Images showing logos of the US Treasury department  and the Federal Reserve
The 10-year Treasury note has not held above 1.7% since before the financial market ructions triggered by the coronavirus crisis © Financial Times

US stocks and long-term government bonds fell sharply on Thursday after the Federal Reserve raised its growth and inflation forecasts but stuck to plans to keep short-term interest rates low until at least 2024.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite closed the day 3 per cent lower, its worst day in four weeks. The S&P 500 shed 1.5 per cent by the closing bell, falling from its record high on Wednesday.

The stock declines come after the yield on the 10-year Treasury note, a key benchmark for borrowing costs across global financial markets, jumped past another milestone to trade above 1.75 per cent in the morning, up as much as 0.1 percentage points, before retreating to 1.72 per cent. It has not held above 1.7 per cent since January 2020, before the financial market ructions triggered by the coronavirus crisis.

Treasury bonds that mature in 30 years were also under pressure on Thursday, with the yield rising 0.05 percentage points to 2.47 per cent by late-afternoon in New York, the highest level since 2019. Short-term two-year notes were little changed, yielding 0.155 per cent.

Tumult in the bond market has caused volatile moves in high-growth stocks as investors reprice the value of their shares based on changes in interest rate expectations. Investors are also turning away from some of the big growth names as they look instead to companies that are expected to get a boost out of the economic recovery and an end to social curbs.

“Look at how many highs we hit this year,” said Becky Wood, chief executive at Fund Evaluation Group. “A pullback . . . in growth stocks, especially given the long tenure they’ve had of being on the bull side of the market — it just seems like a natural rotation.”

US oil prices also suffered their biggest one-day fall in six months after signs of weakening demand in China and America. West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, closed down 7.1 per cent at $60 a barrel.

The Fed late on Wednesday increased its median projection for growth and inflation in the world’s biggest economy, anticipating that US president Joe Biden’s $1.9tn economic stimulus and a swift rollout of Covid-19 vaccines will boost the outlook.

The Fed maintained a dovish stance at the end of the two-day meeting of its top policymakers, noting the improving outlook while cautioning that a full recovery remained distant and the economy still required ultra-easy monetary policy.

“While we welcome these positive developments, no one should be complacent,” Jay Powell, the Fed chair, said during a post-meeting press conference. “At the Fed, we will continue to provide the economy the support that it needs for as long as it takes.” 

Line chart of % showing US 10-year Treasury yield jumps to highest level in more than a year

More members of the Federal Open Market Committee indicated that they expected a rate rise in 2022 or 2023 than had done so at a December meeting, but the median expectation was still for no increase to the federal funds rate until at least 2024.

The combination of more robust inflation, which erodes the appeal of the fixed-income payments that bonds provide, with low short-term interest rates was seen by some analysts and investors as negative for medium- and long-term bonds that are more sensitive to the broader economic outlook.

“We believe there is room for Treasury yields to rise further,” said Jay Barry, managing director of interest rate strategy at JPMorgan, following the meeting. He said bonds of medium-length duration were particularly vulnerable.

The upgrades to the forecasts from Fed officials were significant. Predictions for growth this year were bumped up to 6.5 per cent, from a December estimate of 4.2 per cent, which would be the fastest economic expansion since 1984. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is now forecast to fall to 4.5 per cent by the end of the year instead of 5 per cent.

Core personal consumption expenditure inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure, is expected to rise to 2.2 per cent and above the central bank’s 2 per cent target, compared with the smaller rise to 1.8 per cent forecast in December.

Column chart of quarterly total returns (%) showing long-term US government bonds in historic sell-off

US government bonds have been under strong selling pressure so far this year. The 10-year benchmark yield began 2021 at about 0.9 per cent.

Long-term Treasuries, those that mature in 10 years or longer, have dropped more than 14 per cent in price since the start of 2021 as of Wednesday’s close. If the fall is sustained through the end of the month, it would mark the worst quarter on record stretching back to the late 1980s, according to a Bloomberg Barclays index.

Zhiwei Ren, portfolio manager at Penn Mutual Asset Management, said he expected a further increase in long-term rates over short-term ones. “Everyone knows the economy is doing better. That pressure has to go somewhere.”

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