Insights on Interest Rates: Why Treasury Bonds Are No Longer the Market Bellwether

Divining the direction of interest rates used to be a lot easier.

With the Federal Funds Rate, policymakers at the U.S. Federal Reserve would indicate precisely what they wanted the overnight lending rate between big banks to be. And the prices of U.S. Treasury securities of all maturities fell in line like obedient soldiers.

But things have changed.

Forget about watching the Fed Funds Rate now. That central bank benchmark has ranged between 0.00% and 0.25% for a couple of years now. Going forward, i t's not going to be an indicator of interest-rate movement, because it's not going to change much.

Sure the Fed wants it there. But more to the point, the Fed Funds Rate remains in that range because all the too-big-to-fail (TBTF) banks like Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) and Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) are far bigger now, are lending less, and have huge excess reserves on which they'd love to earn an overnight profit. So for now and for the foreseeable future, they'll be plenty to lend between giant "TBTF" club members.

And t hanks to its "quantitative-easing" (QE) strategy, the Fed is essentially monetizing the U.S. Treasury's debt by buying in the secondary market from primary dealers like Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) the equivalent of every new issue that comes to market.

The net result: There's no real gauge of demand because the Federal Reserve has hijacked the free market.

The New Bellwether

Tens of trillions of dollars are invested in the U.S. bond markets.

And - for as long as anyone can remember - the Fed, U.S. Treasury bonds and the Treasury yield curve were the bellwethers of where interest rates were headed. That's why investors watched those indicators so closely.

But they are bellwethers no more. With the $2.9 trillion market for municipal bonds now buffeted by pension, deficit, tax and potential state bankruptcy woes, it's the direction of muniyields and shape of the muni yield curve that investors should be watching to divine the future direction of interest rates.

T o divine the direction of interest rates - and stay ahead of the curve - watch the muni-bond market by watching the iShares S&P National AMT-Free Muni Bond Exchange-Traded Fund (NYSE: MUB).

Private investors - mostly individuals and insurance companies - hold about 95% of the $2. 9 trillion worth of municipal bonds currently outstanding.

Because it's essentially individual-investor demand that determines what yields states and municipalities must offer on their bonds in order to attract investors, pure supply-and-demand realities in the municipal arena make interest-rate movements much more transparent.

It's possible that budget, deficit, and pension woes will get worked out sooner rather than later.

But it's far more likely they won't.

Either way, because the muni-bond market isn't manipulated by the Fed or subject to extraordinary outside forces, demand in the face of available supply for new issues will result in true "price discovery."

A Look Ahead

The market has calmed down since it began to swoon last October. After selling off on talk about Chapter 9 reorganizations at state and local government levels - and after an onslaught of muni-mutual-fund selling - prices have stabilized along with yields.

But don't be fooled. The only reason things are quiet on the muni-bond front is because there's virtually no supply coming to market.

Only $29 billion worth of muni-bond offerings were floated in the last two months, compared to $46.5 billion in the first two months of 2010.

The rest of the year could get ugly.

The Build America Bonds program expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Under that issuer-and-buyer-friendly program, the U.S. government subsidized taxable issuance by states and municipalities to the tune of $117.3 billion. With that backstop gone, new issuance of an expected $275 billion to $300 billion this year will sorely test the public's appetite for munis.

As new bond issues do come to market, the important thing to watch will be their maturities.

Issuers want to avoid offering variable-rate demand obligations (VRDOs) because they fear that if rates rise or their creditworthiness declines, they may not be able to roll over short-term borrowings. And the only way to borrow long-term in a rising-rate environment is to offer risk-averse investors higher coupons on bonds with extended maturities.

As the muni-yield curve steepens, investors will start interpreting that steepening as a reflection of increased risk. At the exact time that issuers are offering higher yields, such an interpretation by investors will force issuers to offer even higher yields and will cause the prices of old bonds to tank.

The purity of the supply-and-demand equation in the muni market - and its resulting reflection on interest-rate levels - is where the wheat will be separated from the chaff.

And that's why - for now - i t's the muni market that investors need to embrace as their new interest- rate bellwether.

[Editor's Note: As Money Morning Contributing Editor Shah Gilani detailed in today's story, U.S. investors have entered an era of interest rate uncertainty. The U.S. Federal Reserve has "hijacked" the free market - and could take investors' money with it.

Still, there is a way for investors to double their money in the next 12 months - and it doesn't involve any overly complicated market moves. All you need is the right blend of high-yielding investments. You can find out the details by clicking here. Or you can sign up for The Money Map Report, which each month delivers the most pressing profit opportunities available.]

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About the Author

Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor's 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in "the pit" as a market maker.

The work he did laid the foundation for what would later become the VIX - to this day one of the most widely used indicators worldwide. After leaving Chicago to run the futures and options division of the British banking giant Lloyd's TSB, Shah moved up to Roosevelt & Cross Inc., an old-line New York boutique firm. There he originated and ran a packaged fixed-income trading desk, and established that company's "listed" and OTC trading desks.

Shah founded a second hedge fund in 1999, which he ran until 2003.

Shah's vast network of contacts includes the biggest players on Wall Street and in international finance. These contacts give him the real story - when others only get what the investment banks want them to see.

Today, as editor of Hyperdrive Portfolio, Shah presents his legion of subscribers with massive profit opportunities that result from paradigm shifts in the way we work, play, and live.

Shah is a frequent guest on CNBC, Forbes, and MarketWatch, and you can catch him every week on Fox Business's Varney & Co.

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