Government Bonds - Whats Up?

By: Prieur du Plessis | Fri, Mar 19, 2010
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Government bonds have been trading sideways since the middle of last year as market participants wax and wane about the prospects of the nascent economy recovery. Also, it has not quite been the one-way traffic for yields many pundits have been forecasting as seen from the US Treasury being able to sell paper across the yield curve at lower-than-expected yields.

Not subscribing to a meaningful economic recovery under his "new normal" scenario, Bill Gross, the manager of the world's largest bond fund, last month increased the exposure of the Pimco Total Return Fund to US government debt to 35% from 31% - the first increase since October 2009. Interestingly, $409 billion from a total inflow of $507 billion into US mutual funds over the past year ended up in bond funds.

The chart below, courtesy of the latest Commitment of Traders report (via David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist of Gluskin Sheff & Associates), shows the net speculative short position in 30-year US Treasury Bonds. The net short position last week was 107,382 contracts (with a face value of $100,000 per contract). This is at the high end of the range and, according to Rosenberg, "perhaps explains why bonds refuse to sell off - anyone who can sell them already has." He added: "What is truly striking is that even though Treasuries were among the best-performing asset classes of the past decade, the noncommercial accounts spent 80% of that time being short the bond market. Yikes!"

Perhaps this explains why bonds refuse to sell off: US Noncommercial short minus long positions in US Treasury bonds
Source: Gluskin Sheff & Associates - Breakfast with Dave, March 18, 2010.

Turning to technical analysis, the short-term picture for the ten-year Treasury Note yield is undecided, showing a symmetrical triangle. However, monthly data, going back to 1998, conveys an important message when considering the two momentum-type oscillators (ROC and MACD) at the bottom of the chart below. The ROC reversed course (crossing the zero line) in October last year for the first time since a buy signal was given at the beginning of 2007, thereby flashing a primary sell signal. The MACD provided a similar indication in June 2009.

10-year Treasury Note yield - 1998-2020

Lastly, while on the topic of long-term data, actually all the way back to 1850, the graph below featured in a recent report by Pring Turner Capital Group asking: "Are you prepared for a secular bear market in bonds? Bond owners beware". As shown, the yield is just below its secular down trendline and it would not take a large move in yields to mark the end of the almost 30-year secular decline. What will this do to the US's debt burden, the economic recovery and stock market valuations?

Government vond yield since 1850
Source: Pring Turner Capital Group

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Prieur du Plessis

Author: Prieur du Plessis

Dr Prieur du Plessis

Dr Prieur du Plessis

With 25 years' experience in investment research and portfolio management, Dr Prieur du Plessis is one of the most experienced and well-known investment professionals in South Africa. More than 1 000 of his articles on investment-related topics have been published in various regular newspaper, journal and Internet columns. He also published a book, Financial Basics: Investment, in 2002.

He holds the following degrees: BSc (Quantity Surveying) (Cape Town), HonsB (B & A) (cum laude) (Stellenbosch), MBA (cum laude) (Stellenbosch); and DBA (Doctor of Financial Management) (Stellenbosch).

Prieur is chairman of the Plexus group of companies, which he founded in 1995. Previously he was general manager: portfolio management at Sanlam, responsible for the management of investment portfolios with total assets in excess of $5 billion.

Plexus is a pioneer in the mutual fund industry and has achieved a number of firsts under Prieur's leadership. These include the authoritative Plexus Survey, a quarterly analysis of the consistency of the performance of unit trust management companies, the Plexus Offshore Survey, the Plexus Unit Trust Indices, and the PlexCrown Fund Ratings.

Plexus is the South African partner of John Mauldin, American author of the most widely distributed investment newsletter in the world, and also has an exclusive licensing agreement with California-based Research Affiliates for managing and distributing its enhanced Fundamental Index™ methodology in the Pan-African area.

In 2001 Prieur received the Santam/AHI Business Leader of the Year award for corporate leadership, business acumen and entrepreneurial flair. He was also profiled in the book South Africa's Leading Managers (2006). Plexus received the AHI/Old Mutual Enterprise of the Year award in 1997 and was also included in the book South Africa's Most Promising Companies (2005).

Prieur is 52 years old and lives with his wife, TV producer and presenter Isabel Verwey, and two children in Welgemoed, Cape Town. His recreational activities include long-distance running, motor cycling and reading. He belongs to the Cape Town Club, Johannesburg Country Club, Gordon's Bay Yacht Club and Swiss Social & Sports Club.

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