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.
Wow! Bond yields around the world plummeted as fears of a full-blown trade war with China escalated creating volatility in all markets. The U.S. China trade war has increased the odds of a U.S. recession as the deterioration in trade talks will add additional stress to decelerating global factory output. This prompted central banks around the world to cut interest rates further as the race to zero, or negative rates goes on. Gold also surged as a safer-haven investment. How this all will end is anyone’s guess.
Back in the U.S., the economy remains strong but slowing as the Trump tax cuts wear off and U.S. companies reconfigure global supply chains due to uncertainties with China. Recession concerns have increased as GDP forecasts have been cut and corporate earnings are slowing. This is what the inversion of parts of the U.S. yield curve is suggesting. An inverted yield curve is one of the best indicators of an oncoming recession. All of this activity pushed U.S. bond yields to levels thought not possible just a few months ago.
On the plus side, one group that is happy see rates plummet are borrowers. Refinance applications have skyrocketed and while the home purchase market has been stalling, the hope is that lower interest rates will spur buyers into action. While we have been cautious about locking in interest rates once the 10-year Treasury note touched 2.00%, the huge surge in loan applications may affect bank pricing so we continue to advise to lock-in. With interest rates so low, for some borrowers, the real cost of funding is near zero which should help consumers make additional purchases and lower monthly expenses.
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.
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).
It’s anyone’s guess how low bond yields can go with short-term government-guaranteed European and Japanese debt offering negative yields. The idea of a negative interest rate is probably something that none of us thought was possible. Bill Gross, the famed bond manager, seems to feel that something will have to give, saying, “In recent weeks markets have witnessed Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank (ECB) speak to ‘no limit’ to how low Euroland yields could be pushed – as if he were a two-time Texas Hold’em poker champion.” He then noted that in turn, Janet Yellen halted the Fed’s well-advertised tightening cycle at 25 basis points, at least temporarily, followed a few days later her counterpart at the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda, decided to enter the “black hole of negative interest rates much like the ECB and three other European central banks.”
Domestically, U.S. bonds have benefited from these central bank policies with the 10-year Treasury trading around 1.84% as of Friday afternoon (2/5/16). A mixed job report further benefitted mortgage bonds this morning. The jobs report for January came in at less than 40,000 than predicted. However, the jobless rate did fall to less than 5%. Volatility in various sectors including global equities, the oil patch and loans made to the oil industry all continue to weigh on the market as well. These factors too are helping to push yields lower.
Though rate increases are on the horizon, experts believe the Fed will hike rates no more than four times in 2016.
Technically, bonds are overbought, and we remain biased toward locking in interest rates with yields at these levels.