The Damage Potential of Rising Rates

The initial goals of the Federal Reserve’s “Great Monetary Experiment”— to keep rates low, create negative real yields, spur consumption and cushion the budgetary consequences of fiscal stimulus — have largely been accomplished. Investors could now face the threat of rising bond yields. Various bull and bear scenarios might ensue. What are they and what could trigger them? What are the risks to portfolios?

Duration Described: The Ugly Math of Long Maturity

Duration is a measure of a fixed income instrument’s sensitivity to rising rates. In general, the longer the instrument’s maturity, the longer its duration, and the more sensitive its price will be to changes in market yields. This is because the instrument’s value is the sum of cash flows received (interest payments and principal payments), discounted at the current rate demanded by investors for that instrument until its maturity.

Time Value of Money

When rates rise, an investor has to implicitly discount all interest and principal payments for bonds at a higher rate. And that rate is compounded by the “time value of money”. Thus, if a bond’s interest and principal payments stretch far off into the future, the discount factor becomes large. The market reacts typically by dropping the value of the longer-dated bond much more dramatically than the shorter-dated bond.

Present Value

Consider two bonds with different maturities: a 2-year and a 30-year Treasury. For a $1,000 2-year Treasury bond yielding 1%, the principal to be paid back in 2 years is a large component of the bond’s present value. The interest payments (4 payments of $5 = $20 vs. $1000 principal) are a small part of the present value. Conversely, for the $1,000 30-year bond yielding 3%, the principal payment, made far in the future, is a smaller component of the present value. The interest payments (60 payments of $15 = $900 vs. $1,000 principal) are a much larger portion of the bond’s present value.

Many Interest Rate Scenarios Could Ensue Over the Next Several Months

One “extreme” scenario that some have suggested is the ultimate duration nightmare – a wholesale rout of the Treasury and Dollar markets. This event could transpire if investors lose faith in U.S. political and monetary authorities resulting from an extreme currency debasement and the simultaneous inability to reign in federal deficits. Those who argue we are going down this path may point to the seemingly never-ending rounds of Quantitative Easing and political paralysis on a long-term budget plan. While we sympathize with these concerns, we don’t find them compelling in the near- to intermediate-term for a number of reasons. We do, however, envision a number of different potential rate scenarios unfolding.

Click here to read Pioneer’s Blue Paper The Damage Potential of Rising Rates, in which we review these interest rate scenarios, and the conditions that could invoke them.

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