Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Regulatory Challenges of the Bond Market

The Great 2013 Bond Market Chain Saw Massacre has probably caused trillions of dollars of losses.  On May 1, 2013, the yield on the U.S. Treasury 10-year note went as low as 1.61%.  Since then, it has vaulted as high as 2.72% and most recently closed at 2.63%.  Such a jump in yields is, as kindergartners would put it, ginormous. 

The inverse math of the bond market would dictate that when yields jump this much this fast, the principal value of bonds will fall painfully and nasty losses will be incurred.  While precise numbers aren't readily available, losses in Treasuries may reach a trillion dollars.  And when you add in corporates, munis, junk bonds, and mortgage-backed securities, the losses could be multiple trillions.

The game of musical losses is now in progress.  Through short positions, derivatives contracts and other hedges, the losses are flowing through to wherever they will end up.  The challenge for regulators is to find out, and quickly, where that end will be.  What must be ascertained is whether the losses are spread out and landing in places where they can be absorbed without too much fuss.  Or whether the losses are concentrated somewhere and could have secondary and tertiary rippling effects (i.e., cause a run on one or a few major financial institution(s)).  Well within living memory (2008, to be exact), sharp losses in the mortgage markets triggered tsunamis in the financial markets that washed over Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and threatened to wipe out AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Merrill Lynch.  Bailouts and regulator-encouraged acquisitions barely prevented an abrupt, loud, low-flow flush of the entire financial system.

Regulators should be proactively trying to pin down where the bond market losses will fall.  Complicating their task is the likelihood of speculators who used leverage to make derivatives bets on a fall in interest rates.  Since there is no prohibition on speculating with derivatives, as opposed to hedging, it is possible (and probable) that some players in the financial markets made such a bet.  That wouldn't be intrinsically different from the bet that John Paulson made in mortgages shortly before the mortgage crisis that sweetened his net worth by billions.  It's also not intrinsically different from the gold bets that John Paulson's gold fund has likely made, which reportedly has sustained losses in excess of 60% (ouch).  Any such speculative bets in the bond markets could exacerbate the game of musical losses, and make the regulators' tasks all the more difficult, since many of the speculators might be trading through entities chartered in off-shore locations that might frustrate U.S. government oversight.  But the Feds will have to do their best, because the alternative would be what happened in 2008, when they waited until things blew up and bailouts were just about the only option.

There's more.  The yield curve has been steepening during the last two months.  The short end remains squashed by the Fed's scorched earth policy on short term interest rates.  But the long end, as we noted above, has been rising meteorically.  This steepening makes attractive a type of carry trade.  It's possible to make a lot of money by borrowing short term and investing long term.  

Fed policy makes this carry trade all the more enticing.  The Fed's intent, as far as it can be discerned from the entrails currently visible, is to begin cutting down on bond purchases (i.e., QE) within months, but to keep short term rates at zero until unemployment reaches 6.5%.  Although employment has been rising, the unemployment rate has been static for several months.  While no one really knows when unemployment will reach 6.5%, it's not uncommon to read predictions of mid-2014 or so for that level to be acheived.  If so, the carry trade could be profitable for a while, especially if the Fed's reduction of bond purchases push long term yields even higher. 

To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, or Mark Twain, or somebody, there's a smarty pants who shows up in the financial markets every minute. Some--and perhaps many-- will surely indulge in this carry trade, most likely on a leveraged basis (because leverage boosts profits, assuming the trade works in your favor).  But if the unemployment rate unexpectedly drops quickly to 6.5%, the partakers of this carry trade might wonder if they aren't living in a septic tank. 

Either way, the regulators have to keep an eye out for the possibility of mounting risks from this sort of carry trade.  It could look like easy money to banks, hedge funds, insurance companies and other important players in the financial markets--after all, with the Federal Reserve at least momentarily anchoring their borrowing costs while pushing up their profits, the government is on their side.  But borrowing short to invest long is the E. coli that has poisoned many a would-be financial marvel.  Regulators need to be watchful not only for bond market losses from risks that have already materialized, but also for the growth of more risk from the changing landscape of the market.

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