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February 21, 2020

Bond Yields Will Rise, But When?

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February 21, 2020

Bond Yields Will Rise, But When?

Insight Article

Bond Yields Will Rise, But When?

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February 21, 2020


As fixed income investors, this is the question we get asked most often. If we had to pick a date, we would say 2024, but it may be sooner since market pricing tends to anticipate the future. Of course, we can’t predict the future, and this is very difficult to know with precision, but let us explain. After all, U.S. bond yields have been declining for four decades; why would the next decade be any different? Well, there are several key differences.

  1. DEMOGRAPHICS. Over the next decade, the vast majority of the ‘baby boomer’ generation will become eligible for mandatory government spending programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that will likely be funded by increased debt issuance (Display 1).

  2. MONETARY POLICY that has pushed interest rates to extremely low—in some cases negative—levels, thereby limiting how much lower rates can go without doing more harm than good.

  3. AS A RESULT, fiscal stimulus may take the place of monetary stimulus during downturns in the economic cycle. Fiscal stimulus, however, is a heavier burden to government debt valuation than monetary stimulus and therefore weighs more heavily on bond yields.
DISPLAY 1: CBO Projections of Government Spending through 2029

Source: CBO, MSIM, data as of January 2020.

Forecasts/estimates are based on current market conditions, subject to change, and may not necessarily come to pass.

*Mandatory spending mostly includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and others.


If nothing else, these three factors will provide stiff resistance to a trending decline in bond yields and are new to the next decade versus the previous four. Given that the historically long U.S. economic cycle will, at some point, end, it may be the case that bond yields remain within a low range for the time being, that is sub 3.50% UST 10yr, for example.

We arrive at this yield level based on the historical relationship between the UST 10yr yield and nominal GDP. Our estimate can be broken down into an approximate 2% real GDP growth rate with 1.5% inflation. Again, this is hard to forecast with precision, so we broaden this range between 3.25% and 3.75%, with 3.50% as the midpoint until 2024.

The investment implication of rising yields is significant in terms of how investors use fixed income strategies to achieve both return and diversification. Fixed income will likely still remain a large part of one’s asset allocation but bond investors will need to think differently about how they use bonds to diversify their portfolio. This is because over the past forty years, bond investors became accustomed to passive and index-driven strategies in which they relied on the trend decline of interest rates, or beta, to achieve both return and diversification.

In the future, if yields rise or even just move sideways in a range, investors may need to look toward actively managed fixed income strategies whose return is expected to be derived from broader active asset selection and non-index-based strategies that are less sensitive to interest rate movements, or alpha, to help achieve return and diversification from their allocation to bonds.

Why is 2024 so important?

We selected this date as an important structural turning point for the bond market based on fiscal projections made by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published in January 2020 (Display 2).

Note that the CBO provides a fiscal forecast going to 2050 by extrapolating current tax law and spending into the future, which of course, is subject to and likely will change over time.

DISPLAY 2: Key Projections in CBO’s Extended Baseline

Source: Congressional Budget Office.

The extended baseline generally reflects current law, following CBO’s 10-year baseline budget projections through 2030 and then extending most of the concepts underlying those baseline projections for the rest of the long-term period (in this case, through 2050).

This table satisfies a requirement specified in section 3111 of S. Con. Res. 11, the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2016.

GDP = gross domestic product.

a   Consists of outlays for Medicare (net of premiums and other offsetting receipts), Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, subsidies for health insurance purchased through the marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act, and related spending.

b   Average projected deficit figures for 2022-2050.

c   Includes payroll taxes other than those paid by the federal government on behalf of its employees; those payments are intragovernmental transactions. Also includes income taxes paid on Social Security benefits, which are credited to the trust funds.

d   Does not include outlays related to the administration of the program, which are discretionary. For Social Security, outlays do not include intragovernmental offsetting receipts stemming from the employer’s share of payroll taxes paid to the Social Security trust funds by federal agencies on behalf of their employees.

e   The net increase in the deficit shown in this table differs from the change in the trust fund balance for the associated program. It does not include intragovernmental transactions, interest earned on balances, or outlays related to the administration of the program.


The year 2024 is important because it is the starting point at which the mandatory spending (Social Security and major health care programs) starts to accelerate due to an aging population. We refer to the so-called baby boomer generation; those born between 1946 and 1964 as the significant demographic shift that will alter spending and structural dynamics for US bond markets. In 2026 the last of the baby boomers all become eligible for early retirement benefits at age 62 and by 2030 become eligible for full retirement benefits at age 66 and 2 months. As a result, the next decade will see substantial acceleration in mandatory government spending on Social Security and health care.

On average, the percentage of outlays from mandatory versus discretionary government spending begins to accelerate between 2022 and 2025 and the peak in the percentage of the deficit due to mandatory spending is expected to be from 2026 to 2030. Discretionary spending, such as military defense is relatively constant but expected to decline through 2050, yet interest expense to finance the deficit is projected to rise throughout the same period.

The next set of data points are rather outstanding as a consequence. But first, note that our goal is not to infer the accuracy of the CBO forecast, instead it is to show the potential trajectory and impact of mandatory spending heading our way based on aging demographics that will likely be financed through increased government debt and deficits.

We do this to illustrate our point that the valuation of U.S. government debt may be adversely impacted and at best serve as resistance, but more likely catalyze a reversal of the declining trend in bond yields witnessed over the past 40 years.

For instance, the CBO projects the ratio of U.S. debt to GDP as going from an average of 81% in 2020 to 180% on average between the years 2041 to 2050 and the fiscal deficit rising from 4.6% to 10.1% over the same time periods. Please note that these are astronomical changes in fiscal terms (Display 3).

DISPLAY 3: Historical and Future Debt and Deficit CBO Projections, % GDP

Source: CBO, MSIM Data as of January 2020. The table represents the average level of historical and future debt/deficit CBO projections from 2022-2050, however by end of 2050 the figure will be closer to 12%.

Forecasts/estimates are based on current market conditions, subject to change, and may not necessarily come to pass.


A rising deficit will put pressure on yields to rise

One can think of the debt to GDP as a leverage ratio, which is how much a country needs to borrow to achieve its growth and the fiscal deficit as a default rate. Both show a substantial increase from current levels. Most important of the two is the deficit. If we think of this as a default rate then a 10% deficit would suggest a below investment grade or high yield credit rating with unsustainable debt dynamics and high probability of default.

We do not believe the U.S. will default or lose its high quality investment grade status. The point here is that U.S. debt dynamics are becoming more difficult and creditors of US government debt may expect higher compensation, which means more yield on U.S. Treasuries, in order to be compensated for the increased risk.

Again, this is not our base case, and these projections from the CBO are subject to change. Our point is that aging demographics are putting adverse pressure on debt and deficit dynamics that may not allow for U.S. Treasury yields to remain at low levels in perpetuity.

A modern approach to fixed income investing: Using active strategies to help achieve return and diversification

High quality bonds have great diversification attributes and will assuredly remain an important component of a balanced portfolio. One of the main attributes to diversification is the return of principal and a steady stream of coupon income an investor should receive if the investment is held to maturity (and does not default) against more volatile returns in riskier assets. However, not all bonds are held to maturity, and investors often use dynamic asset-allocation models that balance between fixed income and, say, equities. In which case, the total return potential coming from both coupon income and price appreciation of bonds over a given investment horizon is an important consideration.

In hindsight, over the past 40-years, bonds have provided both return and diversification benefits to a balanced portfolio, because bond yields have consistently trended lower during this period. As a result, passive and index based investment strategies for bonds worked just fine. This investment allocation has become commonly known as risk-parity; which, in simple terms, is when an investor owns, say, 60% equity versus 40% fixed income to balance the risk; as the correlation of these assets is assumed to be low or negative over time in order to achieve diversification.

However, one needs to realize the key ingredient to this asset allocation strategy was the trend to lower interest rates. If that changes then bonds may not hedge equities because return correlations may rise; thus less return and diversification may be achieved. This is likely to occur not only if bond yields rise but also if they just move sideways in a range. In other words, if bond yields stop consistently trending lower, then return and diversification benefits from risk-parity strategies may fall.

In Display 4 we illustrate that it is historically not uncommon for bond and equity performance to have a positive correlation. Only in the past 20-years, using an extended 24-month rolling correlation, we see that bond and equity returns have enjoyed a negative correlation. But we believe this regime is changing and correlations are observed to be rising.

DISPLAY 4: High Correlation Between Equity and Bond Returns Is Nothing New

Source: U.S. 10y Treasury, Bloomberg. Morgan Stanley. Data as of December 2019. Bonds represented by the BofA Merrill Lynch 10 Year US Treasury Index and stocks by the S&P 500 Index. The correlations are provided for illustrative purposes only and are not meant to depict the correlation of specific investments. The correlations presented are no guarantee of future results. The index performance is provided for illustrative purposes only and is not meant to depict the performance of a specific investment. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. See Disclosure section for index definitions.


The main driver of the rise in correlations may be that interest rates no longer trend consistently lower supporting persistent positive returns from fixed income. Even if interest rates fluctuate in a wide range over the next several years, these fluctuations will still have the effect of increasing correlation between fixed income and equity making it more difficult achieve diversification in a balanced portfolio.

Another key factor to note is that rising and positive correlations are more detrimental to a balanced portfolio when yields are rising from a low level. This is because bond returns are can more easily turn negative when interest rates are low.

During the 1980s and 1990s bond and equity return correlations were positive but yields were much higher. Generally, higher yields served as a cushion for bond returns keeping them positive because the higher coupon earned from holding bonds could more than offset the drop in a bond’s price. The only exception was 1994 when the Fed hiked interest rates 300bps and U.S. Aggregate Bond Index returns fell by 2.4%.

Think differently about how you use fixed income in your portfolio

One strategy is to think differently about how you employ fixed income strategies. If a fixed income strategy can be constructed in which its return may be less correlated with and reliant on consistently falling interest rates, then return and diversification from fixed income can be brought back to a balanced portfolio strategy. One way to help achieve this is by using actively managed and unconstrained, or non-passive index based fixed income strategies as part of your overall bond allocation.

The goal is to earn more consistent returns from fixed income, while simultaneously reducing correlation to the interest rate cycle to achieve those returns. Simply put, this is an alpha-based strategy to add alongside your beta driven core fixed income strategy.

We have observed that many investors are already trying to address this issue by reducing interest rate risk in their portfolio. Commonly, we observe that investors have increased allocations to money market instruments or floating rate assets with near zero duration alongside traditional bond fund investments in order to net reduce the overall duration risk.

The issue with this technique is that individual investors are using a limited tool set to help solve a complex problem. The risk with using money market instruments is if the economy slows and interest rates fall, then one does not achieve gains they may have otherwise received by owning longer duration bonds. The risk with floating rate assets is that it they tend to be levered and exposed to credit, which in a downturn will likely not perform like relatively safer, longer duration bonds. Keep in mind, of course, that the longer duration corporate bond would also be subject to greater risk of default than the money market instruments, and their prices would be more sensitive to interest rate changes. Nevertheless, we believe these investors are considering too narrow a set of instruments in an attempt to solve the complex problem of managing interest rate risk.


We believe that unconstrained and actively managed bond strategies, with proper risk and return characteristics, can be a solution. With these strategies, a manager can invest across a broad range of global fixed income assets, potentially better managing duration risk through dynamic asset selection and allocation choices. Managers can construct a long-only portfolio that adjusts to the economic cycle to help reduce the interest rate sensitivity of this strategy.

If constructed properly, we believe an active manager can achieve more consistent returns that are substantially less correlated to the interest rate cycle. This, alongside traditional core bond holdings, may bring return and diversification properties back to a balanced portfolio in an environment where interest rates may no longer trend lower.


Risk Considerations

Diversification neither assures a profit nor guarantees against loss in a declining market.

Fixed-income securities are subject to the ability of an issuer to make timely principal and interest payments (credit risk), changes in interest rates (interest rate risk), the creditworthiness of the issuer and general market liquidity (market risk). In a rising interest-rate environment, bond prices may fall and may result in periods of volatility and increased portfolio redemptions. In a declining interest-rate environment, the portfolio may generate less income. Longer-term securities may be more sensitive to interest rate changes. Certain U.S. government securities purchased by the strategy, such as those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are not backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. It is possible that these issuers will not have the funds to meet their payment obligations in the future. Public bank loans are subject to liquidity risk and the credit risks of lower-rated securities. High-yield securities (junk bonds) are lower-rated securities that may have a higher degree of credit and liquidity risk. Sovereign debt securities are subject to default risk. Mortgage- and asset-backed securities are sensitive to early prepayment risk and a higher risk of default, and may be hard to value and difficult to sell (liquidity risk). They are also subject to credit, market and interest rate risks. The currency market is highly volatile. Prices in these markets are influenced by, among other things, changing supply and demand for a particular currency; trade; fiscal, money and domestic or foreign exchange control programs and policies; and changes in domestic and foreign interest rates. Investments in foreign markets entail special risks such as currency, political, economic and market risks. The risks of investing in emerging market countries are greater than the risks generally associated with foreign investments. Derivative instruments may disproportionately increase losses and have a significant impact on performance. They also may be subject to counterparty, liquidity, valuation, correlation and market risks. Restricted and illiquid securities may be more difficult to sell and value than publicly traded securities (liquidity risk). Due to the possibility that prepayments will alter the cash flows on collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs), it is not possible to determine in advance their final maturity date or average life. In addition, if the collateral securing the CMOs or any third-party guarantees are insufficient to make payments, the portfolio could sustain a loss.

Managing Director
Global Fixed Income Team


Alpha is the excess return or value added (positive or negative) of the portfolio’s return relative to the return of the benchmark.

Beta is a measure of the relative volatility of a security or portfolio to the market’s upward or downward movements. A beta greater than 1.0 identifies an issue or fund that will move more than the market, while a beta less than 1.0 identifies an issue or fund that will move less than the market. The Beta of the Market is always equal to 1.

The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index tracks the performance of all U.S. government agency and Treasury securities, investment-grade corporate debt securities, agency mortgage-backed securities, asset-backed securities and commercial mortgage-backed securities. The BofA Merrill Lynch 10 Year US Treasury Index measures the performance of U.S. Treasury bonds with at least ten years remaining until maturity. The S&P 500® Index (U.S. S&P 500) measures the performance of the large-cap segment of the U.S. equities market, covering approximately 75 percent of the U.S. equities market. The index includes 500 leading companies in leading industries of the U.S. economy. The Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Index is the corporate component of the Barclays Global Aggregate index, which provides a broad-based measure of the global investment-grade fixed income markets.


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