To the casual observer, U.S. economic conditions may look like more of the same. That is to say, despite solid growth and a tight labor market, inflation remains muted and bond yields are stuck in a broad range. At 2.40%, yields on benchmark 10-year Treasuries are well below their highs of the year of just above 2.60% reached back in March.
So, nothing to see here, right? Wrong. The case for higher bond yields is getting stronger by the day. The bullish argument for Treasuries has mainly rested on the recent trend of inflation data coming in below forecasts. But Federal Reserve policy makers have made it clear that they expect the trend to reverse with inflation rising to their 2% target.
At the same time, policy makers have sent signals that they believe financial conditions are too loose, requiring them to further remove some accommodation. That theme should only intensify as President Donald Trump puts his stamp on the central bank, which is likely to be more hawkish in its approach.
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Put all this together and traders are pricing in an 84% probability of another 25-basis-point increase in interest rates in December. Those odds have battered the short end of the Treasury market. The U.S. government will auction $26 billion of two-year notes on Tuesday at a yield of close to 1.60%, up some 30 basis points from where they were in early September and the highest since late 2008.
What about the steady flow of money into Treasuries from deep-pocketed investors and foreign sovereign reserve managers seeking an alternative to the puny government bond yields in the euro zone and Japan? Their influence on U.S. rates won’t go away soon, but the trend is toward tighter global monetary policies. For example, the European Central Bank on Thursday is expected to detail a plan to taper its bond purchases. As European rates readjust higher, global cash could shift away from dollar-denominated bonds.
The Fed is much further along in the process, having already started shrinking its balance-sheet assets this month. As the Fed reinvests less of the proceeds from maturing bonds that it holds back into the market, the Treasury Department will need to find other buyers for about $200 billion of the bonds it plans to sell next year. That’s on top of the large increase in the budget deficit, which grew to $665.7 billion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30 from $585.6 billion for the 2016 fiscal year.