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Suprise: Low interest rates seen sticking around

Interest rates have recently being going somewhere unexpected: down.

At their trough last week, the yields on 10-year U.S. Treasuries, the benchmark North American rate, touched 3.11 per cent, the lowest level in six months and more than half a percentage point below their February peak.

Yields on 10-year Government of Canada bonds have fallen, too, and are now virtually identical to their U.S. counterparts.

The sliding rates have surprised many market watchers. With the United States government bumping up against its debt ceiling, inflation ticking upward, and a growing debt crisis in Europe, most expected interest rates to be increasing.

While predicting the future for rates is notoriously difficult, some observers believe that the current low-rate environment may continue for a while. If so, it will mean pain for savers, but good news for borrowers.

A drop in interest rates is equivalent to a sale on the price of money, and corporations are already rushing to take advantage of the easy lending conditions, even if they’re in no immediate need of funds. A case in point is Google Inc., which has $37-billion (U.S.) in cash and marketable securities on its balance sheet, but raised $3-billion from a bond issue last week anyway. Mortgage rates have fallen, too – good news for homeowners looking to refinance.

But lower rates have not turned out so well for some of the market’s savviest players, including Bill Gross, the founder of Pimco, the world’s biggest bond fund. Earlier this year, he sold his U.S. Treasuries, because he thought interest rates were poised to rocket higher, which would drive down prices of bonds.

It’s difficult to fault his logic: only a few months ago, the case for higher interest rates seemed so compelling.

Governments around the world are carrying bloated deficits and massive borrowing needs. In the United States, politicians have yet to agree on any clear path to deficit reduction, despite more than $1-trillion in annual red ink. Meanwhile, oil has been trading consistently around the $100-a-barrel level, thereby lifting inflation, another bond-market negative.

And the U.S. Federal Reserve is no longer putting its thumb on the scale. In less than six weeks, it is going to end its program of quantitative easing, under which it is buying $600-billion in Treasuries to goose the economy. Many bond-market followers believe the Fed’s massive buying binge has been propping up Treasury prices and keeping yields artificially low.

So what has been pushing rates lower in recent months?

A weaker-than-expected recovery is the major culprit. “The global economy, and the U.S. economy in particular, is not on quite as solid a recovery track as people were imagining in the very optimistic days of six months or so ago,” observes Peter Buchanan, senior economist at CIBC World Markets.

A slew of recent statistics underlines that weakness, ranging from the poor state of U.S. home sales to the slowing pace of U.S. manufacturing growth. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy, the world’s third-largest, is shrinking and creating a further drag on global commerce, although few foresee a double-dip recession.

“We’re looking ahead toward a bit of a cooling in economic growth,” said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, who foresees output in the U.S. rising about 2 per cent this year.

That level of growth won’t be “anything to celebrate but it’s nothing like the recession we saw previously,” he said.

Another factor driving rates lower has been the early May rout in commodities, which dampened some of the worry on the inflation front. In addition, the recent sluggish performance of the stock market suggests that investors are getting nervous and growing more willing to buy super-safe government bonds.

Mr. Dales believes the current trends have room to run, and that rates will surprise to the downside.

He predicts U.S. 10-year Treasury yields could slip to 2.5 per cent in the low-growth, less inflation-spooked environment he foresees ahead.

If growth continues to be slow, lower rates might be staying around for a while.

Mr. Buchanan says the most likely scenario, given the poorer economic outlook, is for the Fed to hold off on raising rates until 2013. He believes the yield on Treasuries will rise gradually, instead of falling further, getting back to 3.4 per cent by the end of this year and to 4 per cent by the end of 2012.

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