How Scary Is the Bond Market?

NEW HAVEN – The prices of long-term government bonds have been running very high in recent years (that is, their yields have been very low). In the United States, the 30-year Treasury bond yield reached a record low (since the Federal Reserve series began in 1972) of 2.25% on January 30. The yield on the United Kingdom's 30-year government bond fell to 2.04% on the same day. The Japanese 20-year government bond yielded just 0.87% on January 20.

All of these yields have since moved slightly higher, but they remain exceptionally low. It seems puzzling – and unsustainable – that people would tie up their money for 20 or 30 years to earn little or nothing more than these central banks' 2% target rate for annual inflation. So, with the bond market appearing ripe for a dramatic correction, many are wondering whether a crash could drag down markets for other long-term assets, such as housing and equities.

It is a question that I am repeatedly asked at seminars and conferences. After all, participants in the housing and equity markets set prices with a view to prices in the bond market, so contagion from one long-term market to another seems like a real possibility.

I have been thinking about the bond market for a long time. In fact, the long-term bond market was the subject of my 1972 PhD dissertation and my first-ever academic publication the following year, co-authored with my academic adviser, Franco Modigliani. Our work with data for the years 1952-1971 showed that the long-term bond market back then was pretty easy to describe. Long-term interest rates on any given date could be explained quite well as a certain weighted average of the last 18 quarters of inflation and the last 18 quarters of short-term real interest rates. When either inflation or short-term real interest rates went up, long-term rates rose. When either fell, so did long-term rates.