Thursday, February 7, 2013

Inflated Expectations

The specter of higher inflation
Makes investors want more compensation,
Thus driving up yields,
While prices of deals
Will fall, in an inverse relation.

The longer the stated maturity
Of a given fixed-income security,
Then all the more great
The effect of the rate,
As the market may show us with surety.

Bond prices tend to be countercyclical with stock prices and the economy as a whole.  In good times, or when inflation is elevated (or when both happen at once), bond prices tend to fall because rates are rising.  In bad times, or when investors show aversion to risk, there is a "flight to safety" that pushes them into bonds, driving up the price - and thus lowering the yield.  As The Wall Street Journal never fails to remind us: "Bond yields fall when prices rise." These dynamics were prominently on display in January, when 10-year bond prices fell 2.6% while the S&P 500 gained 5%.  In part, the bond selloff reflected more economic optimism and relief over the (partial) resolution of the fiscal cliff.  The higher yields also responded to awakening inflation anxiety, as the Fed's long-term inflation projection crossed over 3% for the first time in many moons.  Going forward, there is plenty for bond investors to feel anxious about - from the US debt ceiling to the eurozone - and little prospect for rapid economic growth, so inflation fears may not be driving rates any higher (and prices lower).

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