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Posts Tagged ‘real yields’

Fair is Fair, and TIPS are There (Almost)

September 30, 2022 6 comments

For a very long time, I have been writing in our Quarterly Inflation Outlook that TIPS were “relatively cheap, but absolutely expensive.” By that I meant that TIPS real yields at -1%, -2%, etc were not exciting (implying as they did that a buyer would have long-term real wealth destruction), but that compared with nominal Treasury yields of 1%, 1.5%, or 2% any investor in fixed income should have vastly preferred TIPS.

I have repeatedly said – as far back as 2016 – that with breakevens below 1.5% there wasn’t even a decent strategic case to own nominal bonds rather than inflation-linked bonds (ILBs) except to defease specific nominal liabilities and that at times those low breakevens meant that owning nominals instead of ILB amounted to a really big bet (as I said in this article from March 2020). Those are relative concepts.

But 10-year real yields were below zero, and as low as -1.2%, for most of 2020, 2021, and the first half of 2022. And 10-year real yields have been below +1% almost continuously since 2011. When real yields were below zero or just fractionally positive, it meant that TIPS were absolutely expensive. That wasn’t just a TIPS problem of course: low real yields were the most obvious in TIPS, but you couldn’t avoid them by trafficking in other asset classes because they were a characteristic of the environment we were in. Everything was absolutely expensive, but TIPS were at least relatively cheap.

More recently, our models indicated TIPS getting quantitatively fair on a relative basis, which is historically unusual (see chart, source Enduring Investments); they even got somewhat rich a couple of months ago and that’s historically unheard of.[1] Real and nominal yields were still low, but at least it was a fair horse race between which ones to hold. And if you’d bought TIPS when I said there was “a big bet” being made against them, and sold them when we said they were fair, you crushed a nominal portfolio’s return. (As an aside, the rich/cheap chart and value is available every day on my private Twitter feed. Sign up for that private feed here: https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ I keep adding more charts etc, in addition to the main event, my live CPI report coverage each month).

As of today, 10-year TIPS yields are all the way up to 1.67%, the highest they’ve been since 2010. I explained back in June why the equilibrium risk-free real interest rate is approximately 2.25%, so TIPS are getting to the neighborhood of long-term fair values in an absolute sense. TIPS have no risk in real space, when held to maturity, so if you can get an annual 2%ish real increase in wealth with no risk, that’s a good deal. And inflation-linked bond yields in developed markets basically never yield more than 4% or 4.5%, so the higher the yield goes the less your potential mark-to-market downside. A 5-yr or 10-yr TIPS yield of 4% is back-up-the-truck stuff if you see it. At those real yields, with no risk, other asset classes simply can’t compete. At 1% breakevens there was no reason to own nominal bonds rather than TIPS; at 4% real yield there would be no reason to own stocks rather than TIPS.

But that sort of yield is of course very rare and we won’t see it unless nominal yields get up to double-digit land. At the current level, with TIPS at fair or slightly-cheap relative value and approaching fair absolute value, it is worth accumulating TIPS as a long-term hold.

It has been an astonishingly long time since I could make that statement. And TIPS may well get cheaper from here. I hope they do! But in the meantime, you can do a lot worse than guarantee yourself that your wealth will increase 18% more over the next decade than the price level rises.[2]


[1] I have written previously though about the value of long inflation tails, and how that value is NOT reflected in TIPS so that even when our model says TIPS are fair, they’re still very cheap if that tail option is reasonably valued. But that isn’t included here.

[2] (1+1.67%)^10 – 1 = 18%.

Categories: Bond Market, CPI, TIPS Tags:

Low Real Yields – You Can’t Avoid Them

July 29, 2020 7 comments

Recently, 10-year real yields went to new all-time lows. Right now, they’re at -0.96%. What that means is that, if you buy TIPS, you’re locking in a loss of about 1% of your purchasing power, per year, over the next decade. If inflation goes up 2%, TIPS will return about 1%. If inflation goes up 8%, TIPS will return 7%. And so on.

With that reality, I’ve recently seen lamentations that TIPS are too expensive – who in the world would buy these real yields?!?

The answer, of course, is everybody. Indeed, if you can figure out a way to buy an asset without locking in the fundamental reality that the real risk-free rate is -1%, please let me know.

Because when you buy a nominal Treasury bond, you are buying them at a nominal interest rate that reflects a -1% real interest rate along with an expectation of a certain level of inflation. The whole point of the Fisher equation is that a nominal yield consists of (a) the real cost of money, and (b) compensation for the expected deterioration in the value of that money over time – expected inflation.[1] So look, if you buy nominal yields, you’re also getting that -1% real yield…it’s just lumped in with something else.

Well golly, then we should go to a corporate bond! Yields there are higher, so that must mean real yields are higher, right? Nope: the corporate yield is the real yield, plus inflation compensation, plus default risk compensation. Your yield is higher because you’re taking more (different) risks, but the underlying compensation you’re receiving for the cost of money is still -1%.

Commodities! Nope. Expected commodity index returns consist of expected collateral return, plus (depending how you count it) spot return and roll return. But that collateral return is just a fixed-income component…see above.

Equities, of course, have better expected returns over time not because they are somehow inherently better, but because buyers of equities earn a premium for taking on the extra risk of common equities – cleverly called the equity risk premium – over a risk-free investment.

In fact, the expected returns for all long positions in investments consist of the same basic things: a real return for the use of your money, and a premium for any risk you are taking over and above a riskless investment (the riskless investment being, we know, an inflation-linked bond and not a nominal bond). This is the whole point of the Capital Asset Pricing Model; this understanding is what gives us the Security Market Line, although it’s usually drawn incorrectly with T-bills as the risk-free asset. Here is the current market line we calculate, using our own models and with just a best-fit line in there showing the relationship between risk and return. Not that long ago, that entire line was shifted higher more or less in parallel as real interest rates were higher along with the expected returns to every asset class:

So why am I mentioning this? Because I have been hearing a lot recently about how people are buying stocks because TINA (There Is No Alternative) when yields are this low. But if the capital asset pricing model means anything, that is poor reasoning: your return to equity investment incorporates the expected real return to a riskless asset. There is an alternative to equities and equity risk; what there’s no alternative to is the level of real rates. The expected real return from here for equities is exceptionally poor – but, to be fair, so are the expected real returns from all other asset classes, and for some of the same reasons.

This is a consequence, of course, of the massive amount of cash in the system. Naturally, the more cash there is, then the worse the real returns to cash because a borrower doesn’t need to compensate you as much for the use of your money when there’s a near-unlimited amount of money out there. And the worse the real returns to cash, the worse the real returns to everything else.

You can’t avoid it – it’s everywhere. I don’t know if it’s the new normal, but it is the normal for now.


[1] Unhelpfully, the Fisher equation also notes that there is an additional term in the nominal yield, which represents compensation being taken on by the nominal bondholder for bearing the volatility in the real outcome. But it isn’t clear why the lender, and not the borrower, ought to be compensated for that volatility…the borrower of course also faces volatility in real outcomes. In any event, it can’t be independently measured so we usually just lump that in with the premium for expected inflation.

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