Oxymoron: Shrewd Government Refis Credit Card
With the upcoming Federal Reserve policy meetings coming up this Wednesday and Thursday, investors’ eyes remain keenly focused on the actions and words of Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen.
If you have painstakingly filled out an IRS tax return or frustratingly waited in long lines at the DMV or post office, you may not be a huge fan of government services. Investors and liquidity addicted borrowers are also irritated with the idea of the Federal Reserve pulling away the interest rate punch bowl too soon. We will find out early enough whether Yellen will hike the Fed Funds interest rate target to 0.25%, or alternatively, delay a rate increase when there are clearer signs of inflation risks.
Regardless of the Fed decision this week, with interest rates still hovering near generational lows, it is refreshing to see some facets of government making shrewd financial market decisions – for example in the area of debt maturity management. Rather than squeezing out diminishing benefits by borrowing at the shorter end of the yield curve, the U.S. Treasury has been taking advantage of these shockingly low rates by locking in longer debt maturities. As you can see from the chart below, the Treasury has increased the average maturity of its debt by more than 20% from 2010 to 2015. And they’re not done yet. The Treasury’s current plan based on the existing bond issuance trajectory will extend the average bond maturity from 70 months in 2015 to 80 months by the year 2022.
If you were racking up large sums of credit card debt at an 18% interest rate with payments due one month from now, wouldn’t you be relieved if you were given the offer to pay back that same debt a year from now at a more palatable 2% rate? Effectively, that is exactly what the government is opportunistically taking advantage of by extending the maturity of its borrowings.
Most bears fail to acknowledge this positive trend. The typical economic bear argument goes as follows, “Once the Fed pushes interest rates higher, interest payments on government debt will balloon, and government deficits will explode.” That argument definitely holds up some validity as newly issued debt will require higher coupon payments to investors. But at a minimum, the Treasury is mitigating the blow of the sizable government debt currently outstanding by extending the average Treasury maturity (i.e., locking in low interest rates).
It is worth noting that while extending the average maturity of debt by the Treasury is great news for U.S. tax payers (i.e., smaller budget deficits because of lower interest payments), maturity extension is not so great news for bond investors worried about potentially rising interest rates. Effectively, by the Treasury extending bond maturities on the debt owed, the government is creating a larger proportion of “high octane” bonds. By referring to “high octane” bonds, I am highlighting the “duration” dynamic of bonds. All else equal, a lengthening of bond maturities, will increase a bond’s duration. Stated differently, long duration, “high octane” bonds will collapse in price if in interest rates spike higher. The government will be somewhat insulated to that scenario, but not the bond investors buying these longer maturity bonds issued by the Treasury.
All in all, you may not have the greatest opinion about the effectiveness of the IRS, DMV, and/or post office, but regardless of your government views, you should be heartened by the U.S. Treasury’s shrewd and prudent extension of the average debt maturity. Now, all you need to do is extend the maturity and lower the interest rate on your personal credit card debt.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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Entry filed under: Financial Markets, Fixed Income (Bonds), Government, Interest Rates, Themes - Trends. Tags: bond, debt, duration, extend maturity, Federal Funds rate, Federal Reserve, interest rates, Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury.