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By Maulik Mody – Bondsquawk.com

As Treasury rates continue to decline and economic growth slows down, the markets saw the yield on the 5-yr TIPS fall below zero to negative 8 basis points.  So what does a negative yield imply and what is it about TIPS that makes investors buy them even at negative yields? A discussion started by a member of the Bondsquawk community prompted me to write this.

TIPS or Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities are bonds issued by the U.S. Government that provide protection against inflation. Like any bond, it pays a fixed coupon rate but the principal amount is adjusted as per the growth of CPI so that in case of high inflation, the dollar amount of the coupon is in line with inflation, thereby preserving the spending power of the money invested.  At maturity, the bond pays the adjusted principal amount or the original amount, whichever is higher.

The difference between the yield offered by a Treasury and TIPS having the same maturity is an indication of the inflation expectations, also called the breakeven rate. Treasuries are said to offer a nominal rate of interest, which includes real interest rate and inflation expectations, whereas the yield on TIPS is the real interest rate, since it accounts for inflation by adjusting its principal. So what does a negative TIPS yield imply?

The first thing that would come to our minds is deflation. But what it means is exactly the opposite. During deflation, the principal of TIPS would reduce and it would effectively provide lower returns as compared to other securities. In that case, it is better to hold on to the cash rather than buy TIPS. This will cause TIPS prices to fall and its yield to rise. But right now, as Treasury rates are falling on concerns of a shaky recovery, the TIPS yields are falling since inflation expectation remains constant. Because if Treasury yields fell and TIPS yields remain the same, the spread would narrow too much, indicating a bigger problem that’s already on peoples‘ minds right now, viz. deflation.

So now we know that the negative yields are not a result of expectations of deflation but because inflation expectation is more or less constant while real interest rates decrease. Which opens the question that why are investors still buying TIPS with negative yields when inflation expectation is not necessarily high but steady. This requires some introspection of the economy and a very basic understanding of the human nature.

Although the current inflation expectation is not high in absolute terms, it is high considering the economic growth rate. Inflation is good when there is growth, but with no growth (or worse still, negative growth), even a slight inflation can be disastrous. The current negative yield on TIPS is actually suggesting that the economic growth is either close to, or has come to a standstill. When investors cannot make profits, they want to minimize losses. Buying TIPS at a slight negative yield means they are willing to bear a slight loss to maintain spending power. It is like locking in a negative yield of 8 basis points and in exchange preserving the value of their money in an economy seeing slow to no growth and slight inflation.

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