Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Nov 8, 2023

Are the Worst Bond Returns Behind Us?

With Michael Zezas
U.S. Public Policy Research for Investors


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Michael Zezas, Global Head of Fixed Income and Thematic Research for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the impact of U.S. fiscal policy on markets. It's Wednesday, November 8th at 10 p.m. in New York.

As Congress gets back to work on funding the government and avoiding a government shutdown, investors' attention has turned back to public finances. In particular, as bond markets sold off much of the year, a common theory posited by clients to our team was that U.S. fiscal policy was to blame. Expanding deficits meant higher supply and could also mean higher inflation, growth and ultimately a higher peak Fed funds rate.

But upon closer examination, maybe the U.S. fiscal trajectory isn't as challenging as feared, and the bond market may be finally noticing. Treasuries have rallied in the past week. Which makes sense to us as our assessment is that U.S. fiscal expansion at all levels has either peaked or is near its peak.

Consider that the federal deficit this year rose largely based on lower revenues driven by factors that are unlikely to repeat. For example, Fed remittances zeroed out, and there's about $85 billion of deferred collection of tax revenue due to natural disasters. Together with other factors, we think this year's nearly 1% growth in deficits as a percentage of GDP will be followed next year by a decline of about 0.2%. Further downside is possible if a spending sequester kicks in, in April.

Also, consider that major deficit expansion isn't likely to be on Congress's agenda. Between now and the 2024 election, there's little reason to expect deficit expanding bills beyond the current baseline. Government control is divided, and history shows that makeup rarely does fiscal expansion unless it's responding to an economic crisis. After Election Day, Republicans and Democrats do have deficit additive policies they say they want to pursue, but the numbers are relatively modest. Republicans' plan to extend parts of prior tax cuts would add about 0.3% to deficits as a percentage of GDP in the first year, and we estimate the consensus tax and spending plans of Democrats would add about 0.1%, both manageable numbers.

Also worth noting is that state and local governments seem near their peak fiscal expansion. Their recent expansion appears tied to spending of prior COVID aid, which is quickly depleting, as well as hiring, which is nearly back to pre-COVID levels.

So bottom line, if you're concerned about Treasury yields resuming their upward trend, look elsewhere for a catalyst. Consumption would be the most likely culprit but at the moment, our economists are still seeing downside there in the near term. This gives us confidence that the worst of U.S. government bond returns is probably behind us for this cycle.

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The recent treasury rally signals that perhaps the U.S. fiscal trajectory isn't as challenging as bond investors had feared.

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