Posts tagged Interest Rate Trends
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.
Well, we’re 22 trading days into the pullback that started after the last S&P 500 record high set on April 30. That’s 123 fewer than the 145 trading days it took for the last pullback to regain its previous high, from September 2018 to April 2019. Which, by the by, was exactly the same number of market-open days – 145 – that it took the January 2018 correction to regain its former altitude. Interesting for those who like to read meaning into randomness, perhaps…But we digress! Because, yes, the S&P 500’s retreat of more than five percent from that April 30 high has the usual red lights flashing all across the CNBC screen and Dow point drops (always point drops, always the Dow, so much more dramatic than the more mundane percentage creeps) juxtaposed next to the head of a speechifying Robert Mueller. But the real story this week is in the bond market, and specifically the strange shape of the Treasury yield curve.
The Yield Scythe
The chart below shows the evolution of the Treasury yield curve’s shape over the past month and compares it to what a more normal curve looked like one year ago. The blue line represents the most recent configuration of the curve, which looks like nothing more than a scythe ready to attack a field of wheat. Or a Marxist sickle missing its hammer, perhaps.
We’ve talked about the yield curve in these pages before, of course. The shape of the curve is important because an inverted curve – which is what is currently happening between short and intermediate term maturities – has historically been an extremely reliable predictor of recession. Every recession in the past sixty years has been ushered in by an inverted yield curve (though the timing between a curve inversion and the onset of a recession is subject to high levels of variance).
Do the Math
The relationship between the yield curve and the economy is not complicated, as bond math is entirely straightforward. Yields drop when prices rise, and prices on low-risk securities like US Treasuries rise when investors seek safe havens from riskier assets like stocks. When intermediate yields drop, it can signal the assumption by investors that central bankers will be pushing down short term rates.
Right now the Fed funds rate – the overnight lending rate between banks that the Fed effectively controls through its open market policy operations – is within a target range of 2.25 – 2.5 percent. You can see that short term Treasuries, which tend to move more or less in sync with the Fed funds rate, are all bunched around the middle of that target range, while the intermediate maturities of two to ten years all trade below the floor of the Fed funds range. In many ways, this is just a visual confirmation of what we already know to be true from other data sources like the Fed funds futures market. Bond investors expect at least one, maybe two, rate cuts before the end of the year. In other words, they look into the future and see a Fed funds target range with a floor as low as 1.75 percent – and where the Fed funds rate goes, those short-term Treasuries will follow. Then the yield curve would revert to something more like a less-steep version of that yellow line on the above chart.
But Where Is the Evidence?
The one missing piece in this puzzle is…well, actual evidence. Recall that we have just posted the lowest unemployment rate – 3.6 percent – since 1969. Real GDP growth remains positive, if not necessarily going gangbusters, and while corporate earnings have decelerated from the tax cut-fueled high of 2018, businesses’ top line sales continue to grow at a healthy pace – over five percent for Q1 of this year with almost all S&P 500 companies having reported. Low inflation continues to perplex the Fed. But the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, also stayed below two percent for most of the second half of the 1990s, one of the strongest economic growth cycles in US history. A PCE of 1.6 percent – where it is today – shouldn’t set off alarm bells.
All this aside, it is generally not a good idea to blithely ignore whatever message the bond market may be sending. No recession appears to be looming on the horizon, and the case for immediate Fed rate cuts is not as glaringly obvious to us as the conventional bond investor wisdom seems to have it. But the yield curve in its strange, scythe-like form doesn’t appear to be going anywhere either, and we must continue to give it due attention.
New fiscal quarter and same old bull market, or so it would appear. Which probably should not come as much of a surprise, given the veritable absence of anything markets would find new and newsworthy. The Fed pivot has come and gone, the trade war turned out in the end to be a paper tiger, economic growth is slowing everywhere but still positive. Corporate earnings will be weaker than previous quarters but probably not as weak as the dramatically ratcheted-down estimates of Wall Street analysts. The old parlor trick of outperforming a low bar is back in full force! Meanwhile, the Brexit extension to the extension to the extension (which you, dear reader, will recall we predicted back in January) was agreed to during the same week that we got to see a picture of an actual black hole, in space. No coincidence, surely, between those two events.
The Rule of 145 Days
So the good times continue…depending on your perspective. Year to date? Things are great. The S&P 500 is up nearly 16 percent (in price terms) since the start of 2019, which is one of the best starts to a calendar year, ever. Moreover, the intraday tempo of this rally has been relatively calm, with only a small number of instances where the index moved by more than one percent from open to close.
If you step back and take a wider view, though, the picture looks a bit different.
That 16 percent calendar year gain looks a bit different in the context of what preceded it: not just the sharp pullback of last autumn but a much longer trading period going back to January 2018. Here’s what has happened since the S&P 500 reached a then-all time high on January 26 of that year. There was a technical correction, followed by an arduous 145-day climb to a new record high (in August), then a bit more upward momentum to the record high of 2930 set on September 20. 135 days have passed since then, and now we are within striking distance of yet another record high (maybe, who knows, when the day count hits 145 again).
What this means in actual performance terms is that the S&P 500, as of yesterday’s close, had gained a grand total of 0.5 percent from that January 26, 2018 peak. That’s cumulative, not annualized. Zero point five percent is not the stuff of a robust bull. Arguably, this sixteen month period represents a distinct phase of the great bull market that started in 2009: a phase we would term “wait-and-see.” The previous phase was the exceedingly non-volatile stretch from November 2016 to January 2018 (which phase certainly qualified for the moniker “robust”), and before that was the Mid-Decade Pause (another wait-and-see period) that came on the heels of the Fed’s ending its last quantitative easing program in 2014 and persisted through summer 2016.
That 2014-16 period may be instructive. Below we extend that same S&P 500 chart shown above to encompass a longer time period, where this bull market’s distinct phases are evident.
Of course, and contrary to our tongue-in-cheek section heading above, there is no such thing as a “rule of 145 days.” But it does feel like we might be getting close to the end of this particular phase of the bull as the market closes in on a new record high. The question, as always, is what comes next. Recall that in 2016 there was not much in the way of a compelling case to make that would have predicted the bull run of 2017. The bond market for much of this year has been suggesting that slower times are ahead. But the tea leaves, as always, are subject to multiple interpretations.
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.
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.