(Bloomberg) -- If you agreed with all the academics, billionaires and politicians who denounced Federal Reserve monetary policy since the financial crisis, you missed $1 trillion of investment returns from buying and holding U.S. Treasuries.
Thats how much the government bonds have earned for investors since the end of 2008, when the Fed dropped interest rates close to zero and embarked on the first of three rounds of debt purchases to resuscitate an economy crippled by the worst recession since the Great Depression.
The resilience of Treasuries represents a rebuke to the chorus of skeptics from Stanford Universitys John Taylor to billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who predicted the Feds unprecedented stimulus would lead to runaway inflation and spell doom for the bond market. It also suggests investors see few signs the five- year-old expansion will produce the kind of price pressures that would compel Fed Chair Janet Yellen to side with the central banks hawkish officials as they consider when to raise rates.
The doves continue to have the upper hand, Scott Minerd, who oversees $210 billion as the global chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners, said in a telephone interview on Sept. 4 from New York. There is a bias in the market that interest rates need to be higher. But that just isnt based on sound analysis. Betting against the consensus on Treasuries has been a winning strategy.
Minerd is buying Treasuries due in 10 years or more, which typically appreciate when inflation expectations weaken.
Since the end of 2008, interest-bearing Treasuries of all maturities have returned 14.6%, index data compiled by Bank of America Merrill Lynch show. Thats equal to $1 trillion in price gains and interest from the securities over that span.
This year alone, longer-dated U.S. bonds have rallied 14.2%, beating the 10.2% return for the Standard & Poors 500 Index of American stocks. They have almost tripled the gain in gold, which some investors buy to preserve wealth when they foresee rising costs eroding the dollars value.
While the Feds most-aggressive measures in its 100-year history helped to restore the worlds largest economy and reduced joblessness from a peak of 10%, the stimulus has yet to generate the price pressures that some have warned about since the central bank began quantitative easing in 2008.
On Nov. 15, 2010, after then-Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke announced a second round of bond buying in that became known as QE2, a group of economists, investors and political strategists published a letter to him saying it would risk currency debasement and inflation and do little to promote jobs growth.
Stanfords Taylor, a former Treasury Department official best known of his interest-rate formula known as the Taylor Rule, and Singer, who runs the New York-based hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., were among the 23 signees.
Also signing were Niall Ferguson, the Harvard University historian and author of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World; Seth Klarman, who runs the Boston-based hedge fund Baupost Group and wrote the preface to the sixth edition of Security Analysis, the landmark 1934 book by Benjamin Graham on value investing; economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office; and Jim Chanos, the founder of the short-selling firm Kynikos Associates LP, who rose to fame betting against Enron Corp.
Taylor wrote in an e-mail that he wasnt immediately available for comment while traveling in Hong Kong.
Singer, who declined to comment on the Feds policies through spokesman Michael OLooney, said in his firms July investor letter that substantial inflation is occurring in areas the Fed hasnt recognized or captured in its analysis.
Neither Ferguson, Klarman, Holtz-Eakin nor Chanos could be immediately reached by telephone or e-mail for comment.
Top Republicans in Congress including Boehner weighed in on Nov. 17 with their own letter to Bernanke, which questioned the need for more stimulus after the Feds first round of bond buying pumped $1.7 trillion into the economy and expressed concern any additional purchases could result in hard-to- control, long-term inflation.
The Fed was also criticized abroad, with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble calling the stimulus clueless that same month. Boehner and Schaeuble didnt immediately respond to telephone or e-mail requests for comment.
Although inflation based on the Feds preferred measure more than doubled to 2.9% within the year after QE2 was announced, consumer-price gains has since eased and risen less than the central banks 2% target for 27 straight months.
The slowdown in cost-of-living increases upended billionaire John Paulson, who began amassing gold in 2009 in anticipation the Feds extraordinary debt purchases would cause very high rates of inflation.
While Paulson & Co., his New York-based hedge fund, made $15 billion in 2007 betting on the collapse of the U.S. housing market, Paulson told clients in November that he personally wouldnt invest more money in gold as the bullion suffered its biggest annual loss in three decades last year. Paulson couldnt be immediately reached by telephone or e-mail for comment.
The market has learned the lesson that if the Fed wants to keep rates low, it has the tools to do so, Tanweer Akram, a senior economist at Voya Investment Management, which oversees $213 billion, said in a Sept. 3 telephone interview from Atlanta. And its done it without sparking inflation.
Now, as the Fed moves to end its latest round of bond buying and considers increasing rates, the debate over the pace of tightening has never been more important.
One of the biggest reasons bond investors are so confident that the Fed wont need to move aggressively to boost rates and trigger a bond-market selloff is because sustained improvement in the U.S. labor market remains elusive.
Employers added just 142,000 jobs last month, according to a Labor Department report, the fewest this year and below even the most pessimistic estimate in a Bloomberg survey. The latest payrolls data halted a six-month streak of employment gains surpassing 200,000, which was the most since 1997.
On an annual basis, growth in hourly earnings in the past five years has been the weakest over the course of any expansion since at least the 1960s, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Without more jobs and higher wages, theres little chance Americans will spend enough to spur faster inflation. Based on bond trading, investors anticipate living expenses to increase an average 1.85% over the next five years, in line with the mean since 2009. As recently as March last year, inflation expectations were as high as 2.42%.
Less inflation makes fixed income more attractive and means investors can earn more in real terms even as yields fall. Demand for 10-year Treasuries has pushed yields down more than a half-percentage point in 2014 to 2.44% as of 7:24 a.m. in New York.
Inflation is in check, Dan Heckman, a senior fixed- income strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, which oversees $120 billion, said by phone from Kansas City, Missouri, on Sept. 3. Thats helping keep a cap on Treasuries.
While inflation hasnt yet emerged as a problem, investors need to be more vigilant of the possibility the Fed is getting it all wrong, according to John Brynjolfsson, the chief investment officer at Irvine, California-based hedge fund Armored Wolf, which manages $670 million.
Given the magnitude of the easing, there is a lot of kindling to catch fire when inflation arises and the Fed is more likely to be behind the curve in fighting it, Brynjolfsson, who ran Pacific Investment Management Co.s first inflation- linked fund, said by telephone Sept. 5. Buying Treasuries is like picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.
Even as hiring in the U.S. slowed last month, reports from manufacturing to auto sales and construction all suggest the economy is gaining momentum. Economists anticipate 3% growth next year, which would be the fastest in a decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Stan Druckenmiller, the hedge-fund manager with one of the best track records in the past three decades, said in July the Feds policy of keeping rates near zero for so long is baffling and risky while the odds are high its monetary experiment will be more disruptive down the road than the Fed anticipates.
Some Fed officials have started to reassess their own views on how long the target rate needs to stay between zero and 0.25%. Minutes of the central banks July meeting released on Aug. 20 showed many participants said the Fed might raise borrowing costs sooner than they had expected.
Last month, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said waiting too long to increase rates risks spurring inflation.
While Yellen faces more pressure within the Fed after Plosser dissented at the central banks latest meeting, the bond market is still signaling that policy makers wont need to boost rates much before stopping.
Traders anticipate the benchmark rate will rise to 0.7% by the end of next year, less than the median estimate of 1.13% from Fed officials. Meanwhile, the one-year interest-rate swap traded five years forward, a proxy for where rates may peak, fell to 3.17%.
That compares with 4.24% at the start of 2014, which was close to the historical average for peak interest rates that New York Fed President William Dudley said would be consistent with the central banks current target for inflation.
We arent seeing the type of growth that will spur inflation, Guy Lebas, the Philadelphia-based chief fixed- income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott , which oversees $61 billion, said by telephone on Sept. 3. The smoke tendrils of inflation that have popped up from time to time have turned out to be a false alarm.
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