The U.S. equity markets traded at all-time highs on the last full trading week of the year. The market’s soaring prices were propelled to record levels by accommodative monetary policy, positive news on the U.S. – China trade deal, a strong consumer, and unwinding of recession fears. Final GDP 3rd quarter numbers were also released on Friday and were not revised, showing economic growth growing at a respectable 2.1%. Overall, the U.S. economy is in good shape and the recent stock market gains are a vote of confidence, supporting that narrative.
Homebuilders remain confident and housing starts surprised to the upside earlier in the year. Most economists had predicted the 10-year U.S. Treasury would end 2019 at above 3.000%. The plunge lower in rates (10-year U.S. Treasury currently at ~1.92%) has been a big factor in spurring home purchases and refinances, as well as underpinning the surge in equities and other asset prices. If rates remain low, we would expect the consumer to remain bullish and continue to spend on autos, homes, and other high-cost durable goods.
Banks remain aggressive on pricing and mortgage banks continue to serve the demand by self-employed borrowers who face challenges documenting their income. Rates are low and should be locked-in. Continued positive data both in the U.S. and abroad could lift rates higher. Then again, maybe they won’t.
Stocks rose this week following good earnings news from America’s best companies, as well as some positive news on the China-U.S. trade issues. News can change on a dime on this issue so please take this into consideration when reading this post. While durable good orders were down slightly and the China trade conflict has created challenges for U.S. companies doing business in China, feedback from third-quarter earnings supports the slowing economy here in the U.S. and removes the recession narrative for now. Also, with over a 90% probability of a rate cut next week by the Fed, the yield curve has steepened. This is another good indicator that there is no near-term recession on the horizon and that the Fed has gotten out in front of the threat of recession.
New housing purchases slowed as interest rates rose from near-historic lows which put more pressure on borrowers to qualify. Rates are still very attractive and have definitely helped to spur purchase and refinance activity. With the 10-year now at ~1.80% from below 1.500% not too long ago, we continue to advise locking-in interest rates.
In closing, the U.S economy continues to be in a “Goldilocks” trend as inflation is muted, unemployment rates are low, and businesses are doing fairly well. Keep an eye out for results of the Fed committee meeting along with numerous other economic reports which will be trickling in next week.
Positive comments about trade negotiations with China from the White House on Thursday and Friday sent the equity markets on a tear at the expense of bonds. Rates rose as optimism for a trade deal increased. The markets seem to think at least a partial trade deal may be in the works this time. If a deal is inked, it will be an ongoing positive for stocks and will certainly push interest rates higher.
Earlier in the week, the Fed Chairman spoke about his committee’s view on the economy. While the Fed sees the economy slowing, for the moment there are no signs of a recession on the horizon. The Fed reiterated it will do whatever necessary to keep the economic expansion going.
Mortgage rates have also risen this week. As we have written previously, our position continues to be that loans should be locked in when the 10-year Treasury is below 2.00%. We continue to hold this view, especially as the 10-year Treasury yield has moved off of 1.500% and is trading near 1.800%.
The prospect of lower rates has propelled the purchase of riskier asset classes such as equities. U.S. equities hit all times highs this week with the S&P index surpassing the 3,000 mark.
Fed Chairman Powell spoke Wednesday and Thursday with Congress and all but assured the markets that there will be a .25% point decrease in the Fed Funds rate later in the month. Market forecasters have already baked this rate increase into their investment strategies, but Chairman Powell used the visit to drive home the point.
Even with the prospect of lower short term rates, longer-dated Treasury bonds have moved higher with the all-important 10-year Treasury yield rising from below 2.00% to over 2.10% this past week. This steeping of the yield curve is a good sign and has put to the side recession concerns for the moment. An increase in the CPI reading this week also put pressure on bond yields. So long as the inflation readings do not get too hot, a little inflation is another positive indicator of a good economy.
Economic readings remain a mixed bag of good and bad. Consumer confidence remains high, and unemployment remains at historic lows. Both are positives. However, some key manufacturing and other producer related reading are starting to show signs of a slowdown. Also weighing on the direction or long term growth are the ongoing trade negotiations with China and their uncertain outcome.
With respect to the mortgage market, rates continue to remain at very attractive levels and are spurring purchases and refinances in both the residential and commercial marketplace. We continue to be biased toward locking-in loans at these levels as bank profitability remains under pressure due to the flattened yield curve. However, we do believe interest rates will remain low and do not foresee a big move up in rates in the near future.
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.
The highly anticipated Fed meeting this past Wednesday did not disappoint. The Fed went “max dovish” in their policy statement by stating no more rate hikes for 2019 and possibly only one rate hike in 2020. Many market watchers actually believe the next Fed move in interest rate policy will be lower, a far cry from just this past December where the Fed believed that two more rate hikes were likely for 2019. Less understood but equally important was the Fed’s timeline on the end of the balance sheet run-off, which will be ending later in the year.
Bonds responded as expected as both government and mortgage bond yields fell precipitously. Stocks responded with caution, falling Wednesday, rallying Thursday, and as of the time of this post, falling hard on Friday.
What’s next? The big question being asked is what does the Fed see that others don’t with such a quick shift in policy. Low rates will help borrowers buy new homes, cars, refinance debt, and also aid corporations, but the return of low rates due to the fear of either a brewing U.S. recession or quickly slowing European, Japanese, and the Chinese economies is quite worrisome. Longer-dated German bunds have gone negative for the first time in quite a while, and our own 10-year U.S. Treasury bond is trading at 2.45%, well below the 3.25% seen just a couple of months ago.
For those who qualify, low rates are another bite at the apple, which will help boost the spring buying season, as well as spur refinances, which will result in more savings or more disposable cash flow to buy other items, so in that sense we are grateful to the Fed.
Should the U.S. avoid recession (keep an eye on the flattening yield curve), rates at today’s levels are very attractive, but should the U.S. slip into a recession, expect rates to fall lower. At the moment, we are in a wait-and-see mode on rate direction and would not be surprised if rates were headed lower.
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.
The U.S. economy grew at the best clip in almost a decade even in the face of a slowing global economy, China-US trade tensions, and political uncertainty in Europe. The strong job market and tax reform helped spur consumer spending and on-going positive business investment. Fourth quarter GDP closed the year out at 2.6%. With the White House gunning for 3% economic growth and the Fed pausing on interest rate hikes, the good times look likely to roll on at least for a while.
Further supporting keeping interest rates on hold was the Fed’s favorite measure of inflation, Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE), which came in at 1.9%, as expected. Low inflation readings cap bond yields and force investors to invest in riskier but higher-yielding assets classes.
Stocks continue to climb the wall of worry and are re-approaching all-time highs. Market risk-taking is back in vogue even in the face of a decline in earnings. A return to low rates has triggered increases in mortgage refinances and have certainly helped on-the-fence home buyers jump into the housing market.
With Europe and China slowing, and the Fed being very careful about its next move, we can see interest rates remaining low for the next several months. With the 10-year Treasury yield under 2.67%, we advise locking rates except for those borrowers willing to play the market in search of a marginally better deal.
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.