Equities have been on a tear this week and bond yields ripped higher as recession fears take a back seat to positive commentary out of the U.S. and China on trade talks. Further calming fears about the state of the U.S. economy was better than expected August retail sales report and the steepening yield curve. With the U.S. consumer comprising a majority of the economy, this report reinforces that there is no imminent recession in sight. Just last week the 10-year Treasury note was trading around 1.500% versus the current rate of 1.87%, a remarkable move in just a few days. With rates on the rise, the recent flood of applications by U.S. individual and corporate borrowers will subside, especially if rates move a bit higher from here. However, as we have opined previously, our feeling was that the U.S. economy is in pretty good shape and that a 10-year treasury under 1.500% was an alert to lock-in rates.
Across the pond, the ECB eased their monetary policy in response to their stalling economy and doubled down on negative interest rate policies. It is becoming unclear how much negative rates help economic viability, but with rates already so low and Europe teetering on recession, the ECB believes it is best to err on the side of more easing. These policies are creating havoc with respect to how to evaluate risk and are pushing investors into riskier asset classes in search of yield. The one positive for the U.S. borrower is negative rates abroad will limit how high interest rates will move back home.
The next big news event is the Federal Open Market Committee meeting next week. Odds heavily favor a rate decrease of one-quarter of one percent on the Fed Funds rate to keep pace with the easing going on in the rest of the developed world. It will be interesting to hear the commentary from the Fed Chair after the rate decision is made and how the markets respond to more easing.
Equities surged this week with the S&P 500 reaching a record high in response to an accelerated fall in global bond yields. The 10-year U.S. Treasury benchmark fell to 2.00% for the first time since 2016 while German government yields went further negative. All bonds issued by first world nations are trading well below where most economists predicted just a few months ago as the ongoing trade tensions and tariffs with China, as well as a sputtering European economy, and low inflation readings weigh on central bankers.
With rates already low, Fed Chairman Powell commented on the need to be pro-active (dovish) with a potential rate cut should the data support further accommodation in order to stave off a recession. Earlier in the week, the ECB reiterated a willingness to push yields lower through QE measures in order to spur economic activity. With bloated government balance sheets that were amassed during the Great Recession, the drop in bond yields reflects the difficult position the Fed and other Central Banks are in as the path to more normalized monetary policy has stalled. The real fear is that with rates already so low all over the world, there is not much more the monetary policy can do to boost economic growth.
The big beneficiary of low yields are borrowers, as evidenced by the surge in home buying and refinance activity in the past few months. Rates are incentivizing new home purchase and reducing borrowers monthly expenses with new lower mortgage payments on refinances. Lenders remain hungry for business and the drop in rates has increased borrower affordability.
With rates near 2.00%, a level we admit caught us off-guard, we are strongly biased toward locking in rates because lending institutions are at capacity and will need to raise rates to meet turn times. While we can see rates go lower, the benchmark 10-year Treasury near 2.000% is pretty sweet.
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.
Global yields continue to move lower benefitting borrowers in a significant way. Domestically, the so-called “Powell Put” has helped equities rise as traders have greater confidence in bidding on riskier investments.
The 10-year Treasury is trading under 2.65% which is making mortgage rates ultra attractive again and from what we can see, increased loan volume greatly. While our domestic rates are low, rates are even lower across the pond. In fact, there are hints that the European Central Bank might soon lower short rates in the face of a slowing European economy, Brexit confusion, and looming Italian debt concerns. Add a deflationary Japan and a slowing China economy to the mix, and therein lies the reason our domestic rates while low are actually quite high in relation to the rest of the developed world.
No big economic news this week, but next week will be important with multiple inflation reports coming out. If inflation remains tame, we could see rates move lower. Should we get a surprise higher on inflation, rates will adjust quickly. The Fed calmed markets late last month as they confirmed rates increases and the Fed balance sheet reduction was not on auto-pilot. A hot inflation reading could challenge those statements, especially with a booming U.S. economy, and historically low unemployment.
Home buyers are taking advantage of these low rates, and with a drop in home prices, we are seeing greater activity from buyers. We remain biased toward locking-in rates at these low levels (to be fair, levels we thought we would not revisit again for quite some time).