A 100% Consensus
This doesn't happen very often. Marketwatch reports that Jim Bianco points out in a recent market comment that the 67 economists taking part in a regular Bloomberg survey have a unanimous forecast regarding treasury bond yields: they will be higher 6 months from now. This is a truly striking result, and given the well-known propensity of mainstream economists to guess wrong (their forecasts largely consist of extrapolating the most recent short term trend), it may provide us with a few insights.
In fact, considering that there have been only a handful of instances since 2009 when a majority of the economists surveyed predicted a decline in yields, we can already state that their forecasts regarding treasuries are quite often (though obviously not always) wide of the mark. In fact, so far this year they are already wrong again – and so are fund managers, as they hold their lowest exposure to treasuries in seven years.
This is not the only thing there is complete unanimity about. Not a single economist taking part in a separate survey believes an economic downturn is possible.
“Economists are unwavering in their assessment of where yields are headed in the next half year.Jim Bianco, of Bianco Research, points out in a market comment Tuesday that a survey of 67 economists this month shows every single one of them expects the 10-year Treasury yield to rise in the next six months.The survey, which is done each month by Bloomberg, has been notably bearish for some time now, with nearly everyone expecting rising rates. In March, 97% expected rising rates. In February, 95% expected yields to climb. And in January, 97% held that expectation. Since the beginning of 2009, there have only been a handful of instances where less than 50% expected rates to rise.Still, the fact that every single survey participant is bearish is striking. The last time the survey had that result was in May 2012, when benchmark yields were well below 2%.“Literally there is maybe one economist in the United States straddling the bullish/bearish divide on interest rates. The rest are bearish,” Bianco writes.He adds that a J.P. Morgan client survey shows that the percentage of money manager respondents who said they are underweight Treasurys is the second highest in seven years.This is all the more surprising when we consider that investors went into 2014 thinking yields would rise significantly. Instead, the benchmark yield is lower than when the year started, as the market waded throw subpar economic data, geopolitical tensions, and uncertainty over the Federal Reserve. The 10-year note last traded at a yield of 2.72% on Tuesday, down from just over 3% on Dec. 31.Then again, a separate poll of economists recently showed that exactly zero expect the economy to contract.But when the entire market thinks one thing is about to happen, the opposite outcome is often in store, notes James Camp, managing director of fixed income at Eagle Asset Management. So don’t count out that result with Treasurys, he advises.“It’s the most hated asset class,” says Camp, but Treasurys are some of the best performers year-to-date.”
Color us unsurprised regarding the fact that the 'most hated asset class' has turned out to be one of the better performing so far this year. Gold is probably hated even more, and for similar reasons. Everybody expects the weakest recovery of the entire post WW2 era to reach 'escape velocity' (whatever that is supposed to mean), even after adding almost $8 trillion to the federal debt and some $4.8 trillion to the broad true money supply since the 2008 crisis have led to such a dismal outcome (of course as card-carrying Austrians we believe this development is precisely what should have been expected).
While treasury bond yields have only moved down a little so far this year, one must keep in mind that they are at a historically very low level to begin with. At a yield of roughly 4%, a 50 basis points move represents 12.5% of the entire distance to zero. However, we also know that a lot more downside is possible. Yields have already been quite a bit lower on a number of occasions.
There can be little doubt that if the consensus of economists turns out to be wrong again, it will likely be wrong on both t-bond yields and the economy. As an aside, it is noteworthy that long term yields have weakened considerably even while five year yields have remained roughly unchanged and yields on the short end of the curve have actually risen slightly since the beginning of the year.
We interpret this as the market judging the Fed to be adopting a tighter monetary policy, and expecting weaker aggregate economic activity to ultimately result from this new stance. Clearly, the 'tapering' of 'QE' does represent a tightening of policy, no matter what Fed members are saying about it. It means the pace of money supply inflation is being slowed down.
Note that something similar happened in the run-up to the 2008 crisis, only in this instance the yield curve actually inverted prior to the economic downturn. One should not expect a complete yield curve inversion to warn in a timely fashion of a recession when the central bank is hell-bent on keeping its policy rate at or near zero. We know this from 'ZIRP' experiments that have been undertaken in other countries, such as e.g. Japan.
If the economy doesn't do what seemingly everybody expects it to do in the famed 'second half' (practically the entire sell-side shares the consensus of the economists surveyed by Bloomberg), then treasuries and gold should be expected to rise, while equities could end up getting hit quite badly.
30 year t-bond yield: declining since the beginning of the year – click to enlarge.
It is clear that one of the reasons why economists expect no contraction in the economy is that 'traditional' recession indicators still appear largely benign, if somewhat weaker than previously. We prefer to keep an eye on things most people don't watch, such as the ratio of capital to consumer goods production, which shows how factors of production are pulled toward the higher stages of the capital structure when monetary pumping is underway. This ratio tends to peak and reverse close to recessions. Its recent trend isn't entirely conclusive yet as it has begun to move sideways, but it clearly seems to be issuing a 'heads up' type warning signal.
Capital vs. consumer goods production – it tends to peak close to the beginning of recession periods, and declines while recessions are underway, as the production structure is temporarily shortened again – click to enlarge.
Note also that the transition from expansion to contraction is usually quite swift, and never widely expected.
This is an astonishing degree of consensus thinking, but it perfectly mirrors the complacency we see in stock market sentiment and positioning data. The probability that such a unanimous view will turn out to be correct is traditionally extremely low. The economy is likely resting on a much weaker foundation than is generally believed. This is not least the result of massive monetary pumping and deficit spending, both of which tend to severely weaken the economy on a structural level, even though they can create a temporary illusion of 'growth'.