Posts tagged Fixed Income
Any mention of the European Union in recent days is likely to elicit a bemused shake of the head at the inexplicable ineptness of the entire British government as it dithers over how to dig itself out of the hole its leaders dug for themselves three years ago in deciding to have a referendum on Brexit (we will take this opportunity to reaffirm the prediction we made back in the fall of last year: Brexit will get delayed, then delayed again, and eventually will get put to a referendum and not happen, which is also apparently what investors in the British pound sterling think). But while the world looks on at the impasse between the Continent and those on the other side of the Channel, there is something of potentially larger significance for the EU in the long term. That something is bubbling up in Italy.
On March 22 the Italian government intends to sign a memorandum of understanding with China to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative under the auspices of a package of loans from the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB). The signing will take place in conjunction with the visit to Rome by Chinese president Xi Jinping, and it brings a whole slew of testy geopolitical issues right into the heart of the single currency union. Italy is technically in recession, with what is now the second-highest unemployment rate in Europe, and increasingly receptive to China’s attempts to insinuate itself into the nation’s economic and political system.
On the surface of it, things don’t look all that dire from a financial markets perspective. Investors have been pouring into Italy in the opening weeks of 2019. The chart below shows the spread between benchmark Italian 10-year bonds and their German Bund equivalents, which has come down considerably after spiking at several junctures in 2018.
Italian paper now trades at yields around 100 basis points less than last year’s peak. That is hardly a sign of investor confidence in Rome, however, and more a manifestation of this economic cycle’s longstanding obsession: chasing yield. That obsession turned stronger still with last week’s pivot by the European Central Bank back to stimulus mode. As we noted in our commentary last week, the ECB’s about-face is not good news for a regional economy where growth and productivity have flatlined (productivity, which is the key driver of economic growth, contracted in the Eurozone in both the third and fourth quarter last year by the widest margin since 2009). Italy’s domestic woes, headlined by that poor job market and a fall in industrial production, are at the vanguard of the region’s economic ills.
Follow the Money
The practical significance of Italy’s newfound dalliance with China and the AIIB may not be readily apparent for some time yet. The variables that alter the course of complex systems like the global economy don’t always make themselves known in understandable ways. But the Belt and Road Initiative is arguably the largest and most progressive infrastructure project going on anywhere in the world now. The AIIB – and remember that this is a multilateral financial organization aiming to encroach on the longstanding domain of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – makes a point of playing by international rules rather than the more secretive practices of, say, the China Development Bank or the Export-Import Bank of China. Its attraction for struggling countries – including those in both western and eastern Europe – is undeniable.
As Europe continues to wrestle with growth and support its own sources of growth financing, it will become ever harder to resist China’s siren song. And that has profound implications for maintaining unity and cohesion within the EU – more profound, perhaps, than even the sorry farce of Brexit.
If you have paid any attention to the daily dose of financial media chatter over the past month or so (and we are of the firm opinion that there are many, many more productive ways to spend one’s time) you have no doubt come into contact with the phrase “flat yield curve.” If the phrase piqued your interest and you listened on, you would have learned that flat yield curves sometimes become inverted yield curves and that these are consistently accurate signals of imminent recession, going back at least to the beginning of the 1980s.
This topic is of particular interest today because the yield curve happens to be relatively flat. As we write this the spread (difference) between the 10-year Treasury yield and the 2-year Treasury yield – a common proxy for the yield curve – is just 0.25 percent. That is much tighter than usual. In fact the last time the yield curve was this flat was in August 2007 – and any financial pundit worth his or her salt will not hesitate to remind you what happened after that. The chart below diagrams the longer-term relationship between 10-year and 2-year Treasury yields going back to 1995.
Before the Fall
In the above chart we focus attention on two previous market cycle turns where a flat or inverted curve was followed by a recession and bear market environment: 2000-02, and 2007-09. It is true that in both these instances a recession followed the flattening of the curve (the red-shaded columns indicate the duration of the equity market drawdown). But it’s also important to pay attention to what happened before things turned south.
Both of these bear market environments were preceded by an extended period of growth during which the yield curve was also relatively flat. These “growth plus flat curve” periods are indicated by the green-shaded columns in the chart. As you can see the late 1990s – from about mid-late 1997 through the 2000 stock market peak – were characterized by very little daylight between the 2- and 10-year yields. The same is true from late 2005 through summer of 2007 (the S&P 500 peaked in October 2007 before starting its long day’s journey into night).
You Can Go Your Own Way
In both of those prior cases, in other words, a flattening yield curve wasn’t a signal of very much at all, and investors who took the cue to jump ship as soon as the spread went horizontal missed out on a considerable amount of equity market growth. In fact, the dynamic of “flat curve plus growth,” far from being unusual, is not unexpected. It has to do with what the respective movements of short term and long term yields tend to tell us about what’s going on in the world.
Short term rates are a much more accurate gauge of monetary policy than yields with more distant maturities. If bond investors anticipate an upcoming round of monetary tightening by the Fed, they will tend to move out of short-term fixed rate securities, sending yields on those securities higher. When does monetary policy normally turn tighter? When growth is heating up, of course – so it should be no surprise that short term rates will start trending up well before the growth cycle actually peaks.
Longer term yields, on the other hand, are much less predictable and tend to go their own way based on a variety of factors. For example, in that 2005-07 period when short term rates were trending up, the 10-year yield stayed relatively flat. Why? Because this period coincided with the height of China’s “supercycle” during which Beijing routinely bought gobs of Treasury bonds with its export earnings, building a massive war chest of dollar-denominated foreign exchange reserves.
To Every Cycle Its Own Story
At the same time, many other central banks were building up their FX reserves so as to not repeat the problems they experienced in the various currency crises of the late 1990s. Yes – the late 1990s, when economies from southeast Asia to the former Soviet Union to Latin America ran into liquidity difficulties and injected a massive amount of volatility into world markets. Global investors responded to the volatility by seeking out safe haven assets like – surprise! – longer-dated US Treasury bonds. Which partly explains why the yield curve was so flat from ’97 through the 2000 market peak.
So yes – at some point it is likelier than not that we will see another flat-to-inverted yield curve lead into another recession. Meanwhile, the dynamics driving longer-term bond issues today are not the same as the ones at play in the mid 2000s or the late 1990s. Maybe spreads will widen if a stronger than expected inflationary trend takes root. Maybe the 10-year yield will fall further if US assets are perceived to be the safest port in a global trade war storm. The important point for today, in our opinion, is that there is a resounding absence of data suggesting that this next recession is right around the corner. We believe there is a better chance than not for some more green shading on that chart between now and the next sustained downturn.
As 2017 draws to a close, two data points strike us as particularly noteworthy candidates for summing up the year in asset markets. The S&P 500 is up more than 20 percent in total return, and the Fed has raised interest rates three times. Investors have good cause to bemoan the exit of Janet Yellen at the end of next month, for the good professor has given us an extended seminar in how to handle interest rate policy with minimal collateral damage either in financial markets or the real economy of goods and services. Incoming Fed Chair Jerome Powell has some large shoes to fill; fortunately he, by all appearances, has been a diligent student under Yellen’s tutelage over the past several years. He will need all the benign tailwinds he can get, because the road ahead may not be quite so calm as that we leave behind heading into 2018.
Follow the Dots
This week’s 25 basis point increase in the Fed funds target range was widely anticipated by the market (again, thanks to clear and prudent forward guidance). Investors quickly skimmed past the headline announcement to see where Fed minds were regarding policy action for next year: the famous “dot-plot” showing where FOMC voting members think rates will be in the coming three years and beyond. Very little has changed since the dot-plot’s last iteration in September, with the mean expectation of three more rate hikes in 2018. The lack of upward movement on rate expectations came at the same time that the Fed raised somewhat its expectations about economic growth and labor market conditions.
Dr. Pangloss’s Market
From an investor’s standpoint the market would seem reminiscent of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s “Candide” -- the best of all possible worlds, with growth supported by still-accommodative monetary policy. That pleasing state of affairs, of course, comes courtesy of inflation that refuses to budge out of its narrow range of about 1.3 to 1.8 percent, depending on which measure you prefer. Markets seem satisfied this best of all worlds will continue. Even now, Fed funds futures markets ascribe only a 20 percent or so chance of even those three rate hikes occurring next year. An unexpected surge in inflation is quite likely the most impactful variable that could upset the present state of things. It would cause a rethink in the pricing of most assets, starting with intermediate and long term bonds. Intermediate Treasuries, in particular the 10-year note, serve as a proxy for the “risk-free rate” calculations used in valuing and pricing most risk assets. Disrupt expectations for the 10-year, and you disrupt most everything else.
The Curvature of Markets
In July 2016 the 10-year yield dipped as low as 1.36 percent, which by some accounts was the lowest yield for a benchmark risk-free rate ever in the 800-plus year-history of recorded interest rates. Today, the 2-year yield -- a short term reference benchmark closely tied to monetary policy trends -- is over 1.8 percent. With today’s 10-year around 2.4 percent, the spread between short and intermediate yields is lower (flatter in yield curve-speak) than it has been any time since 2007. Intermediate yields are affected by many market variables, but inflationary expectations are prominent among them. Briefly put: if that inflationary surge were to happen, there would be plenty of upward curved space for the 10-year yield to occupy. Up go all those discount rates used to make present value computations for risk assets. All else being equal, a higher discount rate lowers the net present value of a future series of cash flows. The calm waters of 2017 would likely seem a distant memory.
All that being said, there is no hard evidence today suggesting that this kind of inflationary surge is around the corner. Other factors, such as low productivity growth and hitherto modest wage growth, continue to keep consumer prices in check. But sub-2 percent inflation in an economy where unemployment is just 4 percent runs counter to all the data and experience that have informed monetary policymakers for the past seventy years. It has been a pleasant, if confounding, feature of the Yellen years. Figuring out where it goes from here may well be incoming Chair Powell’s biggest challenge.
There has been considerable chatter over the last week or two by observers and participants in the junk bond market. Prices for HYG, the iShares ETF that tracks the iBoxx US high yield bond index, started to fall sharply at the beginning of this month and continued through midweek this week, when investors mobilized for at least a modest buy-the-dip clawback. The chart below shows HYG’s price trend for 2017 year to date.
This performance has prompted the largest weekly investment outflows from the junk bond market in three years and sparked concerns among some about a potential contagion effect into other risk asset classes. It comes at a time when various markets have wobbled a bit, from industrial metals to emerging market currencies and even, if ever so briefly, the seemingly unshakeable world of large cap US equities. Is there anything to the jitters?
Pockets of Pain
We don’t see much evidence for the makings of a contagion in the current junk bond climate. First of all, the pain seems to be more sector- and event-specific than broad-based. While junk spreads in all industry sectors have widened in the month to date, the carnage has been particularly acute in the telecom sector (where average bond prices are down more than 3 percent MTD) and to a somewhat lesser extent the broadcasting, cable/satellite and healthcare sectors. The key catalyst in telecom would appear to be the calling off of merger talks between Sprint and T-Mobile, while a string of weak earnings reports have bedeviled media and healthcare concerns. High yield investors seem particularly inclined to punish weaker-than-expected earnings.
There gets to be a point, though, when spreads widen enough to lure in yield-starved investors from the world over. We have seen that dynamic already play out twice this year. As the chart above shows, high yield prices fell sharply in late February and late July, but were able to make up much of the decline shortly thereafter. So while pundits are calling November the “worst month of 2017” for junk debt, they are somewhat facetiously using calendar year start and end points that obscure the peak-to-trough severity of those earlier drops. We still have the better part of two weeks to go before the clock runs out on November, which is plenty of time for buy-the-dip to work its charms.
Bear in mind as well that there is very little in the larger economic picture to suggest a higher risk profile for the broader speculative-grade bond market. Rating agency Moody’s expects the default rate for US corporate issues to fall in 2018, from around 3 percent now to 2.1 percent next year. An investor in high yield debt will continue receiving income from those tasty spreads above US Treasuries (currently a bit shy of a 4 percent risk premium) as long as the issuer doesn’t default – so the default rate trend is an all-important bit of data.
About Those Investment Grades
Meanwhile, conditions in the investment grade corporate debt market continue to appear stable. The chart below shows yield spreads between the 10-year US Treasury note and investment grade bonds in the Moody’s A (A1 to A3) and Baa (Baa1 to Baa3) categories. Baa3 is the lowest investment grade rating for Moody’s.
Investment grade spreads today are a bit tighter than they were at the beginning of the year, and much closer than they were at the beginning of 2016, when perceived economic problems in China were inflicting havoc on global risk asset markets. In fact, investment grade corporate yields have been remarkably flat over the course of this fall, even while the 10-year Treasury yield gained almost 40 basis points in a run-up from early September to late October.
Investors remain hungry for yield and the global macroeconomic picture remains largely benign. Recent price wobbles in certain risk asset markets notwithstanding, we do not see much in the way of red flags coming out of the stampede out of junk debt earlier this week. A spike in investment grade spreads would certainly gain our attention, but nothing we see suggests that any such spike is knocking on the door.
There’s not much interesting going on in the stock market these days, even less so than in the August “dog days” of years past. Oh sure, the Dow breaks 22,000 and local news stations go into one of their predictable round-number happy dances (as if the Dow Jones Industrial Average were anything other than a quaint relic from the 19th century). The S&P 500 (a more useful proxy for the “stock market”) lazily drifts along, sporadically setting new highs on the gentle currents of decent corporate earnings and low, but fairly stable, macroeconomic growth. Volatility, that once-fearsome stalker of equity portfolios, seems to be on the cup of fossilizing into amber or the permafrost.
On the other hand, bonds – wow! Everyone’s talking about bonds, normally the portfolio slice over which investors don’t lose sleep. More specifically, everyone’s talking about what could happen to bond prices if central banks follow through on a combination of raising rates and reducing balance sheets. Safe to say that “Raise and Reduce” focuses Wall Street’s attention in the same crystal-clear way that “Repeal and Replace” engaged the gimlet eyes of health care activists in recent weeks. For much of 2017 to date, yields on longer-dated bonds like Treasuries and investment grade corporates have remained relatively subdued while rates at the short end of the yield curve have climbed in expectations of further rate hikes. But ever since Mario Draghi mused about the pace of recovery in the Eurozone in late July, intermediate bonds (in particular Bunds and other European issues) have been channeling much of that volatility that the stock market has lost. Investors reasonably want to know if their bond portfolios are safe.
History Compared to What?
The issue at hand is whether central banks will go ahead with all these “Raise and Reduce” plans. If they were to do so, and if intermediate and long term rates were to suddenly spike as a result, then all those supposedly safe bond portfolios would be in the crosshairs. The “bond bubble” you may have heard about if you tune into the financial news channels and their bespoke pundits contemplates this scenario. At some point, the argument will wind its way back to the phrase “historically low rates” to describe how, after plumbing the lowest levels in the history of the American republic a scant twelve months ago, there is nowhere for rates to go but up, and possibly up a lot.
But what exactly are these historical averages, we would ask, and how relevant are they to the current environment? Bond yields don’t exist in a vacuum; they generally are related to the rate of growth and, particularly, the rate of inflation in an economy. In this context, historical averages are misleading. The average rate of core inflation (consumer prices excluding the volatile sectors of energy and food) from 1960 to the present was 3.8 percent, and the corresponding average rate of real GDP growth was 3.0 percent. Over the same time period, average yields on the 10-year Treasury bond were 6.2 percent, clearly far above where they have trended for most of this decade.
Past Performance Indicative of Nothing in Particular
But this 57 year “history” is hardly homogeneous. The first half of the 1960s enjoyed the tailwind of a very unusual confluence of productivity growth and growing labor participation that began after the Second World War. Those trends had petered out by the early 1970s, replaced by lackluster growth and soaring inflation – the “stagflation” era that still gives central bankers nightmares and clouds their policy thinking. Growth resumed in the 1980s with the help of both household and corporate debt, then experienced a very brief spike in productivity in the late 1990s. An uneven pace of growth in the mid-2000s collapsed with the 2007-09 recession, leading us to the current era of slow growth, tepid wages and moderate consumer prices.
The chart below shows the GDP and inflation trends over this time period. If bond yields are supposed to reflect what the collective wisdom considers a reasonable reward for deferring consumption today for return tomorrow, then what does this past history tell us about where rates might reasonably be in the weeks and months ahead?
As we have argued numerous times in these pages, the case for long-term growth much above the current trend of around 2 percent is weak: none of the catalysts – population, labor force participation or productivity – are working in the right direction. What would drive sharply higher inflation, then? And in the absence of a genuine inflation threat, what would prompt central bankers – well aware of their status as practically the only relevant economic policymakers in the world today – to take draconian action to battle imaginary dragons?
One can never rule out the potential for human error, and central bankers of course are still only human. But we do not think that a collapse in bond prices arising out of intensely hawkish central bank maneuvers is a high or even moderate probability scenario as we chart out the final leg of 2017 market trends.