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MV Weekly Market Flash: Still Quiet on the Investment Grade Front (Junk Jitters Notwithstanding)

November 17, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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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.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: The Fed and the Spread

May 12, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Three years ago, one could have driven a fleet of semitrailers through the open space between the 2 year and the 10 year US Treasury benchmark note yields. While there still is some distance between the two, it would be somewhat more amenable to a single row of Priuses (Prii?) passing through. As the chart below shows, the shorter term note, which is generally more directly responsive to Fed policy, remains very close to its five year high. The intermediate 10 year yield, by contrast, has meandered along a largely directionless trajectory. 

Untangling Policy, Demand and Expectations

The path of shorter term yields, for which the 2 year note is a useful proxy, is not hard to understand. The Fed began to make noises about tapering its QE policy in 2013 and then moved to a regime of reasonably explicit forward guidance on rates in 2015, resulting in the first increase at the end of that year. Despite falling sharply during the turmoil of early 2016, the 2 year resumed its upward path as conditions settled down and the case for a steady, if not spectacular, pace of economic recovery settled in as the default narrative. One should expect short term yields to continue tracking upwards in the absence of a reversal of the Fed’s stated intentions to keep raising rates.

For much of this time, the 10 year benchmark marched to a different drummer. Foreign demand was a key determinant of the consistently subdued yields experienced over this time – a trend that confounded no small number of bond pros. Rather than breaching 3 percent, as many expected, the 10 year actually set an all-time low – as in “since the founding of the American Republic all-time low” – in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

The November election and the emergence of the so-called “reflation trade” brought about a shift in expectations, such that both intermediate and short yields moved largely in tandem. This was, as you will recall, when the prevailing mindset among investors imagined dramatic changes to the tax code and a sweeping new program of public spending on infrastructure. The spread between the 10 year and the 2 year in the weeks leading up to the election was mostly below 100 basis points, and it has not strayed very far from that level since.

Mind the Gap

The question now, of course, is whether there is still enough oomph in those reflationary expectations to send the 10 year into higher territory with a resulting steepening of the curve. This would be the putatively logical case to make for one who still believes there’s an infrastructure/tax reform pony out back with the capability to deliver the economic growth bump (however short-lived that might be) that is the administration’s central economic talking point. This view would consider the recent string of so-so hard data releases (including today’s six-of-one-half-dozen-of-the-other retail sales and inflation results) to be temporary and primed for near-term growth.

On the other hand, if the gap narrows still further – if the spread falls back into double digits as short term rates inch up while intermediates hold steady or fall again – investor brains could fall prey to the dark sentiments of an flat or inverted yield curve. That outcome would likely serve as a validation for those opining that bond yields represented the “smart view” while equity valuations soared on little more than a wing and a prayer.

The $4.5 Trillion Dollar Question

In the midst of all this is one very important and highly unpredictable variable: when and how the Fed plans to begin drawing down the $4.5 trillion balance sheet it racked up over the course of three quantitative easing programs. Observers will pay closer than usual attention to the forthcoming release of the FOMC’s minutes (scheduled for May 24) from its most recent policy meeting, scouring the language for clues about their intentions. The conventional wisdom is that the Fed believes there will eventually come a time when it needs to take rates back to zero and possibly launch another bout of QE. Having the dry powder to launch such a plan will necessitate a meaningful balance sheet reduction in the meantime. The tricky part, of course, will be to pull of this maneuver without roiling asset markets in so doing. Given the preternatural calm prevailing in risk asset markets currently, any hiccup could turn into a negative catalyst. Fed members will need to be practicing their triple-axel techniques to pull this off.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Some Vague Hints of Discontent

February 24, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Spring has come early to the US East Coast this year, with the good citizens of Atlantic seaboard cities ditching their North Faces and donning shorts and flip-flops for outdoor activities normally kept on ice until April. Grilling, anyone? Equity investors, meanwhile, have been enjoying an even longer springtime, full of balmy breezes of hope and animal spirits. But just as a February spring can fall prey to a sudden blast of March coldness, this week has brought a few hints of discontent to the placid realm of the capital markets. Whether these are harbingers of choppy times ahead or simply random head fakes remains to be seen, but we think they are worthy of mention.

Ach, Meine Schatzie!

Fun fact: German two year Bunds go by the nickname Schatz, which is also the German word for “treasure” as well as being a cozy term of endearment for loved ones. Well, these little Teutonic treasures have been exhibiting some odd behavior in the past several days. This includes record low yields, a post-euro record negative spread against the two year US Treasury, and a sudden spike in the gap between French and German benchmark yields. The chart below shows the divergent trends for these three benchmarks in the past couple weeks.

The sudden widening of the German and French yields offers up an easy explanation: a poll released earlier in the week showed National Front candidate (and would-be Eurozone sortienne) Marine Le Pen with a lead over presumed front runner Emmanuel Macron. That was Tuesday’s news; by Wednesday François Bayrou, another independent candidate, had withdrawn and thrown his support to Macron, easing Frexit fears. Yields fell back. Got that?

The Schatz yield also kept falling, though, as the dust settled on the latest French kerfuffle. Since German government debt is one of the more popular go-to markets for risk-off trades, we need to keep an eye on those historically low yields. This would be a good time to note that other European asset classes haven’t shown much fretting. The euro sits around $1.06, off its late-December lows, and equity markets have been fairly placid of late (though major European bourses are trading sharply lower today). But currency option markets suggest a growing number of investors positioning for a sharp reversal in the euro come May.

Gold Bugs and Trump Traders Unite

Bunds are not the only risk-off haven currently in favor; a somewhat odd tango has been going on for most of this year between typically risk-averse gold bugs and the caution-to-the-wind types populating the Trump trade. The chart below shows how closely these two asset classes have correlated since the end of last year.

Now, an astute reader is likely to point out that – sure, if the Trump trade is about reflation and gold is the classic anti-inflation hedge, then why would you not expect them to trend in the same direction? Good question! Which we would answer thus: whatever substantial belief there ever was in the whole idea of a massive dose of infrastructure spending with new money, pushing up inflation, is probably captured in the phase of the rally that started immediately after the election and topped out in December. During that phase, as the chart shows, the price of gold plummeted. That would be odd if gold investors were reacting to (higher) inflationary expectations.

Much more likely is the notion that gold’s post-November pullback was simply the other side of the animal spirits; investors dumped risk-off assets in bulk while loading up on stocks, industrial metals and the like. In that light, we would see the precious metal’s gains in early 2017 more as a signal that, even as Johnny-come-lately investors continue piling into stocks to grab whatever is left of the rally, some of the earlier money is starting to hedge its gains with a sprinkling of risk-off moves, including gold.

None of this should be interpreted as any kind of hard and fast evidence that the risk asset reversal looms large in the immediate future. Market timing, as we never hesitate to point out, is a fool’s errand that only ever looks “obvious” in hindsight. An article in the Financial Times noted today that the recent succession of 10 straight “up” days in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was a feat last achieved in 1987, with the author taking pains to point to the whopping market crash that happened the same year. He waited until the end of the article to deliver the punch line: anyone who took that 10 day streak as a sign to get out at the “top” of the market forfeited the 30 percent of additional gains the Dow made after that before its 20 percent crash in October (do the math). Ours is not a call to action; rather, it is an observation that dormant risk factors may be percolating up ahead of choppier times.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Political Risk and the Cloak of Invisibility

February 17, 2017

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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Over the past couple weeks we have been snooping around some of the contrarian corners of the world, to see what those folks not completely enamored of the “Trump trade” have been up to (Eurozone, Brexit, what have you). While we were away, all manner of things has gone down in Washington, often in a most colorful (or concerning, take your pick) fashion. But virtually all the chief planks of that Trump trade – the infrastructure, the corporate tax reform – remain stuck in the sketchbooks and doodlings of Paul Ryan and his band of policymakers, waiting to see the light of day. By this point in his first term, Barack Obama had already passed a $1 trillion stimulus bill, among other legislative accomplishments. Is there a point at which the band of inverse-Murphy’s Law acolytes begin to question their faith that if something can go right, it will? To put it another way, does political risk still matter for asset valuation?

“Vol Val” Alive and Well

If there is a political risk factor stalking the market, it appears to have paid a call on J.K. Rowling and come away with a Hogwarts-style cloak of invisibility. For evidence, we turn to our favorite snapshot of trepidation and animal spirits – those undulating valleys of low volatility occasionally punctuated by brief soaring peaks of fear that make up the CBOE VIX “fear gauge,” shown in relation to the price performance of the S&P 500. 

Since the election last November, market volatility as measured by the VIX has subsided to its lowest level since the incredibly somnambulant dog days of summer in 2014. In fact, as the chart shows, the lowest vol readings have actually occurred on and after Inauguration Day (so much for that “sell the Inauguration” meme making the rounds among CNBC chatterboxes a few weeks back). Meanwhile, of course, the S&P 500 has set record high after record high. How many? Sixteen and counting, to date, since November 9, or about one new record for every four days of trading on average.

That by itself is not unheard of though: the index set a new record 25 times (measured over the same time period) following Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. But 1996 was a different age, one with arguably less of the “this is unprecedented” type of political headlines to which we have fast become accustomed in the past two months. To a reader of the daily doings of Washington, it would seem that political risk should be clear and present. One of this week’s stories that caught our attention was the good times being had by London bookmakers setting betting markets for the odds of Trump failing to complete his first term (the odds apparently now sit around 2:1). So what gives with this week’s string of record highs and submerged volatility?

The Ryan Run-up

The “Trump bump”, of course, was never about the personality of the 45th president, or anything else that he brings to the table other than a way to facilitate the longstanding economic policy dreams of the Ayn Randian right, represented more fulsomely by House Speaker Paul Ryan than by Donald Trump. Looking at the rally from this standpoint perhaps explains at least in part the absence of visible political risk. So what, goes this line of thinking, if Trump were either to be impeached or somehow removed under the provisions of the 25th Amendment? Vice President Pence ascends to the Oval Office, the Twitter tornadoes subside and America gets on with the business of tax cuts and deregulation in a more orderly fashion (though not much infrastructure spending, as that was never really a Ryan thing). Move along, nothing to see here.

While we understand the logic behind that thinking, we think it is misguided, not least of all because – London oddsmakers notwithstanding – we think that either impeachment or a 25th Amendment removal from office are far out on the tail of any putative distribution of outcomes. We would ascribe a higher likelihood to a different outcome; namely, that political uncertainty will continue to permeate every sphere of activity from foreign policy to global trade to domestic unrest in a bitterly divided, partisan nation. So far we are muddling through – headlines aside, many American institutions are showing their resilience in the face of challenge. That’s good news. But not good enough, in our view, to keep political risk behind its Invisibility Cloak for much longer. We’re not prophesying any kind of imminent market cataclysm, but we do expect to see our old friend volatility make an appearance one of these days in the not too distant future.

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MV Weekly Market Flash: Magic Numbers and Animal Spirits

December 23, 2016

By Masood Vojdani & Katrina Lamb, CFA

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So here we are again, nearing one of those seminal milestones in stock market lore. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, comprised of thirty (mostly household name-y) large-cap stocks, is an index whose main claim to fame is that its life span as a barometer of market sentiment extends all the way back to 1896. The Dow is poised to break through 20,000, a number whose main claim to fame is that it contains four zeroes. “Dow 20,000” screamed the entire front cover of Barron’s magazine last week. At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow your trumpets angels!

For portfolio analysts toiling away in the data-dense world of relative value movements, 250-day rolling returns and the like, these periodic “magic number moments” are scarcely worth a second look. That is particularly true when the index in question is the Dow, a much less useful or significant gauge than, say, the S&P 500 or the Russell 3000. Rationally speaking, there is nothing whatsoever of importance in these periodic episodes.

But rationality only counts for so much. In the vulgate of the wider population of investors and kibitzers, “the Dow” and “the market” are virtually interchangeable, and a nice round number like 20,000 has all the cultural significance of a special calendar date like January 1 or July 4. As with much else in the market, perception often becomes reality. Indexes do exhibit somewhat distinct trading patterns around these magic number moments, however silly it may seem. Thus, attention shall be paid.

Uncage the Elephant

The present magic number moment happens to coincide with a period of animal spirits stampeding up and down Wall Street. The Dow is up nine percent since the post-election rally kicked off on November 9.  While the index has not actually broken through the threshold as we write this, it is entirely plausible that it will be on the other side by the time we publish. Given the momentum that continues to feed off itself, counterfactuals be damned, it is more likely than not that the melt-up will carry stocks through to year-end. What then? Inquiring minds will want to know.

We have no crystal ball, of course, but we can supply a bit of historical perspective. As it turns out, the last time the Dow reached a four-zero magic moment, we were also in the middle of a market melt-up. Consider the chart below. 

This chart tracks the performance of the Dow – with the tech-heavy NASDAQ shown for comparison – during the last gasp of the late-1990s tech bubble and the ensuing bear market. As the chart shows, the Dow (green line and left-hand y axis) broke through the magic number of 10,000 in late March of 1999. Dow 10,000! These round numbers often act as very tough resistance levels, but 1999’s animal spirits pushed through the barrier with relative ease and, for good measure, surged an additional 1,000 points before settling into a brief holding pattern.

Forks in the Road

One interesting feature of this end-game stage of the late-90s melt-up is the pronounced divergence between the Dow and the NASDAQ on several occasions. This observation may have some relevance in thinking about today’s environment. The last gasp of the tech bubble, when investors more or less indiscriminately bought anything that sounded tech-y and Internet-y regardless of valuation or other counterfactuals, started in late summer 1999 and topped out in March 2000. The NASDAQ, as a proxy for the tech rally, enjoyed about seven months of near-unidirectional upward momentum during this melt-up.

The Dow, conversely, fell more than 11 percent from August to October 1999, and experienced another, even more pronounced correction of minus 16 percent from January 17 to March 7, 2000. The trough for this Dow pullback, then, roughly coincided with the NASDAQ’s March 10 bubble peak of 5,048. And, in fact, the Dow proceeded to bounce up by 15 percent from March 14 to April 11, during which time the wheels came off the dot-coms and NASDAQ experienced the first of what would be a series of bone-jarring descents over the next twelve months.

Mass Movements Then…

Why did the Dow diverge so far away from the NASDAQ (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, from the S&P 500) over that last leg of the 1999-2000 melt-up, and what light may that shed on market movements in today’s environment?

The driving narrative of that late-era ‘90s rally was technology. Investors were less concerned about what individual stocks they owned, and more concerned about getting in on the general action. The ability to obtain broad exposure to the tech and Internet sector – either through one of the then-small number of nascent ETFs, a passive index fund or similar pooled vehicle structure – was more important than the relative merits of any given stock.

By contrast to the tech-dominated NASDAQ, the Dow had a relative scarcity of tech names; only IBM, in fact, at the beginning of 1999, with Intel and Microsoft somewhat latterly tossed into the mix in November of that year. The Dow’s pullbacks in late 1999 and early 2000 thus had almost nothing in common with prevailing attitudes about the tech sector, and plausibly much more to do with valuation-wary investors looking for ways to pare back equity holdings without risking their clients’ ire by dumping those beloved shares of Cisco and Pets.com.

…Mass Movements Now

This year’s post-November 8 environment is likewise largely driven by a couple top-down themes. This time, the blessings of the narrative have fallen disproportionately on a couple sectors, in particular financials, but so far the broad indexes continue to move fairly closely in lockstep.

The mass movement vehicle of choice today is the exchange traded fund. ETFs offer exposure to just about any equity or fixed income asset class, including all the major broad indexes. Complex (and not so complex) algorithms employ ETFs for quick and efficient exposure to thematic narratives, such as the reflation-infrastructure trade that has been dominant since November.

But not all indexes attract the same level of interest from the short-term money. Consider that the average daily trading volume of SPY, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, is about 94 million shares. For XLF, SPDR’s financial sector offering, average daily volume is about 80 million shares, and for QQQ, the PowerShares NASDAQ 100 vehicle, it is a still-respectable 24 million shares.

How Now, Dow?

By contrast, the average daily volume for DIA, the BlackRock iShares ETF for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is just around 3 million shares – less than five percent of the volume for SPY. This statistic underscores one of our opening observations in this paper: as much as the average investor equates “the Dow” with “the market,” professional investors have little use for this quaint artifact of U.S. stock market history. Since the Dow is really not a ready proxy for either a specific asset class or a wider market gauge, it doesn’t offer much of a compelling reason for use in those algorithm-driven strategies that dominate short-term trading volume.

Which, in turn, may make it worth keeping an eye on the Dow once that magic number moment of 20,000 has receded into the rear view mirror. If those thirty stocks diverge away from their broad index cousins – S&P, Russell, NASDAQ et al – they may again be the canary in the coal mine warning that the fundamentals are out of line with the still-giddy prevailing market narrative. Of course, there is no assurance that this scenario will play out, and we would advise against hanging one’s hat on this outcome. Good investing is about paying attention to lots of moving parts while maintaining the discipline not to rely unduly on one or two. But we will be keeping track of the Dow’s fortunes in the coming weeks, even after the Dow 20,000! hoopla has come and gone.

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