Sovereign bonds
Oat cuisine
A stodgy asset class has become more complex and more dangerous
Feb 11th 2012


FIFTEEN years ago Western government bonds were regarded as being like porridge: stodgy but easily digestible. Investors knew returns would be modest but perceived the asset class as risk-free, an important concept in both financial theory and portfolio construction. And bond markets were seen as all-powerful, capable of imposing discipline on governments by pushing up borrowing costs in the face of irresponsible policies. James Carville, an adviser to President Bill Clinton, spoke with awe of their intimidatory power.

Things are different now. The bond vigilantes seem less frightening. They were asleep at the wheel as debts mounted in the euro zone, waking up in time to provoke the latest crisis but not avoid it. Private-sector bond investors in Greek sovereign debt face losses of around 70%, making the idea that government bonds are risk-free laughable.
The most powerful investors in many government-bond markets are not profit-maximising fund managers but central and commercial banks, which are buying bonds for all sorts of reasons. Other investors need to be like Kremlinologists, guessing what central banks will do next.

The market is also much bigger than it was. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, there were some $11 trillion-worth of government bonds in issue at the end of 2001; by the end of 2011, that figure had risen to more than $31 trillion (see chart 1). And although some euro-zone countries have been cut off from the markets, the story is very different in other places. The British and American governments are enjoying the lowest borrowing costs they have seen for decades, despite big deficits.

The implications of all these changes are still being worked through. The risk-free rate has historically been the rock around which a financial system is built. Other borrowers, such as banks and corporations, pay a premium over their domestic government’s cost of debt. This is still true for companies that are tied to a local economy, such as utilities. But multinational firms can, in theory, move to economies where growth prospects are better and taxes lower. Some, such as Johnson & Johnson or Exxon Mobil, may thus now be seen as better bets than their governments.

Thanks to the European Central Bank’s lending activities, banks in several European countries can also now borrow more cheaply than their governments—a heavy irony given that it was the banking sector’s problems that ushered in the current sovereign-debt crisis. Indeed, investors have learned that simply studying the ratio of government debt to GDP is not enough. Both Ireland and Iceland entered the crisis with very low ratios. But the collapse of their banking sectors meant that private-sector debt was assumed by the government, causing the ratio to balloon.

Modern bond investors have to worry about other contingent liabilities, too—the pensions promised to public-sector workers, say, or the rising costs of Medicare as America’s baby-boomers retire. Governments might easily decide that such promises have a better claim on tax revenues than the rights of foreign creditors.

The negotiations in Greece have shown that official creditors deem themselves to have a greater claim on a government’s revenues than private-sector creditors. The more official aid a country receives, the bigger the eventual write-off private bondholders may suffer.

The rise of official creditors is not new. It was first noticed in the 2000s when Asian central banks began to plough their massive foreign-exchange reserves into Treasury bonds. Alan Greenspan, the then chairman of the Federal Reserve, talked of the “conundrum” that bond yields were falling even as the Fed was pushing up short rates, a shift from the usual pattern.

The reason was that central banks were pretty indifferent to low yields, being content to park their reserves in the relative safety and liquidity of Treasury bonds as a way to manage their currencies’ level versus the dollar. More recently, central banks have been buying up their own government’s debt through quantitative easing (QE). It is debatable whether yields are set by economic fundamentals or by the anticipated buying patterns of central banks.

Of course, central-bank policy has always had an effect on the bond markets. One way of viewing long-term bond yields is as a forecast of future short-term rates (sometimes there is an additional premium for tying up your money).

On that basis, says Eric Lonergan, a fund manager at M&G, the current level of Treasury-bond yields is quite rational. The average of American short rates over the past ten years is around 2%, almost exactly the level of the ten-year Treasury-bond yield now.

Rates are likely to remain low for some time. The Fed recently indicated that it expected rates to stay near zero until late 2014.

Add in the effect of QE and the Fed may be the dominant influence on yields all the way out to bonds with maturities of five years. There is talk of a third round of QE from the Fed, and the Bank of England was set to add to its £275 billion ($437 billion) pile of gilts at a February 9th meeting, held after The Economist went to press.

Rates low, bond mountains high

Analysts argue about the precise impact of QE on yields but the presence of an ever-willing buyer must have some effect. In particular, it must make private-sector investors cautious about betting on higher yields. “Bond crashes become very unlikely, unless they are accepted by central banks,” says Patrick Artus of Natixis, a French bank. “Long-term interest rates could remain very low for a long time.”

Less clear is how central banks will ever dispose of these bond mountains. In practice, it makes no difference whether central banks try to sell their holdings or simply let the bonds mature (since maturing bonds have to be refinanced). Either way the private sector will have to absorb the extra supply on top of the new bonds being issued that year. If central banks are correct in arguing that QE has driven bond yields down, then logically a reversal of QE might drive yields up, in effect tightening monetary policy. It may be a long while before the economy is sufficiently robust to absorb the impact. Large central-bank holdings of government bonds may be a semi-permanent feature of the landscape.

Central banks are not the only distorting presence in the market. In Britain pension funds have been eager buyers of long-dated securities as a way of matching their liabilities (a promise to make pension payments for 25-30 years is equivalent to a debt).

Since many pension benefits are linked to inflation, this has sparked a particular enthusiasm for inflation-linked debt. Insurance companies are also heavy buyers of government debt, in large part because of solvency requirements that push them into owning “safeassets.

And then there are the banks. One feature of the early days of the euro was convergence. Short-term interest rates are the same across the zone. Since government-bond yields are related to expectations for future levels of short rates, bond yields equalised across the region. This was immensely beneficial for countries like Italy and Greece, which saw their borrowing costs fall. It also meant that banks happily owned regional, rather than merely national, government-bond portfolios.

Now that trend is reversing. Banks are suddenly conscious of the credit risk involved in holding another country’s bonds. When the crisis broke French banks were “encouraged” to hold on to their Greek bonds by their government and suffered losses as a result.

Now it seems they are willing to buy only their own government’s bonds, and those of Germany; they are far less keen on holding Italian or Spanish debt. “It is almost if the euro zone has already broken up,” says Andrew Balls of PIMCO, a fund-management group.

Domestic banks, however, may well figure that holding the debt of their own sovereign is a “double or quitsbet. If their government defaults the banking system will collapse anyway, so they might as well own its bonds. That incentive has been reinforced by the ECB’s provision of virtually unlimited three-year loans. As President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has hinted, banks can borrow cheaply from the ECB and invest the proceeds in government debt, earning a higher yield in the process.

This is an approach to boosting bank profitability that has been tried before. In the early 1990s the Federal Reserve held rates very low (by prevailing standards) to help the banks recover from the savings-and-loan crisis. Banks were able to earn a “carry” by borrowing at 3% and buying ten-year Treasuries yielding almost 7%.

The carry trade is not the only reason why banks might buy government bonds. In the wake of the 2007-08 crisis, when banks were suddenly cut off from the wholesale markets, regulators have been urging banks to own a “liquidity cushion” of safe assets. Banks can use government bonds as collateral for loans with each other, and with central banks.

The result has been a big expansion in banks’ sovereign-bond purchases, very handy when governments have lots of bonds to sell. In Britain, data from the Debt Management Office show that banks and building societies owned just £26 billion-worth of gilts in the last quarter of 2008; by the end of 2011 they owned £131 billion, or around 10% of the total (see chart 2).

How would you like your loss?

The role that credit risk is now playing in the euro area highlights another great change in the government-bond markets: the influence of exchange-rate regimes. For decades countries struggled to cope with the constraints of fixed exchange-rate systems, whether the gold standard or Bretton Woods, in part because this approach would reassure foreign creditors. “Who would be prepared to lend with the fear of being paid in depreciated currencies always before his eyes?” asked Georges Bonnet, a French finance minister of the 1920s.

But the euro crisis has shown the perils for international investors of a fixed-rate regime. Denied the option of devaluation, Greece is being forced, in effect, to default on its debts. In contrast America and Britain, with their floating exchange rates, have the freedom to expand their money supplies and depreciate their currencies. Although this may still result in losses for foreign investors, they are likely to be far smaller than the Greek write-offs. As Mr Balls puts it, countries with floating rates are the “least dirty shirt” in the markets.

Emerging markets have also changed their role. Historically, developing countries defaulted often and had high inflation. They had to borrow in dollars and to pay high yields. But now the finances of many developing countries are better than those of the rich world (see chart 3). Brazil and Mexico pay yields of less than 2% on five-year dollar-denominated debt.

It all adds up to a completely changed investment landscape. For the 25 years from 1982 to 2007, owning rich-world government bonds was almost a no-brainer. Yields fell steadily in line with inflation and there was no question of default. Now the market is much more complex. The players are more diverse and their motives more varied. The balance between risk and reward has also shifted against investors. In the past bondholders have not made money buying Treasury bonds on yields as low as 2%. At current levels of inflation, bond investors are getting negative real yields.

That may be the idea. Carmen Reinhart, Jacob Kirkegaard and Belen Sbrancia, three academics, have suggested that governments may usefinancial repression”—forcing debts down the throats of captive buyers and keeping real rates negative so that inflation eliminates their debts. This trick worked after the second world war. The presence of “forced buyers” in the market such as central banks and commercial banks may enable it to be repeated.

But could governments really pull it off? Or are rich-world bond markets signalling that Japan is the more likely template? Ten-year yields there have been around 1% for much of the past decade, thanks to persistent deflation and slow growth.

This is a vital issue since a sudden surge in bond yields might wreck government finances, economic prospects and the outlook for other asset markets. “The unknown question is how much inflation central banks are willing to tolerate. Until that is settled, one cannot be sure about the outlook for bonds or other asset markets like equities,” says Manoj Pradhan at Morgan Stanley. For a supposedly risk-free asset it all adds up to a lot of risks.

February 10, 2012 8:38 pm

False dawns and public fury: the 1930s are not so far away


Forget the icy weather: the financial markets are signalling that spring is coming. Equities are rallying and credit spreads have narrowed. Yet look around, if you can bear to. Similarities with the interwar period – a time of persistent false dawns – are multiplying ominously.

As in the early 1930s, the shockwaves of the crash, at first confined to those directly involved in financial markets, are painfully touching the lives of increasing numbers of people. The search for scapegoats is becoming more bitter. Today’s hunted bankers cut wretched figures compared with the top-hatted, cigar-wielding plutocrats in Georg Grosz’s caricatures of the Weimar Republic. It is better to forfeit a knighthood or even a bonus than be hanged from a lamppost, but they face the same raw public anger.


Unfortunately, this fury chimes with the widespread but false belief that the rich can pay for all the damage, an idea that politiciansmost shortsightedly – are doing little to discourage. The narrowing of the tax base in many countries needs urgently to be corrected; it is barely being addressed.

Immigrant and refugee populations, tolerated during prosperous times, are now seen as both the cause of unemployment and a potential source of sedition. Tolerance, always fragile, is giving way to disapproval. Fashion is becoming more staid; they’re wearing ties again at Davos. Demagogues are gaining ground in a number of countries in Europe so far, oddly enough, more in the still relatively thriving north than in the suffering south. So far.

The economic debate, in which the proponents of austerity face off against those who see the promotion of employment as the primary duty in such times, would be all too familiar to a revenant from 80 years ago. It is considered bad manners to accuse the inventors of the fiscal pact for the eurozone of not having learnt the lesson of German reparations after the first world war. But the pact enshrines a similar intellectual error, and this needs saying. That it may be necessary to secure German support is beside the point: reparations were essential (with rather more justification) for French support at Versailles in 1919. That did not make them a good idea. Besides, Germany, with its own demographic problems increasingly evident, can no more pay for all Europe’s problems than the rich can pay for the world’s.

The US, winded by the financial crash and its aftermath, and retreating from one of its periodic sallies overseas, is feeling sour and turning inward. The benefits of international projection of American power are never easier to appreciate than when it is absent.

While rising nations rearm, the international order as a whole is weakening, just as it did in the 1930s as the League of Nations became ineffective. The world’s difficulty in dealing with the violent repression of protests in Syria, or with the blatant defiance of Iran, is a painful reminder of this.

Modest examples of protectionism are proliferating. They do not yet threaten the world trade order, but the failure of the Doha round of trade talks and the rise of mercantilism in the emerging world suggest not only that the tide has turned but that the west is losing the will, as much as the ability, to impose its ideas. The European Union is visibly losing authority over its member states. Brussels still hosts summits; but it no longer makes policy.

Investment bankers may be in retreat, but ideas – as so oftenoutlive their progenitors. Financial engineering is still with us, purporting to work its meretricious miracles for governments. Thus there remains considerable faith – even, or perhaps especially, among people who hate bankers – that a financial solution, involving firewalls, bazookas, leverage and improbable amounts of money, can “solve” the euro crisis. It can do no such thing. It can buy time, as the European Central Banks’s deftly enormous interventions are doing by flooding the banking system with cash – but the purchase of time is not costless.

Working to a large extent together, the major central banks are applying palliative care on an unprecedented scale to the world economy. De-leveraging is still in its early stages, and the evil day, or decade, is being put off. This warm bath of liquidity not only helps the financial markets strengthen; it disguises from many of the victims of the crash the extent of the loss of wealth that the crash has engendered. And yet – as we have seen in Japan since 1990 – it is hard for economies to recover strongly until such hits are acknowledged.

Facing up to losses on sovereign exposures may be necessary, but it is deeply subversive; every bank, and every central bank, reposes on the myth of sovereign credit. Since in many societies there will be no alternative but to socialise much of the fallout, we can expect to see state indebtedness in many still solvent countries rising to proportions of gross domestic product much higher even than they are today, and many banks coming under state ownership. Pressure will rise for them to behave unashamedly like state banks.

Right now, for the European political class, the objective of saving the euro overwhelms all else. It should not be the only priority. The most important thing is to ensure that more tested aspects of the EU survive an all-too-possible euro break-up. It was a mistake for powerful people in Brussels and Frankfurt to say in 2010 that a bank defaulting on its bonds would necessarily bring about a sovereign default; that a sovereign default would mean the end of the euro; that the end of the euro would mean the end of the EU. Apocalyptic rhetoric can become self-fulfilling.

At such times the first job of leaders is to do no harm: to ensure that a bad outcome, if it turns out to be inevitable, does not necessarily lead to consequences that are worse still. European politicians are finding their primary aimre-electionextraordinary elusive. They should take comfort: reputations are not secured by pursuing lousy policies that keep you undeservedly in power in the short term. We do not elect people in order to re-elect them; we elect them to make difficult choices on our behalf. Historical reputationsgood or bad – can be more durable, even, than knighthoods.

The writer is chairman of Syngenta and a former chief executive of Barclays

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012

Permanent Gold Backwardation

By Keith Weiner

The Root of the Problem Is Debt

Worldwide, an incredible tower of debt has been under construction since President Nixon's 1971 default on the gold obligations of the US government. His decree severed the redeemability of the dollar for gold and thus eliminated the extinguisher of debt. Debt has been growing exponentially everywhere since then. Debt is backed with debt, based on debt, dependent on debt and leveraged with yet more debt. For example, today it is possible to buy a bond (i.e., lend money) on margin (i.e., with borrowed money).

The time is now fast approaching when all debt will be defaulted on. In our perverse monetary system, one party's debt is another's "money." A debtor's default will impact the creditor (who is usually also a debtor to yet other creditors), causing him to default, and so on. When this begins in earnest, it will wipe out the banking system and thus everyone's "money." The paper currencies will not survive this. We are seeing the early edges of it now in the euro, and it's anyone's guess when it will happen in Japan, though it seems long overdue already. Last of all, it will come to the USA.

The purpose of this article is to present the early-warning signal and explain the actual mechanism to these events. Contrary to popular belief, it will not happen because the central banks increase the quantity of money to infinity. The money supply may even be contracting (which is what I expect).

To understand the terminal stages of the monetary system's fatal disease, we must understand gold.

Defining Backwardation

First, let me introduce a key concept. Most traders define "backwardation" for a commodity as when the price of a futures contract is lower than the price of the same good in the spot market.

In every market, there are always two prices for a good: the bid and the ask. To sell a good, one must take the bid. And likewise, to buy the good, one must pay the ask. In backwardation, one can sell a physical good for cash and simultaneously buy a futures contract, and make a profit on the arbitrage. Note that in doing this trade, one's position does not change in the end. One begins with a certain amount of the good and ends (upon maturity of the contract) with that same amount of the good.

Backwardation is when the bid in the spot market is greater than the ask in the futures market.

Many commodities, like wheat, are produced seasonally. But consumption is much more evenly spread around the year. Immediately prior to the harvest, the spot price of wheat is normally at its highest in relation to wheat futures. This is because wheat inventories in the warehouses are very low. People will have to pay a higher price for immediate delivery. At the same time, everyone in the market knows that the harvest is coming in one month. So the price, if a buyer can wait one month for delivery, is lower. This is a case of backwardation.

Backwardation is typically a signal of a shortage in a commodity. Anyone holding the commodity could make a risk-free profit by delivering it and getting it back later. If others put on this trade, and others, and so on, this would push down the bid in the spot market and lift up the ask in the futures market until the backwardation disappeared. The process of profiting from arbitrage compresses the spread one is arbitraging.

Actionable backwardations typically do not last long enough for the small trader to even see on the screen, much less trade. This is another way of saying that markets do not normally offer risk-free profits. In the case of wheat backwardation, for example, the backwardation may persist for weeks or longer. But there is no opportunity to profit for anyone, because no one has any wheat to spare. There is a genuine shortage of wheat before the harvest.

Why Gold Backwardation Is Important

Could backwardation happen with gold? Gold is not in shortage. One just has to measure abundance using the right metric. If you look at the inventories divided by annual mine production, the World Gold Council estimates this number to be around 80 years.

In all other commodities (except silver), inventories represent a few months of production. Other commodities can even have "gluts," which usually lead to a price collapse. As an aside, this fact makes gold good for money. The price of gold does not decline, no matter how much of the stuff is produced. Production will certainly not lead to a "glut" in the gold market pulling prices downward.

So, what would a lower price on gold for future delivery mean compared to a higher price of gold in the spot market? By definition, it means that gold delivered to the market is in short supply.

The meaning of gold backwardation is that trust in future delivery is scarce.

In an ordinary commodity, scarcity of the physical good available for delivery today is resolved by higher prices. At a high enough price, demand for wheat falls until existing stocks are sufficient to meet the reduced demand.

But how is scarcity of trust resolved?

Thus far, the answer has been: via higher prices. Higher prices do coax some gold out of various hoards, jewelry, etc. Gold went into backwardation for the first time in December 2008. One could have earned a 2.5% (annualized) profit by selling physical gold and simultaneously buying a February 2009 future. Gold was $750 on December 5, but it rocketed to $920 - a gain of 23% - by the end of January.

But when backwardation becomes permanent, then trust in the gold futures market will have collapsed. Unlike with wheat, millions of people and many institutions have plenty of gold they can sell in the physical market and buy back via futures contracts. When they choose not to, that is the beginning of the end of the current financial system.

Why? Think about the similarities between the following three statements:

"My paper gold future contract will be honored by delivery of gold."

"If I trade my gold for paper now, I will be able to get gold back in the future."

"I will be able to exchange paper money for gold in the future."

The reason why there was a significant backwardation (smaller backwardations have occurred intermittently since then) is that people did not believe the first statement. They did not trust that the gold future would be honored in gold.

And if they don't believe that paper futures will be honored in gold, then they have no reason to believe that they can get gold in the future at all.

If some gold owners still trust the system at that point, then they can sell their gold (at much higher prices, probably). But sooner or later, there will not be any sellers of gold in the physical market.

Higher Prices Can't Cure Permanent Gold Backwardation


With an ordinary commodity, there is a limit to what buyers are willing to pay based on the need satisfied by that commodity, the availability of substitutes and the buyers' other needs that also must be satisfied within the same budget. The higher the price, the more holders and producers are motivated to sell, and the less consumers are motivated (or able) to buy. The cure for high prices is high prices.

But gold is different. Unlike wheat, gold is not bought for consumption. While some people hold it to speculate on increases in its paper price, these speculators will be replaced by others who hold it because it is money.

Once the gold owners have lost confidence, no amount of price change will bring back trust in paper currencies. Gold will not have a "high enough" price that will discourage buying or encourage selling. Thus gold backwardation will not only recur, but at some point, it will stay in its backwardated state.

In looking at the bid and ask, one other observation is germane to this discussion. In times of crisis, it is always the bid that is withdrawn - there is never a lack of asks. Permanent gold backwardation can be seen as the withdrawal of bids denominated in gold for irredeemable government debt paper (e.g., dollar bills).

Backwardation should not be able to happen at all as gold is so abundant. However, the fact that it has happened and keeps happening means that it is inevitable and that, at some point, backwardation will become permanent. The erosion of faith in paper money is a one-way process (with some zigs and zags). But eventually, backwardation will become deeper and deeper (while the dollar price of gold is rising, probably exponentially). The final step is when gold completely withdraws its bid on paper. At that point, paper's bid on gold will be unlimited, and this is why paper will inevitably collapse without gold.


Permanent gold backwardation leading to the withdrawal of the gold bid on the dollar is the inevitable result of the debt collapse. Governments and other borrowers have long since passed the point where they can amortize their debts. Now they merely "roll" the debt and the interest as they come due. This leaves them vulnerable to the market demand for their bonds. When they have an auction that fails to attract bids, the game will be over. Whether they formally default or whether they just print the currency to pay, it won't matter.

Gold owners, like everyone else, will watch this happen. If government bond holders sell their securities in response to this crisis, they will only receive paper backed by that same government and its bonds. But the gold owner has the power to withdraw his bid on paper altogether. When that happens, there will be an irreconcilable schism between gold and paper, with real goods and services taking the side of gold. And in a process that should play out within a few months once it gets started, paper money will no longer have any value.

Gold is not officially recognized as the foundation of the financial system. Yet it is still a necessary component. When it is withdrawn, the worldwide regime of irredeemable paper money will collapse.

Keith Weiner is a technology entrepreneur who founded DiamondWare, a VoIP software company, which he sold to Nortel in 2008. Keith is an adherent of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and a student at the New Austrian School of economics, working on his Ph.D. under Professor Antal Fekete, with a focus on monetary science. Keith is now a trader and market analyst in precious metals and commodities. Now that central planning has failed, he would like the world to return to a proper gold standard and laissez-faire capitalism.