It may not be the 1970s when interest rates offered investors double-digit returns, but 5 percent on a six-month U.S. Treasury bill isn't bad.
We last saw that kind of return in 2007. To be sure, the rate still comes up short when compared to the 6.4 percent annual rate of inflation right now. Yet inflation is declining and has fallen for seven months in a row.
The dilemma investors faced last year was that there simply was no haven to park their cash. The stock market was treacherous and falling. The Federal Reserve Bank was hiking interest rates on an almost monthly basis to combat inflation, and most bond prices were falling almost as much as equities.
This year the stock market rallied for the first month and a half, but many investors have now turned less bullish. Over the last week or so, the bond market has begun to price in at least three more interest rate hikes in the first half of the year. The strength of the economy and a slight uptick in some of the most recent inflation readings has been behind the increase in bond yields across the spectrum. The rush for cash and cash alternatives has suddenly taken a front seat in preferred investments.
At this point, investors can earn 5 percent or more on the six-month Treasury Bill, which is one of the safest debt securities in the world. Certificates of Deposits (CDs) are yielding 4.8 percent for the same three-month maturity. Buyers need to go out to one-year CDs and beyond to capture an equivalent 5 percent yield or above.
At this point, the three-month Treasury bill at 5.07 percent has a yield that is now competitive with far riskier assets like stocks as measured by the S&P 500 Index. Readers need to be aware that these "riskless" securities are not quite what they seem. Treasuries, while backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, do have interest rate risk. If interest rates climb higher, the price of all notes, bills, and bonds declines. The longer dated the bonds are, the deeper the decline when rates rise.
However, there may be another, upcoming glitch in the risk profile of the six-month bill's perceived safety. Last week I wrote a column on the present political debate on raising the debt ceiling. The Congressional Budget Office is now projecting that the U.S. government will run out of cash to pay its bills sometime between July and September. The six-month U.S. note will mature sometime in that time, which puts it squarely in the crosshairs of this partisan battle. It is conceivable that some investors, wary that there may be a government default, are steering clear of the note, while others are willing to take the risk.
However, I noticed that both the one-year (5.08 percent) and 18-month (5.01) U.S. Treasury notes are now trading above 5 percent. That indicates to me that the present rise in yields is more about higher interest rates tethered to the Fed's intent to keep interest rates higher for longer than it is about fears of a debt crisis.
The question is whether yields on other government debt will follow suit. Recently, weekly bill auctions have drawn strong demand. However, auctions this week indicated that bond investors, fearing future rate increases, were demanding higher yields. The U.S. Treasury sold $60 billion of three-month bills, $48 billion of six-month bills, and $34 billion of one-year paper as well as auctions of two-, five-, and seven-year notes.
For those who are waiting out the volatility in the stock market in cash, short-term U.S. Treasuries could be an interesting purchase right now.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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