Deflation breaks (slightly), as US inflation rises 0.2% in February

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.2% in February on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, US inflation was flat – 0.0%.

February’s slight increase was expected, because gasoline prices rose 2.4% in the month, after falling 18.7% in January. Overall, the energy index rose 1.0%. Food prices were up a moderate 0.2%. But prices for used cars and trucks were up a sharp 1.0% and medical care commodities rose 0.7%. Apparel was up 0.3%.

‘Core inflation,’ which strips out food and energy, was also up 0.2% in February and has risen 1.7% over the last 12 months.

Holders of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities and I Bonds are also interested in the non-seasonally adjusted CPI-U, which determines the inflation adjustment to TIPS principal and the future interest rate paid on I Bonds. In February, the inflation index stood at 234.722, up 0.43% over January’s number. But inflation was almost exactly flat over the last 12 months; the February 2014 number stood at 234.781.

Today’s numbers mean holders of TIPS will see gradual increases in principal in April, after several months of deflationary declines. Holders of I Bonds are almost certainly going to see six months of zero interest at the next adjustment on May 1. That adjustment will be based on inflation from September to March 2015, which is currently running at -1.39% with only one month to go. A large negative number will also wipe out any fixed rate the I Bond pays – up to that number – but an I Bond’s principal never declines and its interest rate can never go below zero.

I have updated my Tracking Inflation and I Bonds page to reflect these new numbers. See also my previous posts: TIPS versus I Bonds during deflationary times and Deflation strikes hard in January: What does it mean for TIPS and I Bonds? .

I’d suspect that today’s inflation number will have little effect on the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise short-term interest rates later this year. Oil prices have been declining recently, which should lead to stable gasoline prices as we head into summer.

Here is the 12-month trend in seasonally adjusted CPI-U:

Year of Zero Inflation

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10-year TIPS reopens with a real yield of 0.2%, nearly a 2-year low

The Treasury just announced that its reopening auction of CUSIP 912828H45 auctioned with a real yield (after inflation) to maturity of 0.2%, the lowest yield for an 9- to 10-year TIPS at auction since May 2013.

This Treasury Inflation-Protected Security has a coupon rate of 0.25%, so that means buyers at today’s auction had to ‘pay up’ slightly to get that coupon rate. However, because this TIPS has an inflation index of 0.98686, the adjusted price worked out to $99.16 per $98.68 of value, but par is guaranteed to rise to at least $100 at maturity.

Today’s yield was much lower than looked likely just two days ago, when this TIPS closed on the secondary market with a yield of 0.425%. The dramatic dip in yields came after the Federal Reserve announced it would be cautious in raising short-term interest rates this year. That move boosted the TIPS market because 1) short-term interest rates will remain very low for the near term and 2) the Fed indicated – once again – that it is willing to risk rising inflation if it results in job creation and rising wages.

Inflation breakeven rate. A nominal 10-year Treasury is trading right now at 1.97%, creating an inflation breakeven rate of 1.77%, about 5 basis points higher than the breakeven rate of a week ago, but still solidly in the ‘cheap’ range, indicating this TIPS is attractive versus a traditional Treasury.

Reaction to the auction. The TIP ETF, which holds a broad range of maturities, was trading down most of the day, but after the auction closed at 1 p.m., its price moved upward, indicating declining yields and a positive reaction to the auction.

TIP ETF

Bloomberg’s report on the auction noted the effect the Federal Reserve’s cautious statement had on the TIPS market:

The U.S. Treasury Department can thank the Federal Reserve for the surge in demand at Thursday’s auction of inflation-protected bonds.  … “The Fed backing away from its harsh stance frees inflation expectations to rise a little bit more,” said Jim Vogel, head of interest-rate strategy at FTN Financial in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Janet Yellen speaks, and …. what just happened to TIPS and Treasurys?

Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen

The Treasury market soared across the board Wednesday after the Federal Reserve indicated it would move cautiously in increasing short-term interest rates.

  • The yield on a 10-year nominal Treasury fell to 1.93%, a drop of 13 basis points from Wednesday’s close. But this remains far from the year’s low of 1.68% set on Feb. 2.
  • The real yield on a 10-year TIPS dropped to 0.23%, a dramatic drop of 19 basis points from Wednesday’s close, but still above the year’s low of 0.03% set on Feb. 2.

All this came on the eve of reopening auction today of CUSIP 912828H45, a 9-Year 10-Month Treasury Inflation-Protected Security with a coupon rate of 0.250%. And it certainly isn’t good news for anyone planning to bid at today’s auction. (Non-competitive bids must be placed by noon.)

What did the Federal Reserve do? Early news reports yesterday indicated that the Fed lifted its ‘patient’ language and signaled that a rise in short-term interest rates was likely this summer. But just as quickly, the the Fed backed off. From an excellent analysis in today’s Wall Street Journal:

That was a big surprise for investors, who were factoring in a greater probability the Fed would begin to increase rates from near-zero levels in June. The result: Stocks surged, Treasury yields slumped and the dollar tanked against the euro. …

Why the switch? One thing that changed since December is the dollar has gotten even stronger. That happened as central banks around the world have been rowing in the opposite direction of the Fed, unleashing a flood of monetary stimulus. …

Now, inflation is running below the 2% the Fed is aiming for. And the dollar’s rise, which is weighing against the prices of imported goods, makes it even more unlikely the Fed will hit its target anytime soon. …

If Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen wanted to mitigate the dollar’s rise, she succeeded—for now—even as she injected an aura of patience while removing the word “patient.”

If you want to know more, you can read the Fed’s Open Market Committee statement, which hints at the debate within the Federal Reserve. All economic indicators are pointing toward gradually higher interest rates, but the Fed is fighting against a wave of monetary easing across the globe.

  • “Labor market conditions have improved further, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate.”
  • “Inflation is anticipated to remain near its recent low level in the near term, but the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term.”
  • ” … the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate. In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.”
  • “When the Committee decides to begin to remove policy accommodation, it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-run goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent.”

In her news conference, Yellen tried to soften things further, saying that “just because we removed the word ‘patient’ doesn’t mean we’re going to be impatient.”

This language suggests that the Fed is very gently nudging investors toward interest rate increases later this year, and that’s still possible by summer or early fall. It doesn’t seem like the type of language that would cause Treasury yields to plummet or the dollar to drop in value, but that’s exactly what happened. Markets are funny.

But let’s be clear: Higher interest rates are coming.

Checking in on that TIPS auction

This could be a volatile day in the stock, bond and currency markets – the dollar is already up strongly in European markets after yesterday’s plummet. The euro is trading right now at $1.067 per dollar, after soaring over $1.10 yesterday.

Bloomberg’s Current Yields shows the 10-year nominal Treasury trading at 1.94% and the 10-year TIPS that is reopening today at 0.21%. That creates an attractive 10-year inflation breakeven rate of 1.73%, about where it stood last week. TIPS are cheap against nominal Treasurys, but a yield of 0.21% isn’t good enough as we are about enter a period of gradually rising interest rates.

The TIP ETF just opened trading at $113.40, down slightly this morning but up an incredible 1.8% since last Friday’s close. A rising price indicates declining yields. TIPS investors: The trend is working against you.

I’ll be posting the results of the auction after the 1 p.m. closing.

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Up next: 10-year TIPS will reopen at auction March 19, 2015

The US Treasury announced this morning that it will reopen CUSIP 912828H45, creating a 9-Year 10-Month Treasury Inflation-Protected Security with a coupon rate of 0.250%.

This TIPS initially auctioned on Jan. 22 with a real yield (after inflation) to maturity of 0.315%. Here’s what we can say about next week’s auction, knowing that things can change in a week:

  • This TIPS is trading this morning with a real yield of 0.34%, according to Bloomberg’s Current Yields chart. That means it is trading at a discounted price of about $99.10 per $100 of value.
  • It closed yesterday with a real yield of 0.367% and a price of about $98.90 per $100, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Closing Prices chart.
  • The US Treasury estimates a full-term 10-year TIPS would have yielded 0.39% at the close yesterday.

One interesting side note to this TIPS is that it currently carries a March 31 inflation index of 0.98686, meaning that it has no accrued inflation. In fact, buyers at the January auction have seen their principal balance decline by about 1.4%. This TIPS won’t rise to par until we see inflation rise in non-seasonally adjusted CPI-U. In return, I would expect buyers to expect a higher yield to compensate for the deflationary trend.

10-year inflation breakeven rate. At yesterday’s close, a 10-year nominal Treasury was yielding 2.11%, and that creates a 10-year inflation breakeven rate of 1.72%, which is low by historic standards, and indicates this TIPS is a good buy versus a nominal Treasury. If inflation averages more than 1.72% over 10 years, this TIPS will outperform a nominal Treasury.

Is a real yield of 0.35% too low? Personally, I’d say ‘yes’ and I have no interest in this issue as an investor. I’d get more interested as real yields rise to about 1%, which is perfectly possible over the next year (or … not.) However, if you need to fill a 2025 spot on a long-term TIPS ladder, this one could serve the purpose. But note that it will be reopened again in May.

As recently as September 2014, we saw a 10-year TIPS reopening auction go off at a yield of 0.61%, much more attractive than the result that looks likely next week. Here is a history of all 9- to 10-year TIPS auctions since 2008:

10-year TIPS

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TIPS are taking a hit on positive job news

I just noticed that the TIP ETF, which holds a broad range of maturities, is trading at $112.01 today, down 1.1% for the day. The ETF reached $114.14 on Feb. 27, and has since fallen 1.9% in just five trading days.

Part of the reason, at least, is increasing signs of an improving economy. Today’s evidence was news that U.S. nonfarm payrolls grew by a seasonally adjusted 295,000 jobs in February. The economy has now added more than 200,000 jobs for 12 straight months, the longest such streak since 1995, according to the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 5.5% in February, down from 5.7% in January.

An improving economy raises the possibility that the Federal Reserve will finally relent and begin raising short-term interest rates. Rates have held near zero since 2008.

So far, very weak inflation has allowed the Fed to avoid any move on interest rates. But if the economy continues to improve and the jobless rate continues to fall, wages should begin to increase, and that is a huge first step toward inflation.

While rising inflation would appear to create higher demand for TIPS, higher interest rates in the overall Treasury market would force TIPS yields higher and prices lower.

  • The yield on a nominal 10-year Treasury is currently trading today at 2.25%, up 14 basis points for the day and up a rather enormous 57 basis points since Feb. 1. And this yield could easily move higher — it stood at 3.0% on Jan. 1, 2014.
  • The real yield to maturity of a 10-year TIPS is currently trading today at 0.41%, up from a close of 0.27% yesterday. That is also 14 basis points, so TIPS and nominal Treasurys seem to be moving in lockstep.

However, a five-day chart comparing TIP with IEI (the intermediate Treasury bond market) and GOVT (the overall Treasury market) shows that TIPS are taking Friday’s news much harder, with yields rising as the ETF price falls (click on image for a larger version):

5- day tradingAnother factor to watch is the 10-year inflation breakeven rate, which has been rising from extremely low levels. Today’s implied inflation breakeven rate is 1.84%, still low by historical standards but up sharply since the 1.57% posted on Jan. 14. This indicates inflation expectations are rising – and also that TIPS are getting slightly more expensive versus traditional Treasurys. Here is the recent trend in the 10-year inflation breakeven rate:

10-year inflation breakevenThis month’s TIPS auction – on Thursday, March 19, will be a reopening of CUSIP 912828H45, a 10-year TIPS that originated on Jan. 22 with a real yield to maturity of 0.315% and a coupon rate of 0.250%. It will be interesting to watch how yields react in the next two weeks leading up to the auction.

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Deflation strikes hard in January: What does it mean for TIPS and I Bonds?

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) declined 0.7% in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, U.S. inflation decreased 0.1%.

Gasoline prices were the major factor in the decline, dropping a whopping 18.7% in January. Over the last 12 months, gasoline prices have fallen 35.4%. Food prices were stable for the month, while apparel costs rose 0.3%. Medical care commodities fell 0.3%, after rising 0.9% in January.

Core inflation – which strips out food and energy – was up 0.2% in January and 1.6% over the last six months. This indicates that even without the steep drop in energy prices, overall inflation has been muted over the last year.

Holders of TIPS and Series I Savings Bonds are also interested in the non-seasonally adjusted CPI-U, which is used to adjust the principal balance of TIPS and set future interest rates for I Bonds. In January, the inflation index stood at 233.707, a drop of 0.47% from December.

I have updated my Tracking Inflation and I Bonds page with these new numbers.

What this means for TIPS. January’s inflation index of 233.707 sets the TIPS principal adjustments through March 31, 2015. It means that accrued principal balances of all TIPS you own will be declining over the next two months. These balances go up with inflation and decline with deflation.

As an example, take a look at CUSIP 912810QV3, a 30-year TIPS that was issued in February 2012. Let’s say you bought $10,000 of that TIPS at the original auction. On Aug. 31, 2014, its inflation index stood at 1.05474, meaning your principal balance had risen to $10,547.74. But since then, we’ve entered a deflationary period. Today’s inflation index for that TIPS is 1.03981, meaning its balance has fallen to $10,398.10. On March 31, the index will be 1.03444, dropping the accrued balance to $10,344.40.

This TIPS has a coupon rate of 0.750% which it pays on the accrued principal balance. So even your interest earned has been declining during this period of deflation.

Grim news, but rising gasoline prices in February should mark a turn-around to at least moderate inflation this month.

What this means for I Bonds. The same inflation index is used to set the future interest rate paid by I Bonds. The next adjustment in this variable rate comes May 1, based on inflation from September 2014 to March 2015. Here is what has happened so far:

Current inflationIt’s extremely unlikely that inflation in February and March will be enough to turn around a four-month decline of 1.82%. So on May 1, I Bonds are likely to get a sharply negative inflation-adjusted rate, which is added to the I Bond’s fixed rate to determine the composite rate. So I Bonds with a positive fixed rate could see that fixed rate wiped out when the negative inflation-adjusted number is added in. However, the worst possible outcome is that the I Bond pays zero percent interest for six months. The I Bond’s principal balance is unaffected.

Strangely enough, a concentrated period of deflation is a ‘positive’ thing for holders of I Bonds, because the principal balance cannot decline and the composite interest rate can’t fall below zero. So, go ahead, dump a lot of deflation into one six-month period — a bigger negative number is no worse than a tiny negative number. If prices turn around in the next adjustment period, which seems likely, I Bond holders will get a much higher inflation-adjusted interest rate.

TIPS versus I Bonds. When you buy a TIPS at auction, you get a ‘real yield to maturity’ – and that yield will never change. If your yield to maturity was 0.50%, that means you are going to earn 0.5% over inflation. Period. If we see deflation of 1%, your principal balance falls by 1%, you earn your coupon and the result is 0.5% over inflation.

With I Bonds, in a time of 1% deflation, the ‘real’ return is at least 1%, because the I Bond holds its current value, even when it earns zero interest. If deflation hit 5%, the I Bond’s real return would be 5%. See my previous post: TIPS versus I Bonds during deflationary times.

Here is the inflation trend over the last 12 months:

Inflation year

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30-year TIPS auctions with a yield to maturity of 0.842%

A new 30-year Treasury Inflation-Protected Security auctioned today with a coupon rate of 0.750% and a yield to maturity of 0.842%, the Treasury announced.

This is the only 30-year TIPS to be created in 2015, but the Treasury will reopen it in June and October auctions. The real yield (after inflation) of 0.842% was far below last year’s 30-year TIPS, which auctioned on Feb. 20, 2014, with a yield of 1.495% and a coupon rate of 1.375%. Today’s TIPS – CUSIP 912810RL4 – generated the lowest yield for any 29- to 30-year TIPS auction since February 2013.

At creation auctions, the coupon rate of a TIPS is always set to the nearest 1/8% below the yield. That means buyers at today’s auction are getting the TIPS at an adjusted price of $97.33 per $100 of value. The inflation index on this TIPS starts at 0.99756 because of deflation (-0.57%)  back in December when the index was set.

Inflation breakeven rate. With a 30-year nominal Treasury trading today at 2.74%, we get an inflation breakeven rate of 1.89%. That means this new TIPS will outperform a 30-year Treasury if inflation averages more then 1.89% over the next 30 years. A number that low makes this TIPS ‘cheap’ versus a nominal Treasury.

Reaction to the auction. The yield was in line with expectations, and the market seems to be reacting positively in the minutes after the 1 p.m. close of the auction. Here is the 1-day chart for the TIP ETF, which holds a broad range of maturities:

30-year TIPSThe Reuters report on the auction noted ‘heavy investor demand’ for this new TIPS:

“This is the most aggressively bid new issue 30-year TIPS auction since February 2011,” Thomas Simons, money market strategist at Jefferies & Co. wrote in a note about the auction.

“Fund managers, foreign central banks and other indirect bidders bought 69.04 percent of the latest 30-year TIPS supply. This was their largest share at a 30-year TIPS auction since data were available going back to February 2010, Treasury data showed.”

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