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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Bond War

Paul KrugmanIt's fair to say that 10-year and 30-year Treasury bonds are not subjects that enthrall the American public the way, say, Kate Gosselin does. In the last six months, however, the state of those bonds has become the subject of feverish argument in the economic elite. The interest rate of the 10-year Treasury bond has spiked from 2.07 percent in December 2008, when the world was falling apart, to a recent high of 3.715 percent on June 1—a 79 percent increase. The 30-year bond has risen from 2.5 percent last December to about 4.5 percent today. Now factions led by economist Paul Krugman and historian Niall Ferguson are feuding bitterly about the import of these charts. In late April, Krugman and Ferguson squared off at a New York Review of Books/PEN panel, and they've continued with an op-ed war in the Financial Times and New York Times (Ferguson here and Krugman here).

In a nutshell, Ferguson and his allies believe that the rising bond yields prove that markets are worried about the inflation that will inevitably result from the fiscal policies of the Obama administration and the Fed. Given the large deficits and rising concerns about the viability of Social Security and Medicare, Ferguson writes, "It is hardly surprising, then, that the bond market is quailing. For only on Planet Econ-101 (the standard macroeconomics course drummed into every U.S. undergraduate) could such a tidal wave of debt issuance exert 'no upward pressure on interest rates.' " Ferguson's fears have been echoed by the planet's leading inflation-phobe German Chancellor Angela Merkel and by influential Stanford economist John Taylor. Turn on CNBC, and you're likely to hear talk about bond-market vigilantes, the mass of traders who sell bonds and push interest rates up in order to warn governments not to spend freely.


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