Mind The Rise In The Term Premium!

Introducing the Term Premium

Through the use of economic models, academic research has decomposed the observable long-term bond yields (i.e. US 10Y Treasury bond yield) into the expected path of the real interest rate (r*) and the additional term premium, which is thought as the extra return that investors demand to compensate them for the risk associated with a long-term bond. Using the dominant measure developed by the NY Fed (Adrian et al., 2013), we overlay it with a set of macro and financial variables and look at the pros and cons of a rise in the term premium in the coming months.

Figure 1 shows that the evolution of the US 10Y yield along with the expected r* and the term premium. While we can notice that part of the fall on the 10Y was driven by the decrease in the expected r* from 3.15% to 1.80%, the elevated volatility in the short run was mainly coming from the moves on the Term Premium (TP). The TP hit a historical low of -1.47% on March 9th and is still standing at extreme low level of -1.1%. Many investors had expected the term premium to start rising the US in 2018 and in the first half of 2019, but it surprised most of them by constantly reaching new lows.

Figure 1

fig1Source: NY Fed

Term Premium: a counter-cyclical variable

One important characteristic of the term premium is that it is a counter cyclical variable that tends to rise when the uncertainty around unemployment (or the business cycle) and inflation expectations starts to increase.

Figure 2 (left frame) shows the striking relationship between the unemployment rate and the term premium since 1961. Periods of rising unemployment have been generally associated with a sharp increase in the term premium. Now that we expect the jobless rate to skyrocket following the dismal prints of NFPs and initial claims in recent weeks, could we see a response in the term premium as well?

Figure 2 (right frame) shows another interesting relationship between the US 2Y10Y yield curve and the term premium. We know that the inversion of the yield curve is usually marked by a sharp steepening effect within the next 12 to 24 months as the economy enters a recession. This is referred as a ‘bear steepener’ as the long end of the curve starts rising due to a surge in the term premium. Will the Fed’s emergency measures and QE purchases be enough to deprive the yield curve and term premium from rising significantly in the coming months?

Figure 2

fig2Source: Eikon Reuters

Term Premium vs. inflation expectations

The 2-trillion USD increase in the Fed’s balance sheet as a response of Covid-19 has brought its holding of securities to a new all-time high of $5.85tr. The Fed has recently been buying $625bn of securities each week, which corresponds to an annual pace of $32.5tr and is $25bn more than the entire QE2 run between November 2010 and June 2011. The balance sheet of the Fed is now expected to hit 8 to 9 trillion USD by the end of the year in hopes that it will bring back confidence in the market. Hence, it is fair to raise the following question: will we experience rising inflation in the medium term?

As the term premium is very sensitive to the uncertainty around inflation expectations, it shows an interesting co-movement with the 12-month volatility of the Fed’s balance sheet assets. When interest rates reach the zero bound, central banks run aggressive asset-purchase programs in order to decrease the shadow rate below the neutral rate of interest rate (r*) and stimulate demand and inflation. Figure 3 (left frame) shows that previous periods of rising 12M vol in Fed assets were associated with a short-term increase in the term premium.

Investors could argue that inflation expectations have been falling if we look at the market-based measures – the USD 5Y5Y inflation swap. Figure 3 (right frame) shows that the 5Y5Y inflation swap is currently trading at a historical low of 1.75%, down from nearly 3% in January 2014. However, we previously saw that inflation swaps have been very sensitive to equity and oil prices in the past cycle; in theory, an oil shock should not impact inflation expectations as better monetary policy readjustments from central banks will offset that shock. Hence, these products represent more the demand for inflation hedges (which decreases when energy prices fall), but do not tell us anything about long-term inflation expectations.

Figure 3

fig3Source: Eikon Reuters

Term premium and free-floating bonds

Certainly, moves on the term premium also depends strongly on the amount of free-floating securities in the market. As central banks keep increasing their balance sheet through the purchase of securities such as government bonds, the amount of free-floating bonds have dramatically been reduced in the past cycle. For instance, it was estimated that large asset-purchase programs in the Euro area have decreased the free float of German government bonds from approximately 40% in 2015 to 3% in early 2020 (figure 4, left frame). Figure 4 (right frame) shows how the relationship between the 10Y Bund term premium and the free float flattened in the past few years; low free float is associated with a flat term premium.

In the US, the amount of free float is much higher due to the large quantity of marketable debt securities (USD 16tr) held by the non residents; non-resident holders (NHR) hold nearly 40% of the US debt. Hence, even though the Fed’s aggressive purchases will reduce the free float in the medium term, there is still the risk of a sudden rise in the term premium in the short run as the economy enters a recession.

Figure 4

fig4

Source: Danske, ECB

To conclude, the risk of higher long-term interest rates in the US is still there in the coming months; even though we do expect long-term rates to eventually go to zero, there is still a high probability to see a little short-term surge in the 10Y -plunge in US Treasury prices (TLT), which would significantly steepen the yield curve coinciding with the drastic rise in unemployment.

Great Chart: US Term Premium vs. Business Cycles

Academics and economists have often decomposed the long-term bond yield of a specific country (i.e. US 10Y Treasury) into the sum of the expected path of real interest rate (r*) and the additional term premium, which compensate investors for holding interest rate risk. Two major risks that a bond investor typically face in the long-run are the change in supply of and demand for bonds and the uncertainty around inflation expectations. If the uncertainty increases, the market will demand a higher premium as a response. As the premium is not directly observable, it must be estimated using econometric models. For instance, a popular one that practitioners use is the one developed by Adrian, Crump and Moench (2013), who estimated fitted yields and the expected average short-term interest rates for different maturities (1 to 10 years, see data here).

As you can see, the term premium has been falling since 2009 and is currently negative at -51bps, which has not happened very often. Instead of having a positive term premium for long-term US debt holders carrying interest rate risk, there is actually a discount. The term premium for the 10Y reached an all-time low of -84bps in July 2016, at the same time that the yield on the Treasury reached a record low below 1.40%. However, there are also interest findings when we plot the ACM 10Y term premium with macroeconomic variables. If we overlay it with the US unemployment rate, we can notice a significant co-movement between the two times series. The jobless rate went down from 10% in Q3 2009 to 4.1% in March 2018, tracked by the term premium that fall from roughly 2.5% to -50bps in that same period. In other, it seems that the term premium follows the business cycles, trend lower in periods of positive growth and falling unemployment and rises in periods of contractions. Therefore, for those who are expecting a rise in the US LT yields in the medium term, driven by a reversion in the term premium, what does it mean for the unemployment rate going forward?

Chart. US Unemployment Rate vs. 10Y Term Premium

US Term Pr.png

Source: Reuters Eikon and Adrian et al. (2013)