Could Yields Stay Ultra-Low Well Past 2014?

Many investors have been operating under the belief that interest rates will rise in a year or two, with investors demanding higher yields and more financial accountability from lawmakers. But The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig says that may not be the case.

In his Intelligent Investor column, Zweig discusses some of the reasons why bond vigilantes — who in the past have acted as a check on policymakers by dumping bonds when yields got too low — have been absent recently, and why they could remain so. “Historically, the bulk of U.S. Treasury debt was held by private investors — including the big institutions that used their enormous market power, vigilante-style, to keep interest rates in line,” Zweig writes. But now, he says, an increasing portion of Treasury buyers aren’t concerned with yield. “Only 23% of Treasurys are held by individual and institutional investors — down from 55% in 1982 and 31% a decade ago,” he says. “Today, foreign holders — largely central banks desperate to stabilize their currencies and banking systems — own 34% of Treasury debt. That is up from 13% in 1982 and 18% a decade ago. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, holds 11% of Treasurys, twice its share in 2008.”

And while the Federal Reserve is forecasting rate hikes may occur by 2014, Todd Petzel, a bond manager Zweig interviews, says it could be much longer. Petzel says part of the Dodd-Frank law will require buyers and sellers of derivatives to post collateral, and a prime choice for that collateral could well be Treasurys. Well over a trillion dollars could end up being used in that way, creating more buyers who aren’t concerned with yield.