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MV Weekly Market Flash: Bond Bull Goes for the Thousand Year Gold

October 27, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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The current bull market in US equities, the pundits tell us, is the second-longest on record. That may sound impressive, given that domestic stock exchange records go back to the late 19th century. But it doesn’t even hold a candle to the accomplishments of the current bull market in bonds. The bond bull started in 1981, when the 10-year US Treasury yield peaked at 15.84 percent on September 30 of that year. It’s still going strong 36 years later, and it’s already one for the record books of the ages.

According to a recent staff working paper by the Bank of England, our bond bull is winning or placing in just about every key measurement category going back to the Genoese and Venetian financial economies of the European Middle Ages. Lowest risk-free benchmark rate ever – gold medal! The 10 year Treasury yield of 1.37 percent on July 5, 2016 is the lowest benchmark reference rate ever recorded (as in ever in the history of money, and people). The intensity of the current bull – measured by the compression from the highest to the lowest yield – is second only to the bond bull of 1441-81 (what, you don’t remember those crazy mid-1400s days in Renaissance Italy??). And if the bull can make it another four years it will grab the silver medal from that ’41 bull in the duration category, second only to the 1605-72 bond bull when Dutch merchant fleets ruled the waves and the bourses.

Tales from the Curve

But does our bull still have the legs, or is the tank running close to empty? That question will be on the minds of every portfolio manager starting the annual ritual of strategic asset allocation for the year ahead. Let’s first of all consider the shape of things, meaning the relative movements of intermediate/long and short term rates.

We’ve talked about this dynamic before, but the spread between the two year and ten year yields is as tight as it has been at any time since the “Greenspan conundrum” of the mid-2000s. That was the time period when the Fed raised rates (causing short term yields to trend up), while the 10-year and other intermediate/long rates stayed pat. It was a “conundrum” because the Fed expected their monetary policy actions would push up rates (albeit at varying degrees) across all maturities. As it turned out, though, the flattening/inverting yield curve meant the same thing it had meant in other environments: the onset of recession.

An investor armed with data of flattening yield curves past could reasonably be concerned about the trend today, with the 10-year bond bull intact while short term rates trend ever higher. However, it would be hard to put together any kind of compelling recession scenario for the near future given all the macro data at hand. The first reading of Q3 GDP, released this morning, comfortably exceeded expectations at 3.0 percent quarter-on-quarter (translating to a somewhat above-trend 2.3 percent year-on-year measure). Employment is healthy, consumer confidence remains perky and most measures of output (supply) and spending (demand) have been in the black for some time. Whatever the narrowing yield curve is telling us, the recession alarms are not flashing orange, let alone red.

Where Thou Goest…

So if not recession, then what? Leave aside for a moment the gentle undulations in the 10-year and focus on the robust rise in the 2-year. There’s no surprise here – the Fed has raised rates four times in the past 22 months, and short term rates have followed suit. Historically, the 2-year yield closely tracks Fed funds, as the chart below shows.

The upper end of the Fed funds target range is currently 1.25 percent, while the 2-year note currently yields 1.63 percent (as of Thursday’s close). What happens going forward depends largely on that one macro variable still tripping up the Fed in its policy deliberations: inflation. We have two more readings of the core PCE (the Fed’s key inflation gauge) before they deliberate at the December FOMC meeting. If the PCE has not moved up much from the current reading of 1.3 percent – even as GDP, employment and other variables continue trending strong – then the odds would be better than not the Fed will stay put. We would expect short term rates, at some point, to settle perhaps a bit down from current levels into renewed “lower for longer” expectations.

But there’s always the chance the Fed will raise rates anyway, simply because it wants to have a more “normalized” Fed funds environment and keep more powder dry for when the next downturn does, inevitably, happen. What then with the 10-year and the fabulous centuries-defying bond bull? There are plenty of factors out there with the potential to impact bond yields other than inflationary expectations. But as long as those expectations are muted – as they currently are – the likelihood of a sudden spike in intermediate rates remains an outlier scenario. It is not our default assumption as we look ahead to next year.

As to what kept the bond bull going for 40 years in the 1400s and for 67 years in the 17th century – well, we were not there, and there is only so much hard data one can tease out of the history books. What would keep it going for at least a little while longer today, though, would likely be a combination of benign growth in output and attendant restraint in wages and consumer prices. Until another obvious growth catalyst comes along to change this scenario, we’ll refrain from writing the obituary on the Great Bond Bull of (19)81.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Market’s Next Big Non-Event

October 20, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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And the band plays on. Some random convergence of factors could conceivably interrupt and reverse today’s upward push in the S&P 500 before the benchmark index ends with its seventh straight record close…but those would likely be bad odds to take. Yesterday was the 30 year anniversary of 1987’s Black Monday, when stocks tanked by more than 20 percent in a single day. Financial pundits, with not much better to do, spent much of the day in college dorm-style bull sessions with each other, speculating about whether 10/19/87 could ever happen again. It certainly didn’t happen yesterday, even though lower overnight futures injected a frisson of excitement into the morning chatter that dissipated as the afternoon yielded a predictable recovery and small gain for share prices.

We feel for those journalists – it’s tough being a financial commentator these days! Nothing ever happens except for the market shrugging off any potentially disruptive event, while displaying brief spasms of ecstasy whenever the subject of tax cuts percolates to the top of the daily news feed. Now the chatter is homing in on what may well be the only remaining story of any note (from the market’s perspective) before the end of the year: the identity of the new Fed chair when Janet Yellen’s term ends next January. A decision is supposedly forthcoming in the next couple weeks (the incumbent administration suggests it will be before November 3). Our sense is that, regardless of who among the short-listed candidates is tapped, the impact on markets will likely be negligible.

If It Ain’t Broke…

There are two issues at stake here: first, who the winning candidate will be, and second, how that candidate would actually govern once ensconced in the Eccles Building. There are currently five names under consideration. On a spectrum from dove to hawk they read as follows: current Fed governor Jerome (Jay) Powell, current Fed chair Janet Yellen, former Fed governor Kevin Warsh, Stanford University economist John Taylor, and current Trump advisor Gary Cohn. Let’s say right off the top that we see next to no chance that Cohn will draw the winning ticket; among insiders close to the decision process, his name appears to still be in the mix for cosmetic reasons only.

That leaves four. Two, Powell and Yellen herself, reliably fall into the camp of “stay the course” – their votes on FOMC policy decisions, after all, are publicly documented and widely known. Speculation this week has Powell as the overall front-runner with considerable support both from the administration’s inner circle and among both Republican and Democratic senators who will be involved in the confirmation process. There would be a rational logic for Trump to ultimately thumbs-up Powell: in so doing, he would be making the safest choice for business as usual, while still getting to theatrically crow to his base that he dumped the Obama-era Fed head.

…Don’t Fix It

Just because Powell’s star seems ascendant this week, though, does not mean that the two more hawkish choices of Warsh or Taylor are out of the picture. This is not an administration known for predictably rational decision making. So what happens then? Speculation is particularly focused on John Taylor, the Stanford professor whose “Taylor rule” – a mathematical formulation of the responsiveness of interest rates to inflation and other economic inputs – suggests that rates should currently be higher than they are. Would a Taylor Fed necessarily mean a dramatic acceleration of rate hikes and attendant balance sheet normalization?

Perhaps not. It’s worth remembering that a Taylor Fed would be looking at the same data as the Yellen Fed, and that data include inflation readings, the danger-zone indicators of which are conspicuously absent. The Taylor rule is not immune to the inflation conundrum with which the Fed’s other analytical models have struggled. It’s also worth remembering that the Fed chair still has to take into account the positions of the other FOMC voting members. Whoever the new chair is, he or she will not be any less interested in building consensus towards unanimous decisions than past chairs. That’s how stable monetary policy is conducted.

The global economy is largely in sync with low to moderate growth, decently functioning labor markets and modest levels of inflation. That’s the real context in which stock prices can keep drifting up with no sizable upside headwinds. We think it is unlikely that, come 2018, a new Fed will be tempted to push their luck with policies that could choke off the growth before its time. For these reasons we think it unlikely that the identity of the new Fed chair will stand in the way of a business-as-usual mood in the market that, barring something currently unforeseen, could carry into and through the upcoming holiday season.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Inflation, Economists and the Rest of Us

September 22, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Where’s the inflation? That question has lurked behind most of the major headline stories about macroeconomic trends this year. Jobless rate falls to 4.3 percent. Where’s the inflation? GDP growth revised up to 3 percent. Where’s the inflation? The Fed has an official dual mandate of promoting price stability and the maximum level of employment achievable in a stable price environment. By all available measures, our central bank policymakers would appear to be living up to their mandate in spades. Inflation has remained subdued for pretty much the entire run of the recovery that began in 2009. Over the same time, unemployment has come crashing down from a post-recession high of 10 percent to the gentle undulations of 4 percent and change from month to month. And therein lies the problem, or rather the riddle that neither the Fed nor the rest of us can answer convincingly: why hasn’t a robust jobs recovery reignited inflation?

Math, Models and Markets

Those of us who do not hold Ph.D. degrees in economics from the nation’s most prestigious universities at least have one advantage over those maven economists on the Fed Open Market Committee: we can freely speculate about the perplexing absence of inflation. Here at MVF we have our own views, largely proceeding from the larger issue of long term growth that has been the central subject of our in-depth research for much of the past three years. The catalysts that drive growth over successive business cycles – productivity and labor force participation – have both chronically underperformed for many years. Quite simply, we may have reached a point of diminishing returns on the commercial innovations that powered a historically unique run of growth through the middle and mid-late portion of the last century. Without that growth, we shouldn’t expect wages and prices to do as they did before.

Which is fine for us to say, because – see above – we are not doctorate-level trained economists. But Janet Yellen is, and so are most of her colleagues. And unlike us, they do not have the freedom to brainstorm and speculate about what’s keeping inflation from showing up. All they have are models. Models with months, quarters and years of data providing quantitative insights into the relationship between the labor market and consumer prices. Models written in beautiful mathematical formulations, the legacy of giants who inhabited the “freshwater” (University of Chicago) and “salt water” (MIT and Harvard University) centers of economic research in the years after the Second World War. Models premised on the hyper-rational choices of economic actors, models that do not actively incorporate variables about capital and financial markets but that assume that money is just “there.”

Follow the Dots…Not

The models say that a higher uptrend in inflation is consistent with where the labor market is. Accordingly, the “dot plot” predictions by FOMC members continue to assume one more rate hike this year (most likely December) and three more next year. This despite the fact that the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) rate that the Fed uses as its inflation gauge remains, at 1.4 percent, well below the Fed’s 2 percent target. Fixed income markets, though, continue to largely ignore FOMC dots (despite some of the usual post-event spasms after Wednesday’s press release). There remain about 100 basis points of difference between what the Fed thinks is a “normal” long term trend for the Fed funds rate (closer to 3 percent) and what the bond market thinks (closer to 2 percent).

In a nutshell, the bond market, and analysts such as ourselves, look at inflation trends and say, why rush? The Fed says, because the models say we have to act. If the models are right, there could be some very nasty shocks in fixed income markets that spill over into risk assets like equities. But for the rest of us, with our parlor game speculations about how the relationship between prices and jobs today may simply not be as statistically robust as it used to be, it is difficult indeed to spot the hard evidence supporting a major bout of inflation on the horizon.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Summer of Confusion

July 14, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Some foreign words don’t have English translations that do them justice. Take the German “Schadenfreude,” for example. “Delight at the expense of another’s misfortune” just doesn’t quite pack the same punch. The Russian word “smutnoye” also defies a succinct English counterpart to fully import its meaning. Confusion, vagueness, a troubling sense that something nasty but not quite definable is lurking out there in the fog…these sentiments only partly get at the gist of the word. Russians, who over the course of their history have grown quite used to the presence of a potential fog-shrouded malignance out there in the fields, apply the term “smutnoye” to anything from awkward social encounters, to leadership vacuums in government, to drought-induced mass famines.

Who’s In Control?

We introduce the term “smutnoye” to this article not for an idle linguistic digression but because it seems appropriate to the lack of clarity about where we are in the course of the current economic cycle, and what policies central banks deem appropriate for these times. Recall that, just before the end of the second quarter, ECB chief Mario Draghi upended global bond markets with some musings on the pace of the Eurozone recovery and the notion that fiscal stimulus, like all good things in life, doesn’t last forever. Bond yields around the world jumped, with German 10-year Bunds leading the way as shown in the chart below.

At the time we were skeptical that Draghi’s comments signified some kind of sea change in central bank thinking (see our commentary for that week here). But bond yields kept going up in near-linear fashion, only pulling back a bit after Janet Yellen’s somewhat more dovish testimony to the US Congress earlier this week. And it has not just been the Fed and the ECB: hints of a change in thinking at the apex of the monetary policy world can be discerned in the UK and Canada as well. The sense many have is that central bankers want to wrest some control away from what they see as an overly complacent market. That, according to this view, is what motivated Draghi’s comments and what has credit market kibitzers focused like lasers on what words will flow forth from his mouth at the annual central bank confab in Jackson Hole next month.

Hard Data Doves

In that battle for control, and notwithstanding the recent ado in intermediate term credit yields, the markets still seem to be putting their money on the doves. The Fed funds futures index, a metric for tracking policy expectations, currently shows a less than 50 percent likelihood of a further rate hike this year, either in September or later – even though investors know full well that the Fed wants to follow through with one. Does that reflect complacency? A look at the hard data – particularly in regard to prices and wages – suggests common sense more than it does complacency. Two more headline data points released today add further weight to the view that another rate hike on the heels of June’s increase would be misguided.

US consumer prices came in below expectations, with the core (ex food & energy) CPI gaining 0.1 percent (versus the expected 0.2 percent) on the month, translating to a year-on-year gain of 1.7 percent. Retail sales also disappointed for what seems like the umpteenth time this year. The so-called control group (which excludes the volatile sectors of auto, gasoline and building materials) declined slightly versus an expected gain of 0.5 percent. These latest readings pile on top of last month’s tepid 1.4 percent gain in the personal consumer expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, and a string of earlier readings of a similarly downbeat nature.

Why Is This Cycle Different from All Other Cycles?

In her testimony to Congress this week, Yellen made reference to the persistence of below-trend inflation. The Fed’s basic policy stance on inflation has been that the lull is temporary and that prices are expected to recover and sustain those 2 percent targets. But Yellen admitted on Wednesday that there may be other, as-yet unclear reasons why prices (and employee wages) are staying lower for longer than an unemployment rate in the mid-4 percent range would normally suggest. This admission suggests that the Fed itself is not entirely clear as to where we actually are in the course of the economic recovery cycle that is in its ninth year and counting.

Equity markets have done a remarkable job at shrugging off this lack of clarity. Perhaps, like those Russian peasants of old, they are more focused on maximizing gain from the plot of land right under their noses while ignoring the slowly encroaching fog. Perhaps the fog will lift, revealing reason anew to believe a new growth phase lies ahead. All that remains to be seen; in the meantime, “smutnoye” remains the word of the moment.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Prices, Rates and the Lowflation Era

June 30, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Investors who like nice, clean narratives keep getting flummoxed by the global economy’s refusal to serve up steady sequences of consistent data points. This was a week, after all, when bond markets around the world took a Super Mario-sized beating in the wake of the ECB chairman’s musings about recovery and reflation in the Eurozone. The bond carnage even spilled into the seemingly Teflon stock market on Thursday. And yet, where did it all end? In the US, the latest reading on personal consumption expenditures (PCE), the Fed’s go-to inflation gauge, posted a weaker than expected year-on-year growth rate of 1.4 percent (both headline and ex-food & energy) on Friday. That same day the latest Eurozone flash CPI showed a 1.3 percent year on year gain, in line with expectations but down from the previous month. Reflation? Or could the bond market just possibly have jumped the gun a tad?

Phillips Curve to Nowhere

The May inflation numbers are, of course, representative of just one month. But there is very little in the longer term trend to suggest that this mythic reflation is anywhere on the horizon. The chart below shows the headline and core (ex-food & energy) PCE along with the US unemployment rate trend for the past five years. 

The Fed pays closest attention to the core PCE rate (the green solid line) because it excludes the volatile categories of food and energy, and thus presents a steadier picture of underlying trends. As the chart shows, core PCE has fallen over the past five years from a high of 1.9 percent to the current level of 1.4 percent. Not once during this period has this rate surpassed the Fed’s desired target of 2.0 percent (the headline number was briefly above 2 percent, almost entirely on account of a commensurate rise in oil prices).

While prices have largely gone nowhere over this period, the complexion of the labor market has changed considerably. The unemployment rate (red dotted line) was over 8 percent in June 2012, and currently resides at 4.3 percent. Private nonfarm payrolls have made gains every single month over this period, the longest streak since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started recording this data shortly after the end of the Second World War. Normally, economists would expect this brisk pace of labor market growth to put upward pressure on wages and consumer prices. The Phillips Curve, bane of every Econ 101 student, came into existence to quantify this relationship, but its explanatory powers would appear to have diminished to the point of irrelevance.

Low Growth, Lowflation

When the “reflation trade” theme became the dominant market sentiment at the end of last year we expended a considerable number of words musing about just where all this growth was supposed to come from. Even the most wildly optimistic assumptions about a new bout of pro-growth fiscal policies from Washington, in our opinion, was not likely to change the basic growth equation: declining population growth, a smaller percentage of the population in the labor force and chronically low productivity together comprise a speed limit on how fast the economy can grow. If and when productivity were to return, it would quite plausibly come at the expense of jobs, as nonlinear advances in artificial intelligence and deep machine learning make real inroads into companies’ business operations. Why should we expect to see a major bout of reflation if this is the case?

This week’s bond market activity was significant. We are far from convinced that it marked the start of a paradigm shift away from the low rate environment of the past few years. The Fed may well raise rates again this year – it really, really wants to, and absent a major deviation from headline macro trends it could probably do so without too much risk of collateral damage. But unless some catalyst that we don’t see today shows up to push prices significantly higher, the urgency for the Fed to act again (or the ECB to start tapering) just won’t be there. And we are always just one unexpected market crisis away from the Greenspan-Bernanke-Yellen put coming out of the desk drawer and back into action.

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