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WALL STREET, CALIFORNIA | A Rates Fixation

Bond Rally Sends Yields Tumbling; Dow Inches Up 13

January 06, 1998|TOM PETRUNO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buyers rushed to lock in yields on bonds on Monday, sending long-term yields to their lowest levels in at least 20 years, as sinking commodity prices and a deflation warning from Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan suggested that even lower interest rates might be ahead.

Another plunge in Asian currencies and stock markets overnight also set the tone for heavy buying of U.S. Treasuries, in a continuing "flight to quality," analysts said.

The yield on the 30-year U.S. Treasury bond, a benchmark for long-term interest rates, tumbled from 5.82% on Friday to 5.73% on Monday--eclipsing the previous 1990s low of 5.77% set in October 1993 and marking the lowest yield since the government began regularly issuing 30-year securities in 1977.

Yields on shorter-term securities also slumped amid a buying wave that many analysts believe won't ebb soon.

"I don't know if you'd call it a buying panic, but clearly there is a real rush here" into fixed-rate securities, said John Queen, bond portfolio manager at Hotchkis & Wiley in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the stock market ended mostly higher, although some traders said the market wasn't quite sure what to make of bonds' huge rally. Although lower interest rates usually help support stock prices, the threat of deflation--which could mean deflating corporate profits as well as falling prices for goods and services--is a concern for Wall Street's bulls.

The Dow Jones industrial average inched up 13.95 points to 7,978.99.

Worries about the potential for deflation, or widespread declines in prices in the economy, have been mounting since Asia's economic crisis erupted late last summer. With their currencies sharply devalued, exports from many Asian nations have become dramatically cheaper for American buyers.

While that is good news for consumers, some economists believe that cheaper exports could set off a wave of competitive price cuts, threatening many companies' earnings. What's more, slower economic growth in Asia overall is expected to slow global growth, raising the risk of more widespread price-cutting as companies fight for sales.

Greenspan, in a speech on Saturday to the American Economics Assn., did not predict that such a deflation wave is imminent. But he spent much of the speech warning of the perils of deflation--not so much in prices of goods or services, but in prices of assets, such as stocks and real estate, which could be dragged down in advance of, or in tandem with, weakness in the economy.

The tone of the speech convinced many bond investors that Greenspan, who has spent most of his career worrying about taming inflation, now is concerned that the greater risk might be deflation in one form or another.

And because the Fed would have just one potential weapon to battle deflation--lower interest rates, which would stimulate economic activity--the bond market on Monday saw Greenspan's comments as a hint that the central bank may soon cut its benchmark short-term rate, now 5.5%.

That, in turn, could allow longer-term rates to fall much further.

"I think the Fed is now poised for an easing" of credit, said Scott Grannis, economist at Western Asset Management in Pasadena.

In fact, yields on Treasury notes of five years' term and less are already trading below the federal funds rate. The 5-year T-note yield slid to 5.46% on Monday from 5.61% on Friday.

That suggests investors are already building a Fed rate cut into their assumptions.

Other analysts, however, believe it's more likely that the Fed will merely sit tight, keeping short rates at current levels.

In any case, "It's clear that the Fed is not going to do anything" to push interest rates up soon, said William Griggs at financial consulting firm Griggs & Santow in New York.

The bond market's current rally, which has been gaining steam since summer, also is being fueled by other factors, experts say:

* Key commodity prices continue to decline, putting further downward pressure on the already low U.S. inflation rate. On Monday crude oil futures sank 54 cents to $16.89 a barrel, the lowest close in more than two years, as warm weather in the Northeast suggested energy demand will be far below expectations this winter.

Gold, the classic inflation hedge, fell again on Monday, with near-term futures losing $6.70 to $282 an ounce--an 18-year low.

Even without actual deflation in broad price gauges such as the consumer price index, a minuscule rise in inflation means that real bond returns--that is, after-inflation returns--are historically high, analysts note.

At 5.73%, the real yield on the 30-year T-bond is 3.9%, subtracting the 1.8% rise in the consumer price index over the past year. Historically real yields have been more in the range of 2% to 3%.

"If there's no inflation, 4% to 5% [bond yields] would clearly be good yields" when measured historically, said Hotchkis & Wiley's Queen.

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