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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Insurance Cut and the Melt-Up

June 21, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Here’s a quote from a mainstream media fixture. How recent is it? “Financial markets have soared during the last month on expectations of a cut in rates. The Federal Reserve’s top officials…may have grown increasingly reluctant in the last several weeks to risk causing turmoil on Wall Street by leaving rates unchanged, analysts said.”

That little blurb from a New York Times article certainly sounds like it could have been written sometime within the past, oh, forty-eight hours. In fact, that article came out on July 7, 1995, two days after the Alan Greenspan Fed cut interest rates for the first time since 1992 (the article’s subtitle “Stocks and Bonds Soar” of course would be no less appropriate for anything written during the week ending June 21, 2019). The 1995 event was a particular flavor of monetary policy action called an “insurance cut,” and it has some instructive value for what might be going through the minds of the Powell Fed today.

Anatomy of an Insurance Cut

In the chart below we illustrate the context in which the 1995 rate (and two subsequent cuts ending in February 1996) took place. What we think of today as the “Roaring ‘90s” had not yet gotten into gear (in fact it was just about to start with the initial public offering of Netscape, the Internet browser, just one month after the Fed’s rate cut). In July 1995 the Fed had just capped off a series of seven rate hikes that had begun in 1994 and that had taken the stock market by surprise. Core inflation had crept back up above three percent, and a handful of economic indicators warned of a potential slowdown.

Despite the upturn in inflation, many observers at the time – on Wall Street, in corporate executive suites and in the Clinton White House alike – complained that the Fed’s rate hike program in 1994-95 had gone too far, too fast. Politics were certainly part of this mix, summer 1995 being a bit over a year away from the next presidential election (stop us if you’ve heard this one before). While the headline numbers didn’t suggest that a recession was imminent, there were indications that business investment had slowed with a build-up in inventories. The index of leading indicators, often used as a predictive signal for a downturn, had come in negative for four consecutive months. In announcing the rate cut, the Greenspan Fed emphasized that this move was more about getting out in front of any potential downturn, and less about the looming imminence of such a reversal.

Again, any of this sound familiar?

It’s a Different World

Equity investors, of course, would dearly love to imagine that a Fed insurance cut policy will always lead to the kind of outcome seen in the latter years of that chart above; namely, the stock market melt-up that roared through the late ‘90s and into the first couple months of the new millennium. Such an outcome is certainly possible. But before putting on one’s “party like it’s 1999” hat, it would be advisable to consider the differences between then and now.

The most glaring difference, in looking at the above charts, is the vast amount of blank space between the Fed funds rate and inflation. Yes, there was positive purchasing power for fixed income investors back in those days. Moreover, the US economy was able to grow, and grow quite nicely, with nominal interest rates in the mid/upper-single digits. This was real, organic economic growth. Yes – it’s easy to conflate the economic growth cycle of the late 1990s with the Internet bubble. But that bubble didn’t really take off until the very last part of the cycle – and in actual economic terms, Internet-related commerce was not a major contributor to total gross domestic product. This was a solid growth cycle.

The Greenspan insurance cuts, then, were undertaken with a fairly high degree of confidence in the economy’s underlying resilience. Today’s message is starkly different. What the market and the Fed apparently both conclude is that the present economic growth cycle cannot withstand the pressure of interest rates much or at all higher than the 2.5 percent upper bound where the Fed funds rate currently resides (and forget about positive purchasing power for anyone invested in high-grade fixed income securities). It’s a signal that, if the economy does turn negative, then central banks are going to have to get even more creative than they did back in the wake of the 2008 recession, because a rate cut policy from today’s already anemic levels won’t carry much firepower.

For the moment, the mentality among investors is optimistic that a best-of-all-possible-worlds result will come out of this. Dreams of a late-90s style melt-up are no doubt dancing in the heads of investors as they shovel $14.4 billion into global equity funds this week – the biggest inflow in 15 months. But no two bull markets are alike, and that goes for insurance-style rate cuts as well.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Risk-Off, With a Side Helping of Large Cap Equities

June 14, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Let’s go back in time exactly one year – to June 14, 2018. Someone from the future visits you and tells you that in the first four months of 2019 – from the beginning of January to the end of April – the S&P 500 will rise by 17.5 percent. The future-visitor then beams out, leaving you with just that one piece of information and a portfolio strategy to plan. What would you assume about the world at large? That gain in US large cap equities is one of the strongest on record, so you would probably be inclined to imagine “risk-on” as the dominant sentiment in global markets. A healthy allocation to core equities and higher-risk satellite classes like small cap and non-US emerging markets would be a plausible strategy, while perhaps reducing core fixed income weights to the lower end of your approved range.

No Reward for Risk

Of course, being in possession of just that one snippet of information about the future means that you wouldn’t have known that stocks came within a whisper of ending their decade-long bull market in December 2018, or that the Fed would make a sudden and radical U-turn in January towards a more dovish policy stance. Even so, one of the noteworthy things about the 2019 incarnation of the equity bull is how confined it is to US large caps, while riskier asset classes have sputtered. The chart below illustrates this divergence between bonds and large cap stocks on the one hand and everything else on the other.

From that point in time one year ago both US small caps and non-US emerging markets are down around 10 percent – still in or close to a technical correction. Non-US developed markets haven’t fared much better, in part due to the translation effect of a strong dollar on foreign currency assets. So a broad-based risk-on mindset has never really set in. The star asset class for this period, particularly when looked at on a risk-adjusted basis, is fixed income. The US Aggregate Bond index is up low-mid single digits for this period, performing a little better than large cap value equities and just a bit behind large cap growth stocks but with much less volatility, as clearly seen in the chart.

Divergence Ahead?

Bonds are in favor largely because the market has talked itself into believing that a forthcoming economic downturn will necessitate aggressive action by the Fed and other central banks (the presumed downturn being global in nature and in fact catalyzed more by flagging economies outside the US than here at home, at least for now). But there is a twist here within the friendly confines of the fixed income space. If economic conditions really are set to turn down, then a logical assumption would be that credit risk spreads start to widen. But that has not happened. Investment grade corporates and high yield issues alike are holding up just fine. The iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF is up around 6.4 percent in total return for the year to date.

So here’s the picture: while the market is definitely not in a “risk-on” mindset, as evidenced by the poor performance of many higher-risk asset classes, neither is it completely “risk-off” as shown by those healthy returns for large cap stocks and the absence of credit risk spread widening. It’s as if there is some arbitrary line, on the one side of which are assets thought to be protected by a dovish Fed, with the other side being for assets vulnerable to the full-on effects of a worsening economy.

In recent commentaries we have argued that this odd arrangement is not sustainable. At some point either we realize that the economy actually is stronger than expected – in which case asset classes should revert to a more traditional risk frontier (higher return for higher risk) – or that a global recession is indeed imminent, in which case the market goes full risk-off, credit spreads widen and large cap equities get their comeuppance.

But there is an alternative view, which appears to be the one embodied by today’s conventional wisdom. This view holds that the magic of central banks will continue to work well enough to keep the worst of a downturn at bay. In this world, holding a handful of traditionally higher-risk assets like large cap US equities and low investment grade / high yield bonds makes sense, but taking on additional risk from other asset classes doesn’t pay (since the source of market return is permissive monetary policy, not organic economic growth). To be perfectly honest we think this is a risky view with the potential for serious mispricing of certain asset types. But it’s 2019, folks, and strange is the new normal.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Problem of Non-Quantifiable Risk

June 7, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Consider the following: at some point between now and the end of July there will in almost all likelihood be a new prime minister in the United Kingdom, as current PM Theresa May has stated her intention to resign within that time frame. Now consider this: the next prime minister of a nation of 66 million citizens will be chosen by…approximately 124 thousand of them. These enfranchised citizens constitute the registered, card-carrying members of the Conservative Party and they alone will receive the ballots asking for their preference between two Conservative Members of Parliament (whose identities have not yet been decided). Whoever wins the larger percentage of those ballots will, given the make-up of the core Conservative Party membership, very likely be in the camp of “hard Brexit” and thus anathema to as much as 53 percent of the total UK electorate. For various reasons both constitutional and procedural, there is an entirely plausible case to make that this next Tory government could drive the UK over a no-deal Brexit cliff before or upon the current decision deadline of October 31.

Quantify This!

We bring up this particular issue not for the sake of political analysis, but to illustrate a particularly challenging issue in the current capital market environment: how to price in risks that are, for all intents and purposes, unquantifiable. Brexit is of course not the only issue whose multiple moving parts and lack of historical precedents befuddle conventional risk analysts. The health of global trade and of the very system of unfettered flows of capital, goods and services across borders that has served as the default backdrop for more than three decades of valuing assets is uncertain. The system’s most important player, the United States, has embarked on a program of weaponizing the tools of this system for perceived national gain. Elsewhere, the traditional center-right and center-left political parties that have dominated the political scene throughout the entire postwar period are in radical decline.

How does one price any of this into the valuation of this or that asset? Sure, it’s easy enough to throw together a conventional model, assigning probabilities to various outcomes and then matching each outcome with a guesstimate as to the price impact on stocks, crude oil or high yield bonds. But those guesses amount to no more than throwing a dart at the wall while blindfolded. Would a hard Brexit, or a hot trade war, or a sharp turn towards authoritarian populism in more of the developed and developing world be good or bad for Brent crude or the US tech sector or the euro? Who knows? There is literally no hard empirical data to suggest the correctness of one guess – one throw of the dart – versus another.

In Powell They Trust

In the absence of the ability to rationally price the various organic risks afoot in the global marketplace, all the eggs find themselves in one basket: the willingness of central banks, principally the US Fed, to do anything it takes to keep risk asset markets from falling. Last fall we saw what happens when that faith is shaken. For a period of weeks between late September and late December 2018 it became clear that there was a less than certain chance the Fed would step in to backstop falling markets. Had the Fed not radically reversed course in early January with a major policy U-turn, it is entirely plausible that the near-bear market reached on December 24 would have turned into a real bear market. But the Fed lived up to its reputation as the redeemer and comforter for the investor class, and all was well again.

The Fed put, in effect, has become the substitute for organic risk analysis in a world of profound macro uncertainties. This explains why the dominant characteristic of markets in 2019 to date is that bonds and equities are joined at the hip – the prices of both rising under the expectation that central banks will continue to – and continue to be able to – underwrite whatever disruptions actually come about as a result of a hard Brexit or a tsunami of tariffs or whatever else comes along.

We’ll have another chance to see, very shortly, whether this undiluted faith in the Fed is justified. The market is currently pricing in about a 70 percent chance that the Fed will cut rates three times in the next year. Some comments this week by Chair Powell provided succor to this view – equity markets surged on Tuesday on the interpretation that any negative outcomes from an aggressive US tariff policy will be offset by a flood of Fed dollars. On June 19 we will see just what combination of words and/or action support that view when the FOMC concludes its June meeting.

And therein lies the ultimate exercise in non-quantifiable risk. Either the Fed and other central banks can prop up asset markets indefinitely, come what may, or they can’t. Assign a probability to each outcome, put on a blindfold and throw the dart.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: What To Expect When You’re Expecting…Bond Returns

April 5, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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The bond market has been an active place of late. The Fed’s monetary policy pivot back in January (and an even more dovish position in March), a tempered outlook on global economic growth and related concerns have sparked a broad-based bond rally, with falling yields across most fixed income asset classes. We have been getting a number of questions from our clients about how these dynamics affect the returns they are seeing in the fixed income securities in their portfolios. So here are some key things to keep in mind when you are reviewing the bond portion of your portfolio.

It’s All In the Math

One question that comes up frequently is what drives relative performance between similar securities (e.g., governments or corporates) with different maturities. Consider, for example, the Treasury market. The chart below shows the relative yield trends of the 10-year Treasury note, a key benchmark for intermediate term bonds, and the 2-year note, a popular proxy for short term issues, so far this year.

Two things jump out in this chart. First, the spread between these two bonds is relatively tight. Currently just 18 basis points (0.18 percent) separate the 10-year and 2-year yields. The second thing is that the relative movement of each yield has been remarkably similar: when one goes up so does the other, and vice versa.

But when you look at the total return performance in your portfolio you will notice that they are not the same, or similar, at all. For example, the total return for the iShares 1-3 year Treasury ETF (SHY) for the year to date as of April 4 was 0.88 percent. The total return for the iShares 7-10 year Treasury ETF (IEF) was 2.15 percent. Big difference! What gives?

Fortunately, the answer is very simple: it’s all about the math. Bond pricing is entirely and completely driven by math. It’s all about the rate of interest and the magnitude & timing of a bond’s periodic interest and principal payments. The math works such that, for any incremental change in interest rates, the price of a longer-dated security will change by more than the price of a shorter-dated security. So, to use the example of the 2-year and the 10-year bonds in the above chart, the same decrease in the rate of interest will cause the longer-term price to appreciate by more than the shorter-term one. That’s why, all else being equal, bonds with longer maturities (or effective duration, which is a measure by which we compare the relative effect of interest rate changes) have outperformed ones with shorter durations this year.

A Bond’s Purpose

If you knew that interest rates were going to go down for a long time then, all else being equal, you would want to position your portfolio to capture the benefits of longer duration. Conversely, if your vision of the future is one of rising rates, then you are interested in shorter-dated securities as a way to reduce interest rate risk. Of course, nobody can ever know for certain which way rates are going to trend (think, for example, of the Fed’s complete U-turn between its December and January meetings). The answer – or our approach, in any case – is to maintain a range of short to intermediate duration exposures with an eye to mitigating the risk of a sudden jump in rates.

Ours is a fairly conservative approach for the simple reason that for our portfolios, the fixed income portion is where you go for safety, not for outperformance. Bonds are for stability (predictability of the size and timing of income streams) and for cushion against the risks to which other asset classes – primarily equities – are exposed. And it is those riskier asset classes – again, not bonds – where we actively seek growth through capital appreciation.

The total size of our fixed income allocation may change – higher or lower as a percentage of total portfolio assets depending on our overall market and economic outlook. But you won’t find us aggressively chasing returns through active duration management, because that is not why we have bonds in the first place.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Back to Wonderland

March 29, 2019

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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It’s quite a world, this one we inhabit. Today is Brexit Day! Article 50 goes into effect at 11 pm Greenwich Mean Time…except, of course, that it doesn’t, because our esteemed and honourable Members of Parliament are still having an existential debate regarding what Brexit is all about (real time update: the debate is over, again, with no agreement, again). The Monty Python sketch about Silly Upper Class Twits comes to mind. But no matter! We have nothing more to say about Brexit other than commiserations for the 48 percent of the citizenry of the Isles who never wanted this farce in the first place. We are here to talk about one of the other surreal features of our present day Planet Earth. Negative interest rates are back, and they are back with a vengeance. Here’s a snapshot of the yield trend for the German 10-year Bund, the go-to safe haven asset for the European Union. 

What Don’t We Know?

The German Bund’s fall back into negative rate Wonderland is, of course, just one part of a massive global rally in bonds. Last week we talked about the inversion of the US yield curve and what that may mean for fixed income and equity investors in the weeks and months ahead. Elsewhere in the world the same trend is playing out. Take, for example, New Zealand. The 10-year Kiwi, as the country’s government bonds are known, hit record low yields this week. Not “52 week low” or even “five year low” but actual record low. The Kiwi’s 10-year journey towards Wonderland (it has not yet gone through the looking glass to negative rates) is shown in the chart below.

The sharp rally in Kiwi prices (bond prices move inversely to their yields) has much to do with the effects of a China slowdown on economies in the Asia Pacific Region. It’s not the directional trend as much as the speed of this global bond rally that is surprising, however. After all, we have known for many months now that growth in China was slowing and that further potential negative risks lurked in the form of a worsening US-China trade environment. We knew this in September and December of last year, when the Fed pronounced a robust bill of health on the economy enabling future rate hikes. What was it, starting in January this year and snowballing through the first quarter, that caused first the Fed, then the ECB, and then pretty much everyone else to out-dove themselves? What do they know that we don’t?

Data Not There Yet

The right answer to that last question may well be…nothing. After all, the central banks aren’t directly responsible for the pace of this bond market rally. Traders are…and by traders we mean, of course, algorithm-driven bots primed to move whatever way the mass consciousness of the digital world seems to be going. Trading by Twitter. It is entirely possible that this rally is already overbought, with bond yields potentially set to return to less gloom-and-doom territory.

After all, the global economy is not in recession and the data still do not suggest it is heading towards one in the coming months. Here in the US we have one month of lousy job numbers and inflation still struggling to maintain a two percent range (the latest Core Personal Consumption Expenditure rate, released today, is 1.8 percent). Q1 GDP is expected to come in below two percent, but weak first quarters are not unusual. Not great, but not too bad. The IMF’s latest projection for real global GDP growth for 2019 is 3.5 percent – down from earlier projections but, again, still comfortably north of zero.

Postmodern Financial Theory

Yes, but what about the inverted yield curve we talked about last week? That hasn’t gone away, and it remains the most prescient harbinger of forthcoming recessions, based on past instances. Is there something different about fixed income markets now that possibly makes this indicator less useful than it once was? Well, yes actually. In no past recession, ever, was there the presence of unconventional monetary policy all around the world. No negative interest rates. These aren’t even supposed to exist according to the conventions of modern financial theory. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, and the rate of interest that expresses a future value in present value terms is positive – that’s why it is called the discount rate.

But we have negative interest rates today, in many parts of the world, and they have the effect of flattening curves in markets where rates are still positive (like the US). The real (inflation-adjusted) rate of return on a 10-year US Treasury note may be barely positive (as is the case today) but it is still a whole lot more attractive than actually paying the German government for the “privilege” of holding its 10-year debt in your portfolio. This is not normal – and it may well suggest that we should not be reading too many recessionary warnings into these tea leaves.

What to do, then? Well, this is Wonderland. Whatever emergent properties bubble out of the current soup of variables at play could go one way, and they could go the other way. Anyone who tells you they know which way that is, well, they probably also have a bridge to sell you. A little caution, without an undue reduction of exposure to growth, is how we have been positioning the portfolios under our discretion. That course of action still seems reasonable to us.

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