Matt Hornbach: Getting Real on Yields for TIPS

Despite two good years for Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, a dramatic rise in real yields may be cause for investors to reexamine their potential for 2022.

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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Matthew Hornbach, Global Head of Macro Strategy for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about global macro trends and how investors can interpret these trends for rates and currency markets. It's Thursday, January 27th at noon in New York.


Today, I want to talk about the Treasury market, and I want to get real. Yields on Treasury notes and bonds have risen dramatically to start the year, but real yields have risen more. What are "real yields"? Let me start by assuring you that yields on regular Treasury notes and bonds aren't fake. They are very real, but not in the same way as yields on Treasury inflation-protected securities.


Those inflation-protected bonds, known as TIPS, offer investors an inflation-adjusted yield. You can think about an inflation-adjusted yield as having two parts. The first part is a yield without an inflation adjustment. That's what we call the real yield. And the second part is a yield that adjusts for inflation. So, if the rate of inflation is positive, you get more than just the real yield.


Last year, a lot of investors bought TIPS because inflation was high and rising. The news media covered the topic of inflation like never before in my career. So, buying a security that offered inflation protection would have made sense last year. Consumer prices rose 7% over the year, and the TIPS index returned almost 6%. So that investment strategy worked out.


But, did you know that TIPS returned almost 11% in 2020, when consumer prices only rose 1.4%? That's right. TIPS were a much better investment in 2020, when there was less inflation than there was in 2021. How could that be?


Well, remember the real yield that TIPS offer investors? That yield can be a very important contributor to the total return of TIPS. And, at times, it can be even more important than the yield that adjusts for inflation.


Over the past couple of years, the real yields that TIPS have offered investors have been negative. So, imagine if there hadn't been any inflation over these past two years. An investment in TIPS might have been a bad one because investors would have been left with nothing but a negative yielding bond.


Of course, the yield on a bond is just one factor in driving the total return that investors receive. The other is capital gain - or loss. And the change in yields over time drive capital gains or losses. If bond yields fall, bond prices rise and that improves total returns. But if bond yields rise, well, falling prices hurt total returns.


And the same applies to the real yield on TIPS. Rising real yields hurts the total return of TIPS and can do so even during periods of high inflation, like today. The period since last Thanksgiving is a perfect example: inflation continued to surprise to the upside, but the real yield on 10-year maturity TIPS rose by over half a percentage point. As a result, TIPS delivered a negative total return of 3.5% during this period.


This should be a valuable lesson for TIPS investors. TIPS aren't just about inflation protection, although they do offer more inflation protection than most other bonds. TIPS perform best when inflation is high and rising, and real yields are stable or they're falling. We saw that environment in 2020 and through most of 2021.


But things have started to change. We expect real yields to keep rising this year and our economists expect inflation to fall. That means investors should get less yield that adjusts for inflation while having to cope with capital losses from rising real yields. It would be the worst combination for TIPS performance and stand in quite a contrast to the past two years.


So our advice is to stop thinking about TIPS as just protecting against inflation. Instead, investors should think about how TIPS performance could be impacted by higher real yields. And as the Fed raises interest rates this year, real yields should rise and hurt the performance of TIPS.


Thanks for listening. And if you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcasts app. It helps more people find the show.

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