Bond yields are heading south, and there appears to be no stopping them for now.
The benchmark 10-year Treasury note yield, which influences everything from business loans to home mortgages, has been hugging three-year lows and was at 1.45% Wednesday. That's below the 2-year yield of 1.5%, and the move has been signaling recession.
The 30-year Treasury bond yield fell to an all-time low 1.91% Wednesday as yields around the world, which move opposite price, slid to multi-year or record lows. U.S. rates followed a global move lower, with the Japanese 10-year yield falling to a new negative three-year low and the German 10-year bund yield sliding to its own record, minus-0.72%.
"This is one big trade," said Gregory Faranello, head of U.S. rates at Amerivet Securities. "The momentum and trends that are in place right now are pretty steadfast. There's nothing glaring to me that will change the dynamics right now. We're in the latter stages of the summer months. Liquidity is definitely an issue. When you look at it globally right now, it encompasses a lot of different, diverse things. Today we have the headline from the U.K.; you have this ongoing trade war, and this global yield structure just continues to unfold."
Strategists said the bond market has been caught between a number of forces and is now a vortex sucking in investors who have to buy yield, which keep getting lower as bond prices move higher. In the past several days, investors have begun to believe that there's a very good chance the trade wars between the U.S. and China could continue for a very long time, and possibly until after the presidential election.
The global economy is slowing, and increasingly there are warning signs that make it appear Europe could enter a recession. China's slowdown has sent a chill across emerging market economies, which have seen a decline in exports.
Then there is political uncertainty, which got even murkier in the U.K. on Wednesday, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed back the reopening of Parliament until mid-October, limiting the amount of debate time and increasing the chances of a no-deal Brexit. Sterling fell and the 10-year gilt yield dropped to its lowest level in three years.
"The disaster scenario is if yields fall dramatically from here," said Michael Schumacher, director rates at Wells Fargo. "Hypothetically, if the trade situation intensifies, if maybe Hong Kong goes badly and Brexit seems like it results in a hard exit ... then what you probably get is a massive rally again in Treasurys."
"Anyone who is handing you a hard forecast in that scenario is throwing darts," he said. After the 10-year yield broke through the psychologically important 1.50% level Tuesday, Schumacher said investors are looking for the next target on the benchmark note at the record low it reached in the weeks after the U.K. voted for Brexit, or to leave the European Union.
"People seem to be fixated on 1.35%," he said.
For investors, he said a good place to hide might be in very short-term Treasurys. For instance, the 1-month Treasury bill was yielding 2.06%, well above other securities. "Why be a hero?" he said.
Many strategists do not expect U.S. bonds to follow the rest of the world into negative yields, but they concede it could happen. The other side of the falling yield story is that bond yields could quickly snap higher, if for instance there was significant progress in the trade situation. But strategists are skeptical that will happen any time soon.
"Clearly, the trade war is such a big piece of this and it remains so incredibly unpredictable. Most people feel like it's elevated to such an extent that it's highly unlikely to get anywhere," said Ralph Axel, rates strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He said people are wondering why China would sign a long-term deal with President Donald Trump ahead of the election.
Another major factor driving yields lower is the fact that more than $16 trillion in bonds around the world now have negative yields, and the U.S. Treasury market has been a magnet for investors looking for yield, as well as safety.
Axel said he has a 1.25% target on the 10-year, and he also expects the 30-year yield to be at that level by the second quarter of next year.
Faranello said yields move lower because buying forces in more buyers as investors look to lock in yield. The question is will the consumer, who has been holding up the U.S. economy, begin to react to what's scaring markets.
"If you're a U.S. consumer, you see volatility in markets. You don't understand it. They see negative interest rates. You see the inverted yield curve, which consumers don't understand, and there's talk of recession," Faranello said. "This could be self-fulfilling at some point, and the Fed has to keep an eye on it."
Data in the next week could be important since it includes the monthly employment report next Friday and also ISM manufacutring and PMI, two indicators that have been signaling a slowdown in manufacturing
"The yield curve is telling us essentially that we're looking at zero percent GDP growth next year. That's what the front end of the curve would imply. The question is will the yield curve win out or will policy makers be able to support the data enough," Faranello said. "I have no idea how it's going to play out, but there's very incredible fear and focus on a recession."
Central banks around the world have been driving rates down as their economies slow, and the worry is that they are in a race to the bottom as they defend their currencies. Another worry is they don't have the ammunition they once had before the financial crisis since so many embarked on extraordinary easing efforts or already have super low rates. They also failed in the decade since the financial crisis to do much to spark inflation.
The Fed is widely expected to cut rates by a quarter point when it meets on Sept. 17 and 18.
"I think the Fed needs to go 50 [basis points]. The Fed, I think, has to change the tone globally. Heading into September, they need to hit it. They need to hit it 50. They need to change the tone and psychology of the market. Right now, we're in a vice," Faranello said.
Even before the Fed meets, the European Central Bank is meeting on Sept. 12, and it is expected to take action, including its already negative rate and possibly announcing asset purchases.
"We'll see what the ECB does. They have a lot of bad choices," Faranello said. "They're probably going to do several different things but the market is not convinced they have much power to turn the economy around now, and you're going to have to start thinking about fiscal boosts, but that's a sticky process when you have a [political] union. The big issue is central banks globally are just out of bullets, just at the same time tings are moving south...You feel like the central bank puts are less powerful.