The interest rate riddle
The US current account deficit came in yesterday at $164.7 billion for the third quarter of 2004, lower than expected but still a new record. The previous day saw the trade balance for October, also a record deficit. As usual General Glut has detailed coverage.
In the face of all this, long-term interest rates, as measured by the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds, are falling. The rate is currently about 4.2 per cent. By looking at inflation-protected bonds (TIPS) it’s possible to work out that this is made up of an expected CPI inflation rate of 2.5 per cent and a real interest rate of 1.7 per cent. As the Fed has increased short-term rates, the margin between long and short rates is falling, and seems likely to go close to zero.
This makes no sense at all to me. Given the near-certainty of further depreciation of the $US in the long run, who would buy 10-year bonds at rates like this, who would hold them if they had them, and why doesn’t someone like Soros short them? The answer to the first question appears to be “non-US central banks”, the answer to the second must have something to do with institutional inertia. As regards the third, and relying on introspection, the answer may be that the market can remain irrational longer than Soros can remain solvent (certainly that explains my non-participation). Soros took a hammering, if I recall correctly, betting against the NASDAQ in 1998, and the fact that he was proved right in the end is cold comfort.
Since I don’t believe that capital markets are efficient or collectively rational in the short or medium term, this kind of thing doesn’t pose a fundamental problem for my worldview. Still, I can never quite stop being surprised when asset prices are so obviously wrong.