Strange things are happening in markets, but one development that I have seen little comment on is what is happening in the US treasury market. The Treasury has been issuing traditional bonds (where the coupon is set at the time of the issue) and inflation-indexed bonds (where a real return of return is guaranteed at the time of the issue) for more than a decade now. On September 12, 2008, the nominal 10-year treasury bond rate was about 3.8% and the interest rate on the inflation-indexed treasury was about 1.7%. In fact, the difference can be viewed as a market expectation of inflation over the 10 years (about 2.1% a year). Those numbers had been stable for years before.
For the first 10 days of the crisis, the relationship held, with the 10-year nominal and real rates staying relatively unchanged. About 2 weeks ago, the ten-year real rate started rising even though the nominal rate remained unchanged. On Friday, the nominal 1o-year rate was 3.9% (about 0.1% higher than it was at the start of the crisis) but the real rate had rised to 3%. I have attempted the following explanations but none hold up:
1. The real interest rate has risen because savers are more worried about investing in any type of financial asset. (Counter: If this is the case, why has the nominal rate also not risen)
2. Expected inflation has decreased because the economy has slowed. (Counter: If this is the case, both the nominal and real rates should have come down. It is also hard for me to believe that all these obligations taken on by the Federal government will not translate into higher inflation, not lower.)
The only explanation that I can think off is that investors who traditionally hold the inflation-indexed treasuries are selling them for liquidity reasons. If that is the case, we should expect a bounce back in the real interest rate to more conventional levels (about 1.5-2%), which would make inflation-indexed treasuries a great investment. The next few weeks should tell.