It was a two-week trading period like few had ever seen in the $24 trillion Treasury market.
In a span of roughly nine trading sessions between March 7 and 17, the yield on 2-year Treasury notes — a gauge of where U.S. central bankers are most likely to take interest rates over the next two years — sank a full percentage point to 3.85% from an almost 16-year closing high above 5%, with wide swings in both directions on the way down.
The 2-year yield’s yearlong upward trajectory made a sudden and dramatic descent, as investors swung from a view that interest rates would remain higher for longer to a scenario in which the Federal Reserve might need to cut borrowing costs to avert a deep recession and repeated bank failures. The wild swing in sentiment turned the 2-year Treasury rate TMUBMUSD02Y, 4.182% into a roller-coaster ride and made it the most exciting space to watch in the traditionally staid government-debt market.
For traders like David Petrosinelli of InspereX in New York, a 25-year veteran of markets, March’s daily volatility was akin to “getting on an elevator with no buttons,” he said. He recalls telling people at his firm, who were worried about the positions they held at the time, that “a lot of this is a knee-jerk reaction to the unknown” — even if it felt both “eerily reminiscent” of rates volatility seen ahead of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and “distinctly different’’ because it was driven by rapidly changing market expectations for the Fed and contained within the U.S. regional-banking system.
Read: What ‘unprecedented’ volatility in the $24 trillion Treasury market looks like
For more than a decade, there wasn’t much to say about the 2-year Treasury yield because the U.S. was mired in mostly low interest rates and “no one knew how to trade it,” according to Petrosinelli, 54, who began his career in the late 1990s as a as a portfolio manager focused on asset-backed and residential mortgage-backed securities. It was an overlooked rate in a sleepy corner of the market and nobody paid it much attention. That changed beginning in 2022, when monetary policy makers finally undertook the most aggressive rate-hike campaign in four decades to combat inflation — reinforcing the 2-year yield’s role as the best proxy for where the market thinks interest rates will end up. The 2-year yield rocketed to above 5% in early March from 0.15% in April 2021.
Suddenly, the 2-year Treasury became the most watched financial indicator on Wall Street, influencing the trajectories of stocks and the U.S. dollar throughout much of 2022. “This thing is relentless,” declared market commentator Jim Cramer on CNBC last year. He told viewers he was buying 2-year notes, not meme stocks. “The run to 4 is probably the most punishing one I can recall for the 2-year.” Other prominent names like Mohamed El-Erian, the former chief executive of PIMCO, and Jeffrey Gundlach, founder of DoubleLine Capital, wanted to talk about it. “If you want to know what’s going to happen in the year, follow the 2-year yield at this point,” El-Erian said on CNBC. “That’s the market indicator that has the most information.” More hedge funds and macro private-equity firms jumped on board and started trading it, said InspereX’s Petrosinelli. And head trader John Farawell of Roosevelt & Cross in New York, said family and friends who never showed much interest in fixed income before began regularly asking him if it was the right time to buy the 2-year Treasury note.
“Once we started to hit 4% on the 2-year yield last September for the first time since 2007, everyone got interested,” said Farawell, 66, a trader for the past 41 years. He estimates that interest in the 2-year yield among his firm’s clients has gone up about 30% in the past 12 months. “We have seen retail customers suddenly saying they want to put their money to work in the 2-year note because of an interest rate that we have not seen in years.”
From his office in Midtown Manhattan, Nicholas Colas noticed an abrupt and unexpected shift over the past year and it had to do with the 2-year Treasury. As the co-founder of DataTrek Research, a Wall Street research firm, Colas realized that the 2-year Treasury yield was influencing trading in the stock market. When the 2-year Treasury yield shot higher in 2022, the equity market would become volatile and often drop. In fact, the 2-year Treasury seemed to influence equity-market volatility in both directions. Whenever the 2-year yield briefly stabilized, Colas said, stocks tended to rally since equity investors took the stabilization in the 2-year rate to mean that Fed policy was “no longer as much of a wild card.”
To Colas, equity markets appeared to be taking any selloff in the 2-year note, and thus a rise in its corresponding yield, as a sign that the Fed would have to increase interest rates by more than expected and keep them higher for longer. With stocks and U.S. government debt both getting trounced regularly in last year’s selloffs, Colas said his first thought was that “all of a sudden, Treasurys were no longer a safe haven — something that has rarely happened since I started my career in 1983.”
Trading in government debt, like elsewhere in financial markets, is a two-way street of buyers and sellers. When yields are moving higher, that means the price of the corresponding Treasury security is dropping — and vice versa. The 2-year Treasury note pays out a fixed interest rate every six months until it matures. The trick to trading it, as opposed to buying and holding, is to either sell it before its underlying value gets destroyed by higher interest rates, or to buy it before the Fed starts cutting rates — which would, theoretically, produce a lower yield and make the government note more expensive.
Throughout the yield’s march higher, investors sold off the underlying 2-year note — a move which diminished the note’s value for existing holders like banks, pension funds, credit unions, foreign central banks, and U.S. corporations. Two-year Treasury notes also constitute about 1% to 2% of the total holdings at the 10 largest actively managed money-market funds, according to Ben Emons, senior portfolio manager and head of fixed income at NewEdge Wealth in New York.
“Policy expectations are what really drive the 2-year yield,” said Thomas Simons, a U.S. economist at Jefferies, one of the two dozen primary dealers that serve as trading counterparties of the Fed’s New York branch and help to implement monetary policy. “We had a major paradigm shift in terms of what investors’ expectations were for the sustainability of higher inflation and what the Fed would do in response. The impact on markets has been far less appetite for risk than there otherwise would be,” with stocks putting in a dismal performance in 2022, though generating somewhat better 2023 returns.
Tucked into the note’s selloff, though, was plenty of interest from prospective government-debt buyers, which helped temper the magnitude of the 2-year yield’s rise once the rate got to 4%. Many looking to buy were individual investors hoping to benefit from higher yields and to diversify away from stocks, said traders like Tom di Galoma, a managing director for financial services firm BTIG.
Historically, banks, mutual funds, hedge funds, foreign investors and even the Fed have been the biggest buyers of Treasurys across the board; some of those players, particularly foreign central banks and money-market mutual funds, are mandated to buy and hold government debt. All two dozen primary dealers are involved as market makers for the 2-year security, stepping in to buy it in the absence of either direct or indirect buyers.
The 2-year note remains a reliable source of funding for the U.S. government, given the consistent demand for the maturity, which enables the U.S. Treasury Department to “raise a lot of cash quickly, if needed,” said Simons of Jefferies. In 2020, for example, when the government authorized $2.4 trillion in Covid-related spending and relief programs, the amount of 2-year notes sold at auction was one of the biggest of any maturity — far exceeding the 10- and 30-year counterparts — “because it had the capacity to handle that.’’
Currently, the Treasury has $1.421 trillion in total outstanding 2-year notes, representing about 13% of all the debt issued out to 10 years, according to Treasurydirect.gov. The most recent 2-year note auction in March was for $42 billion — more than the 10-year note sale.
Fallout from the banking sector and worries about a potential recession altered the trajectory of the 2-year starting in March, triggering concerns that the Fed’s rate-hike cycle had gone too far. Fresh buyers poured into the 2-year space and pushed the yield below 4% — driven by the view that rates weren’t likely to go much higher from here and that policy makers might cut them by year-end.
Substantial downside volatility in the 2-year Treasury yield has actually helped to stabilize stock prices this year, in Colas’ estimation, because it’s been interpreted as the bond market’s sign that the Fed is approaching the end of its rate-hiking cycle. Like InspereX’s Petrosinelli, Colas says he had visions of the 2007-2008 financial crisis during March’s flight-to-quality trade, which occurred amid regional bank failures and “significantly more stress than the market was expecting.”
As of Thursday morning, the 2-year rate was at 4.17%, below the Fed’s benchmark interest-rate target range — implying that traders still believe policy makers will follow through with rate cuts. That’s a turnabout from the thinking that prevailed over most of 2022 through early last month, when the 2-year rate had been on an aggressive march toward 5% as the Fed continued to hike rates to combat inflation.
Meanwhile, poor liquidity continues to plague the Treasury market broadly, based on Bloomberg’s U.S. Government Securities Liquidity Index, which measures prevailing conditions. According to the New York Fed, the Treasury market was relatively illiquid throughout last year — making it more difficult to trade. As a result, there was a widening in the bid-ask spread — or difference between the highest price a buyer is willing to pay versus the lowest price a seller is willing to accept — of the 2-year note relative to its average.
“The volatility we’re seeing in the 2-year, we think, is largely a function of uncertain Fed rate hiking expectations coupled with poor liquidity,” said Lawrence Gillum, the Charlotte, N.C.-based chief fixed income strategist at LPL Financial.
“The 2-year is the most sensitive to changing policy expectations and since this Fed is ‘data dependent,’ any and all new data that could potentially change the inflation/economic growth narrative has increased volatility substantially,” Gillum said in an email. “As the Fed’s rate hiking campaign comes to an end (we think there is one more hike and then they’ll be done), we would expect the volatility to decline. Moreover, the Treasury and Fed are looking at ways to improve liquidity, but so far nothing has happened. Hopefully, they will do something, though, since the Treasury market is arguably the most important market in the world.”
At InspereX, Petrosinelli regards the 2-year note as an “anchor” to any short-term portfolio, and says that “it’s not a bad place for investors to hide out for at least a year.’’ That’s because even if the yield does come down, “investors wouldn’t be getting too hurt price-wise,” he said. “We think the Fed will leave rates elevated for some time.”
However, the 2-year could continue to dip below the fed-funds rate on soft economic data, especially related to consumption, later this year, Petrosinelli said. In order for the 2-year rate to go above the Fed’s main interest-rate target — now between 4.75% and 5% — “people would have to think the Fed is behind the curve again on inflation.”
For Farawell of Roosevelt & Cross, which was founded in 1946 and is one of Wall Street’s oldest independently owned municipal-bond underwriters, the 2-year note “has become such an attractive asset class for us’’ that “you almost can’t go wrong with putting money in it.” Friends and family “ask me about this 2-year and say, ‘It sounds good.’ I say, ‘It’s a great rate, you should buy it — until the Fed starts to change course.’”
This article was originally published by Marketwatch.com. Read the original article here.