Thursday, July 19, 2012

U.S. Treasuries a Buy or a Short?

I had a nice conversation the other day with Lacy Hunt at Hoisington Investments. We agree on many aspects of the global economy and I have a few excerpts of Hoisington's latest forecast below.

First, let me state that if you are looking for someone who has called the US treasury market correct this past decade, look no further than Hunt.

While I have been US treasury bullish (on-and-off ) for years (more on than off), and I can also claim to have never advocated shorting them (in contrast to inflationistas running rampant nearly everywhere), Lacy has correctly been a steadfast unwavering treasury bull throughout.

Will Hoisington catch the turn?

That I cannot answer. However, one look at Japan suggests the actual turn may be a lot further away than people think.

For a viewpoint remarkably different than you will find anywhere else, please consider a few snips from the Hoisington Quarterly Review and Outlook, for the Second Quarter 2012 (not yet publicly posted but may be at any time).
Abysmal Times Confirm the Research

In the eleven quarters of this expansion, the growth of real per capita GDP was the lowest for all of the comparable post-WWII business cycle expansions. Real per capita disposable personal income has risen by a scant 0.1% annual rate, remarkably weak when compared with the 2.9% post-war average.

It is often said that economic conditions would have been much worse if the government had not run massive budget deficits and the Fed had not implemented extraordinary policies.

This whole premise is wrong.

In all likelihood the governmental measures made conditions worse, and the poor results reflect the counterproductive nature of fiscal and monetary policies. None of these numerous actions produced anything more than transitory improvement in economic conditions, followed by a quick retreat to a faltering pattern while leaving the economy saddled with even greater indebtedness. The diminutive gain in this expansion is clearly consistent with the view that government actions have hurt, rather than helped, economic performance.

Economic conditions have been worse in euro-currency zone countries, the UK, and Japan. All three of these major economies have also resorted to massive deficit financing and highly unprecedented monetary policies, and all have substantially higher debt to GDP levels than the United States.

The UK and much of continental Europe is experiencing recession to some degree. Whether Japan is in or out of recession is a pedantic point since the level of nominal GDP is unchanged since 1991. Even such prior stalwarts of the global scene such as China, India, Russia and Brazil are plagued with deteriorating growth. In such circumstances a return to the normal business cycle of one to two rough years, followed by four to five good years, remains highly unlikely in the United States or in these other major economic centers.

Based upon the historical record of effects of excessive and low quality indebtedness, along with the academic research, the 30-year Treasury bond, with a recent yield of less than 3%, still holds value for patient long-term investors. Even when this bond drops to a 2% yield, it may still have value in relation to other assets.

If high indebtedness is indeed the main determinant of future economic growth and further government “stimulus” is counterproductive, then a prolonged state of debt induced coma may so limit returns on other riskier assets that a 30-year Treasury bond with a 2% yield would be a highly desirable asset to hold.
Those were the ending paragraph of Hoisington's four-page 2nd quarter review. I added paragraph breaks for ease in reading.

Are US Treasuries "Undervalued"?

I will respond to my own question with another question: Undervalued compared to what?

Certainly I would not advocate blindly buying 30-year year US treasuries with the intention of holding on to them for 30 years. Nor would Lacy Hunt.

Likewise, I see no real value in holding 10-year US treasuries for the next 10-years either.

Then again, I have stated the US may go in and out of deflation for as long as a decade. If that does happen, treasuries may easily outperform for that entire period.

One look at the Japanese stock market shows what might happen.

Three Lost Decades

click on chart for sharper image

I do not believe that is the path for US equities. However, I may very well be wrong. It is always important to consider what happens if you are wrong. Few bother to do just that.

If I am wrong (and that is certainly a decent chance), then what does that say about the potential for US treasuries?

Rather than advocating buying or shorting treasuries here, I am advising people to do something different:


Please consider all aspects of a trade, and in this case, what might easily happen to the widely espoused notion "US Treasuries are a Short". Also think about who is on the other side of the trade and why.

Short-term, US treasuries are overbought. Otherwise, they are hugely unloved.

People have been saying Japanese treasuries are a short for at least two decades. They will eventually be correct, and in my opinion much sooner than US treasury shorts (ignoring short-term US volatility).

Think about this: Bull markets do not end with the asset class being universally despised except by dedicated funds and foreign governments (the latter primarily for balance-of-trade purposes only).

Rather, bull markets end with nearly everyone becoming a believer.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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