the last time that happened, canaries in the mine were gasping.

No comments: