The rally in bond yields has increased mortgage applications dramatically and has also served as a boon for home buyers making the cost to owning a home more affordable.
The recent rate drop caught many off-guard as most economists did not forecast 10-year Treasury yields to trade at current levels given the strength of the U.S. economy. The drop in rates can be attributed to ongoing trade tensions with China, fear of a global economic slowdown, a potential recession, poor economic readings in Europe, Brexit uncertainty, and negative bond yields in Europe and Japan. However, a recent attack by Iran on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman did little to move rates lower indicating we may be nearing the trough in rates.
While the flattening of the yield curve with some parts of the curve inverting suggest that Fed policy may be too tight and a rate cut is warranted, remember those assumptions have already been priced into current rates. However, with rates now back near historical lows, borrowers should take this into consideration as some prominent investment banks such as Goldman Sachs do not necessarily believe the Fed will cut rates in the near term. In fact, by just speaking about lower rates, the Fed has moved interest rates lower. A wait-and-see attitude may be the policy the Fed takes, especially with inflation in check, tight labor supply, and the recent move higher in U.S. equities.
U.S. consumer confidence remains high and retail sales are strong, illustrating the strength and resilience of the U.S. consumer. With confidence high, but some other business indicators flashing warning signs of recession, there are many cross-currents to think about. With that thought in mind, we continue to be biased toward locking-in interest rates at these attractive levels. For perspective, sub- 4% 30-year mortgages were once thought inconceivable.
Bond yields dropped precipitously and global stocks were volatile as tensions rose over the U.S.-China trade talks, which has dampened investor expectations of a near-term resolution between the world’s two biggest economies. Further pushing yields lower was the ongoing Brexit non-resolution which has forced Theresa May’s resignation. Finally, Europe continues to stall under a huge debt burden and the unintended consequences of negative bond yields which have done little to spur economic growth.
The U.S. economy remains strong, so part of the low-interest rate story has to do with how low bond yields are across the pond and in Japan. Many European bonds trade at or below zero. With unemployment near a 50-year low, tame inflation readings are the other major story that has placed a ceiling on domestic yields. Bonds traded this past week at a near a 17-month low.
Housing has rebounded from a poor 4th quarter, but high prices continue to weigh on prospective buying decisions. Locally, our own real estate market has seen a strong increase in applications as the busy season is upon us and interest rates on multiple product types are very attractive.
With the 3-month 10-year Treasury curve inverting, we will continue to monitor the bond market closely for recession clues. A prolonged inversion of short-term against long-term yields is a respected indicator of a looming recession. However, for the moment, we believe the U.S. economy is performing well and interest rates this low should be locked-in at these levels; the 10-year Treasury is trading under 2.30% as of Thursday, May 23, 2019.
The highly watched Monthly Jobs Report put to rest concerns about a slowing economy as the report beat estimates with 196,000 jobs created versus 177,000 expected.
This data should put to rest for now fears on a looming recession and thus help boost stocks and slightly lower bond yields. Unemployment remained at a multi-decade low of 3.80% and hourly earnings rose to 3.20% year over year from February (which is bond-friendly as wage inflation remains tame). The Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) remained unchanged at 63.20%.
In other good news, the yield curve steepened. The potential flattening of the curve was a major concern just a few weeks ago, as that would be a sign of impending recession. However, a positive sloping yield curve is an indicator of a healthy outlook for the economy. Also, China and U.S. trade talks appear to be going well for the moment which has also helped stocks move higher. However, concerns remain as global economic growth has slowed in Europe, China, and Japan as central bankers continue to provide massive stimuli to their respective economies to spur growth. Finally, a Brexit deadline is looming in what is turning out to be a very complicated matter. So far, the markets have not been spooked by a no-deal Brexit, but that could change as the deadline approaches.
Here in the U.S., low rates have spurred home buying and refinances. We recommend taking advantage of the low interest environment because if the U.S. economy continues to surge, the Fed rate hike conversation will be back on the table. With this thought in mind, we remain biased toward locking-in interest rates at these very attractive levels, especially with the strong jobs report confirming no recession and the positive chatter regarding U.S. and China relations coming out of Washington.
Easing global monetary policy continues to provide the tailwinds pushing mortgage rates lower and equity prices higher. Recent confirmation from the February PPI and CPI also confirmed that inflation remains in check. As stocks have gained back most of the losses from late last year, risk is back in vogue.
Reduced mortgage rates have arrived just in time to boost what has been a slowing new market for the new and resale housing market. Recent stories on the glut of high-end homes (those over $10 million) have brought back the conversation as to whether and when housing will reset much lower. Our view is that a glut is unlikely given the strict underwriting guidelines that banks continue to follow. If anything, the return of low-interest rates may ignite a better than expected spring buying season in housing.
However, fears remain in the highly leveraged first world economies, especially in the corporate and government debt markets. As previously mentioned, QE has created absurdly low rates around the world and true price discovery is difficult to attain. Geopolitical events such as China trade talks, Brexit, and Italian debt levels are also worrisome, as well as the slowing of the global economy. Low rates work as a tonic in addressing these issues and central banks realize that.
With the 10-year Treasury dipping below 2.600%, locking is not a bad idea. However, given where European and Japanese bonds are trading, rates in the U.S. may go lower. Be careful what your wish for, as lower rates may mean trouble ahead. For now, all looks to be OK and borrower appear to be taking advantage of renewed low rates for both purchases and refinance. We continue to be cautious and are biased on locking-in interest rates at these levels.
The highly watched monthly non-farms payroll report was a bit of shocker at first blush with only 20k new jobs created in February versus economists’ estimates of 180k jobs. However, other details within the jobs report were positive with the unemployment rate dropping to 3.8% and a decline in the U-6 number (total unemployed) falling to 7.3% from 8.1%, which was the largest decline ever. The Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) remained unchanged at 63.2%. We will await revisions on this month’s report to see if the new jobs created are revised higher. Our hunch is that there were more jobs created then stated in this report as evidenced by the bond market’s muted reaction to the report. Stocks initially sold off but recovered most of the losses by day’s end.
Other big news this week was concerns over Europe and China’s slowing economy and the ECB reinstating stimulus. We are concerned about how long the U.S. can expand its economy in the face of global economic deceleration. Global bond yields have fallen again, and the Fed has also stalled on normalizing monetary policy which has capped interest rates globally for the moment. The fear is that with rates already so low (many bonds yield negative rates in Europe and Japan), central bankers have limited tools to in their toolkit to deploy should the world economy slow further. Keep an eye on the flattening yield curve in the U.S., especially the short-term treasury bills to 10-year Treasury spread. While a flattening yield curve does not mean a recession is near, an inversion of the yield curve is an ominous sign and has often properly predicted a recession.
Not all of this gloom and doom is bad for the consumer, as low-interest rates have spurred home refinances and purchases of both commercial and residential real estate. With home prices dipping a bit, it appears as if sales are starting to pick up into the spring buying season.
Given that the 10-year Treasury yield is below 2.62%, we remain biased toward locking-in interest rates, especially on purchase transactions.
U.S. Treasuries and major equity markets continue to trade benevolently as investors adjust to a more a “risk on” environment. A December wash-out in stocks and subsequent dovish commentary out of the Fed stoked this move upward in stocks and a move downward in interest rates. For the moment, Mr. Market has moved aside global growth concerns, some weak earnings guidance from analysts, and the fear of Brexit and Italian bond defaults. Positive talks with China are encouraging and have helped ease the markets. No less important is the fact that low interest rates spur risk-taking in equities and have arrived just in time for the spring buying season. Refinance volume has also improved amongst other debt-related activities.
The Fed pausing on their rate hike forecasts does raise some concerns given the supposed strength of our economy and near all-time highs in the stock market. Historically, the Fed mandate was to watch over employment and inflation, but it is clear that supporting equity and asset valuations is no less important in today’s world. Low rates have probably distorted true price discovery and the Fed will need to be very careful about how to move rates as December’s vicious stock market decline is evidence of what one misstep can bring on.
Next week will be an important week for Fed-related news. We believe they will be very careful with policy statements and promote their “patience” policy to Congress.
We are grateful for the low interest rates and continue to advise clients to be cautious with respect to floating rates. One quickly forgets how fast stocks and bonds can move against you should the market have a change of heart. A 10-year U.S. Treasury bond trading under 2.700% was not forecasted by many this time last year.