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Markets are complex. They aggregate millions of individual decisions, each responding to an economic environment that is wickedly complicated. People, by contrast, seek simplicity. We search for patterns, and insist that life is made up of stories with beginnings, middles and ends. We often see patterns that are not even there.


At the moment, there is an extremely simple, compelling and popular narrative about the US bond market. It goes something like this:


In 2017 we had a year of synchronised global economic growth, and the US followed the global pattern. This year, the US economy will be further stimulated by a large, deficit-funded tax cut. Unemployment is already low. Before much longer, therefore, wage growth will awaken from its long slumber. Inflation expectations and, in turn, actual inflation will follow. This will keep the Federal Reserve wedded to its plan of raising rates three times this year. At the same time, the Fed will continue to reduce its bond holdings, unwinding the quantitative easing programme. Resurgent inflation, higher short rates and less government purchasing of long bonds will end the longest-standing cyclical trend in finance: the 37-year bull market in bonds.


There are good reasons to believe this story. The simplest is that yields are, in fact, rising: the 10-year Treasury, at just under 2.6 per cent, is up 50 basis points since September and more than 100 basis points since the mid-2016 bottom. The jittery expectation of higher yields (which is to say, lower bond prices) was evident on Wednesday, when yields bounced, apparently in response to speculation that China planned to limit its purchases of US debt (the speculation turned out to have little grounding in fact).


Companies are brimming with optimism, according to surveys. When the tax cut was passed various companies, including AT&T and Walmart, announced plans to pass the largesse on to workers in the form of higher wages or bonuses. Meanwhile, some of the biggest names in bond management are publicly stating the good times are over.


Any story this tidy and this popular should be doubted on principle. Its ubiquity is evidence that it has taken on a life of its own. Let us, then, rehearse some of the reasons it might fall to pieces in the year ahead. The most obvious point is that wage inflation may stay in its coma. After the way unemployment and inflation have come apart in recent years, to continue to insist that we have a firm understanding of their relationship would be arrogance. There may, for example, be more slack left in the economy than it appears, keeping inflation tame even if demand gets a kick.


Next, it may be that even as QE unwinds, ageing demographics and the attendant glut of savings will keep long rates very low. It is worth noting in this context that in real terms, the US is an outlier. Its interest rates are higher than almost everywhere else in the developed world.


Finally, US growth may simply disappoint — either because policymakers tighten rates too quickly or for some other reason. There was lively debate about the size of the stimulative effect the tax cut would have on the real economy. That debate has not been resolved simply because the growth prospects look good now, before the cuts have even come through.


Economic narratives have real economic effects. Widespread belief that inflation is inevitable makes inflation more likely. Still, the history of economic forecasting encourages modesty and, in the bond market, a simple story is never the whole story.


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