Bonds are in a massive bubble – but what can you do about it?

When will the bond bubble burst?

If there’s one question that investors today most want an answer to, it’s this one.

You can see why. If bond prices fall, it’ll cause havoc throughout the wider economy, as borrowing costs rise.

And the sector certainly looks very bubbly. There’s no denying that.

But as to when precisely the bubble will pop – sadly no one can answer that question.

The good news is that as far as your money goes, it doesn’t matter.

There’s a far more important question to ask, which is much, much easier to answer…

When will the bond bubble burst?

The bond market is unquestionably in bubble territory.

In the government sector, gilt yields (UK government debt) are near their lowest levels on record. Same goes for the US, and many other developed countries. This is even although national balance sheets have rarely been in worse shape, particularly if you ignore periods of all-out war.

Meanwhile, in the corporate bond area, companies are able to borrow at an all-time low average yield of 3.3%, according to Barclays. Overall, says the FT, the amount of debt issued is on course to hit a record this year, of more than $1.7 trillion.

Supply of debt is rocketing in other words. Yet the value of debt is soaring too (as yields fall, bond prices rise), because investors just can’t get enough of it. UK pension funds have more of their money in bonds than in equities for the first time in 50 years or so.

These are all ugly signs. Bonds by and large offer incredibly poor value, yet investors are still piling into them.

But when will it end? This is where it gets tricky.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the years looking at contrarian sentiment indicators to try to see if there’s anything that reliably acts as a sign of a big turning point. I have to admit, I can’t find one.

Bond funds are very popular. But they’ve been popular for quite some time now. Which particular month will mark the tipping point? I don’t know.

As for press coverage: there are plenty of people out there willing to say that bonds are in bubble territory. Yes, lots of them are equity managers, so will never want you to put your money in bonds. But it’s hard to argue that no one expects bond prices to fall – eventually.

Even ‘screaming’ contrarian indicators like big, bold headlines on magazine covers don’t work as well as everyone thinks.

Remember that BusinessWeek ‘death of equities’ magazine cover that everyone talks about? This was back in the late 1970s. Inflation had destroyed investor interest in stocks at the time.

The US magazine put out a cover story arguing that “the US economy probably has to regard the death of equities as [a] near-permanent condition”. You can read the story here and you really should – it is a fascinating lesson in how what seems an incredibly compelling argument can turn out to be very wrong. 

Anyway, the story turned out to be wrong in that a two-decade bull market in stocks kicked off in the 1980s. So the cover is often cited as the ultimate contrarian indicator. So much so, that these days, from the way everyone talks about it, it’s easy to assume that BusinessWeek nailed the rock bottom in stocks.

Yet when you look at the reality, in terms of timing, it wasn’t that great, as Bespoke Investment Group points out. The story came out in August 1979. The full-blown bull market in US stocks didn’t actually start until August 1982. At that point, three years later, the S&P 500 was still around 5% lower than where it was when the BusinessWeek story was published.

In hindsight, three years wasn’t a long time to wait, given the scale of the whopping bull market that followed. But I suspect that any die-hard contrarian who bought US equities on the day that cover was published, probably spent the next three years – if not more – feeling very jumpy indeed.

You’re asking the wrong question

When will the bond bubble burst? I don’t know, is the short answer. But here’s a question I can answer.

Are bonds expensive? Yes, beyond a shadow of a doubt. And that’s what really matters.

Yields have never been this low in history. So for you to believe that this state of affairs can continue in the long term, you have to believe that something very fundamental has changed about the world. Otherwise, they’ll revert to the mean.

Sure, you will read many convincing arguments that suggest bonds can stay right where they are. But I’d suggest you read the BusinessWeek article, and look at how convincingly it made the case for equity being dead. One contributor quote in particular stands out: “We have entered a new financial age. The old rules no longer apply.”

So let’s agree – bonds are expensive. What’s the oldest rule in investing (or one of them)? ‘Buy low, sell high’.

So avoid expensive stuff. You don’t need to be in bonds. You don’t manage anyone else’s money. So you don’t have to fret about impatient clients pulling their money out of your hands if you aren’t invested in the latest bubble.

All you have to control is your own impatience. That’s easier said than done of course. But at least your job doesn’t depend on it.

So what do you buy? You buy cheap stuff, of course.

I know I sound like a stuck record by now, but European stock markets look cheap in historic terms. Despite big rebounds since the summer, the peripheral countries still trade on cyclically-adjusted p/e ratios of below ten. That typically means you’ll see very healthy returns within five years. Yes markets can get cheaper – but probably not a lot cheaper.

Just for reference – when that BusinessWeek cover was published, the CAPE for the S&P 500 was below ten. By 1982 it had fallen even further. But if you’d bought back then, and held for any sensible length of time, you’d have been a very happy bunny.

We discuss the bond bubble – among other things – in our latest roundtable, which you can read in this week’s issue of MoneyWeek magazine (out tomorrow – if you’re not already a subscriber, you can subscribe to MoneyWeek magazine). Needless to say, none of our participants had a definitive answer as to when it will burst. But they had plenty of ideas on what you can invest in meanwhile.

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  • peter stevenson

    Hello John,
    You don’t distinguish between ordinary bonds and index linked bonds. Do the same comments apply?

  • Chester

    There are already signs that the US has turned the corner. The 30 year yield has started to rise, suggesting that air will soon start to hiss out of the bond bubble. The more QE stupidity central banks promote, the faster the bubble will burst once the yield curve starts to rise significantly

    Then, returns on cash will outpace bonds as interest rates rise, and cash should significantly outperform equities, which are on the verge of the next big swing south

  • Bob

    I hope you are right #2 Chester – but we have been waiting for this to happen for several years now.

    All this doom about a stock market about to crash was exactly the same thing talked about this time last year – and we then had a very bullish 2012.

    Don’t get me wrong – a nice crash in bonds and stocks now would suit me very much… but I fear that by this time in 2013 we will be looking back on another bull run with DOW at 14,000 or more.

  • modsa

    It is quite amazing, to me, how many people are prepared to trust the Government, preumably ’cause the voted for them! Of course “haircuts” as with Greek bonds, couldn’t possibly happen here; could it?

  • Peter Kellow

    Is this not simply a case of “too much money chasing too few goods”.

    You cannot have an overall view of why bond prices are performing as they do without taking into account of money that is around looking for a home

    The global money supply has ballooned over the last decade. Some of it has been poured into property as in London inflating prices there beyond all reason.

    But there is still a lot more out there. A lot is parked in tax havens and so accumulates even more

    We are now seeing a symbiosis of governments and the global superrich whereby governments issue bonds to provide a placement for ill-gotten wealth