December 19th, 2011

Shorting Treasuries: Conventional Wisdom Gone Awry

One of the perplexing aspects of the monetary and fiscal issues  around the world (especially here in the US) has been the absence of inflation and the strength of the $US.  In “Short TLT Rather Than Be Long TBT” (January 2010), I quoted from the NY Times:

“Liquidating investments that pay almost nothing in order to shift to long-term bonds that pay substantially more may not make sense right now, said Robert F. Auwaerter, the head of fixed-income investing at the Vanguard Group….interest rates — at both the short and the long ends of the yield curve — are likely to rise this year if the economy keeps expanding…..When bond yields rise, their prices fall. The effect is magnified for longer-term securities, so a 30-year Treasury bond would fall in value much more sharply than, say, a six-month Treasury bill.”

That was the conventional wisdom and has continued to be for some time.  To take advantage of what seemed patently obvious, one could play the rise in Treasury bond yields by either buying TBT, the ultrashort ETF or shorting TLT, the ultralong ETF.

But this was just another case of conventional wisdom goes awry.  The turmoil in Europe has caused money there to seek out a safe haven and,  as incredible as it is, that safe haven has been the $US and US Treasuries.  Rather than seeing yields rise as prices decline, rates continued to decline to historic lows.  Holding TBT in the expectation of rising rates has been an unmitigated disaster for all those holding TBT:

20-yr Treas Yields vs. TBT 2010-2011

Not only have yields declined rather than rising this year causing TBT to also decline but TBT has declined further on a relative basis (some of the difference is compensated by dividend distributions).  Holding TBT in the hopes of increases in yields due either to inflation or fears brought on by the budget disputes has resulted in a nearly a 50% loss.  If interest rates reverse and return from the current 2.5% to above 4.0%, the levels it was at the beginning of the year then TBT could be expected to nearly double.

It could be a long wait but perhaps at this point one that might be worthwhile.

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