Disbelief is not an investment plan. I have yet to come across a successful investor or trader whose main investment philosophy is solely, “this won’t end well.” We can have all the strong opinions we want, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. Markets don’t care what we think. Markets are going to do what markets are going to do. We cannot bend them to our will. The faster we check our opinions (and pride) at the door and humble ourselves to the all-knowing market forces of supply and demand, the sooner we can begin to profit from objective facts and avoid losses generated by subjective opinions. Over the past few months, a very popular subjective opinion has reached a crescendo: higher rates/yields are all but certain going forward. As usual, this narrative became popular after the objective facts were already in motion. Beginning in July 2016, long bond yields (aka 20+ year U.S. Treasury yields) were rocketing upward as long duration bonds were selling off hard. Only after this move did the media begin touting lower bond prices and higher yields. Prices drive narratives, not the other way around. For example, with a solid bond sell-off already in motion, the financial media informed the investing public that higher yields were all but certain for the foreseeable future. Take a look at their helpful timing below. You can’t make this stuff up.
See how that works? Price first. “News” second. As soon as you realize how this sequential relationship works, the more you’ll be able to filter the “news” you consume. Is there a better way? Absolutely. Study objective facts instead. In other words, study price. It knows more than we do. In this case, the price of bonds knows more than we do. Conversely, yields know more than we do. As a refresher, yields work inversely to bonds. When bond prices rise, their corresponding yields drop.
What does supply and demand for 20+ year Treasuries look like right now? Here’s the weekly chart of TLT, an ETF that does a good job performing similarly to 20+ year Treasuries.
As you can see, after reaching all-time highs in July 2016, bonds began selling off in earnest. Because of the inverse relationship between bonds and their yields, this move caused yields to rise sharply. Only after this took place did financial news pundits begin pounding the table regarding higher yields and the consensus become rates would continue to move higher in 2017.
But after the rapid selloff in bonds, we’ve seen them stabilize sideways for several months. Meanwhile, consensus public opinion is loud: “higher rates during 2017 are a certainty!” This strong opinion has been matched with strong positioning. An especially high amount of investors are shorting long duration bonds. This means they are placing wagers that bond prices will continue to fall. With record short bond positions, this important credit instrument is sitting on upside jet fuel. What do we mean? Basically, if bonds rose enough in price it could trigger a short squeeze, a scenario in which shorts are forced to cover their losing position by buying bonds. This causes a feedback loop in which bond prices rise quickly while short-sellers continually scramble to cover their positions. Here’s the daily chart of TLT:
Three days ago, it broke above an area of supply, which acted as resistance four times before. This breakout is significant and is taking place when most are not expecting it. If this recent breakout requires short sellers to cover their positions, it’s going to throw jet fuel onto the demand fire. Above 122 on TLT, it makes sense to own long duration treasuries. Below that level, we’d be on the wrong side of the trade. The longer demand pushes and holds TLT above 122, the more likely we revisit the gap breakdown near 129.
Right now, chances are, if you asked your financial advisor, banker, friend, grandma, or typical TV pundit, they would all say they’re expecting higher rates going forward. Anecdotally, I have it on good authority during this year’s Market Technician Association’s Symposium in New York, they asked for a show of hands when asked: “do you think rates will be higher at the end of this year?” I was not there but the entire room raised their hand. This room is filled with incredibly smart people. And all of them raised their hand. All. Of. Them. Don’t take what I’m implying here as a slam on the consensus demonstrated or the intellect of those in the room. Rather, I’ll go out of my way to highlight the intellectual horsepower of any one of the individuals in attendance is multiple factors above of my two-cycle excuse for gray matter. These are extremely smart people and their collective opinion is higher yields are on their way. Are they right or are they wrong? I have no idea. It’s not about being right or wrong anyway. It’s about being on the right side of the trade. Price has the final say. Accordingly, we should be watching long duration treasuries with a simple game plan: own TLT above 122 (and watch the corresponding yield drop). Below that, it’s hands off while the rise in yields continues to fuel consensus.
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