GMO’s James Montier has added his two-penneth to the bond bubble debate.
He reckons it is a largely sterile conversation because what investors should be asking themselves is whether bonds are a good investment at their current low levels.
I’ve always thought that in essence bond valuation is a rather simple process (at least one level). I generally view bonds as having three components: the real yield, expected inflation and an inflation risk premium. The real yield can be measured in the market thanks to inflation-linked bonds.
In the US, a 10 year Tip is trading at just under 1%. Expected inflation can be assessed in a variety of ways. We could use surveys, for instance, the Survey of Professional forecasters shows an expected inflation rate of just under 2.5% p.a. over the next decade. In contrast, the nominal bonds minus the TIP yields implies a figure of more like 1.5% p.a. The inflation swap market is implying a 2% p.a. inflation rate over the next ten years.
The inflation risk premium (a risk premium to compensate for the uncertainty of future inflation) is generally held to be between 25bps and 50bps. Given the uncertainties surrounding the impact of monetary and fiscal policy I’d argue that using the high end of that range seems reasonable.
Using these inputs a ‘fair value’ under normal inflation would be around 4%. Of course, this assumes that the current market 1% real yield is itself a ‘fair price’. This seems like a questionable assumption to me. In the UK we have a longer history of index linked bonds – introduced in 1986. The average yield since the introduction is 2.6%, in the last decade the average real yield has been 1.5%. Given this ‘parameter’ uncertainty is would be reasonable to say that ‘fair value’ for 10 year bonds is somewhere in the range of 4-5%.
The current 2.5% yield on the US 10 year bond is clearly a long way short of this. So unless you believe that Japan is correct template for the US (i.e. inflation will be zero for the next decade), government bonds don’t offer an attractive return as a buy and hold proposition.
Or to put it another way round, the market is implying a 70 per cent chance of American going Japanese.
Of course, says Montier, one could make a speculative case for investing in bonds at the moment based on charts like this:
But that wouldn’t be investing, it would be punting — or even worse, momentum investing. And we all know what happened in 2000. Things went *pop*.