U.S. economic growth remains solid and better than many economists thought was possible just a few years ago, though it’s still below the White House’s goal of 4% growth. However, our strong U.S. economy is halting the move to lower yields as all eyes are fixed on the action-packed economic calendar next week which includes the Core PCE reading, the Fed meeting, and the July jobs report.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the second quarter of 2019 rose 2.1%, down from 3.1% in Q1 though a surge in consumer and business spending. This pushed the personal consumption expenditures index higher by 4.5%, the best since Q4 2017. Recent tariffs and a global economic slowdown stunted growth somewhat in Q2 though a GDP with a 2% handle is still solid.
2nd quarter earnings proved better than expected as stocks continue to trade well on the good earnings coming out of some of the world’s biggest companies. Interest rates remain low and consumer and business confidence remains high. With the Fed set to lower the short-term lending rates between .25% and .5%, fears of recession have been taken off the table for the time being.
With a resilient U.S. economy and the unemployment rate under 4%, we continue to appreciate long-term interest rates around 2%, but also watchful of a move higher in interest rates here in the U.S. if inflation ticks up. However, one could argue that the U.S. economy does not need lower rates given the ongoing positive economic trends. Only time will tell if gloomier days are on the horizon given the slowdowns of the other major world economies.
It’s hard to time the bottom of the market, but with rates this good, we are biased towards locking.
Bank earnings this week support the notion that the U.S. consumer is feeling pretty upbeat about the economy. With consumer confidence high, the unemployment rate sitting at a 50-year low, and wages slowly rising, the consumer is doing just fine. Businesses and institutional analysts are not as upbeat citing slowing manufacturing data, slowing global growth rates, a flattened yield curve, and ongoing trade tensions with China as causes for concern.
The Fed is set to lower interest rates by .25% and possibly 5% at the end of July. All signs point to this being a done deal. However, with a strong June jobs report, solid bank earnings, and some other positive manufacturing related data coming in better than expected, some economists are torn as to whether a rate reduction by the Fed is necessary. Other economists believe it is important to act fast and aggressively with monetary policy as the U.S. economy shows some signs of slowing, especially with interest rates already so low.
With attractive interest rates for everything from car loans to home mortgages to corporate debt offerings, there has been increased demand for debt both in the corporate and consumer space. Mortgage activity has been strong. However, home prices in coastal areas are already very expensive so it’s still unknown whether lower interest rates will continue to drive on home buying trends.
Many did not see a return to 2% 10-year Treasury yields, so we remain cautious with respect to how much lower rates can go and we continue to advise locking in interest rates at these ultra-low levels
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.
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.
Treasury yields dropped this week to a 21-month low. Multiple Fed officials spoke of the possibility of lowering short-term interest rates as ongoing trade tensions with China begin to wear on the U.S. economy. Further causes of concern include slowing manufacturing data both in the U.S. and abroad, negative interest rates in Europe and Japan, and the European Central Bank opining on the high probability of rate cuts in the Eurozone to combat its sluggish economy.
At the moment, there are several conflicting economic signals: consumer and business confidence is strong, but other key economic data are showing signs of a potential recession on the horizon. Of greatest concern is the 3-month to 10-year Treasury curve, which has inverted. A prolonged inversion supports the notion that the markets believe rates are too high, and more importantly, it is a key recession indicator.
Further pushing bond yields lower Friday was the release of the May Jobs report which came in much cooler than expected (75,000 actual versus 185,000 estimated). Some of the weakness in hires last month could be blamed on worker shortages in certain sectors such as construction. It will be interesting to see how the June jobs report plays out. A tepid June jobs report will all but guarantee a Fed rate cut. Due to the Fed Funds Rate already at a very low level relative to the length of the economic recovery which dates back almost 10 years now, the Fed has very little room to lower short-term rates and it will act sooner than later once it believes economic growth is stalling.
Speaking of rate cuts, corporate and individuals are enjoying lower borrowing costs and lenders are aggressively pricing home and commercial loans in the search for new business. With so many experts expecting lower rates to come, we continue to advise clients to be cautious as any unexpected good news (think trade deal with China) could catch markets off guard. For the moment, we are biased toward floating rates at these levels with the understanding the market is severely overbought.
The U.S. economy continues to chug along, at least that’s the consensus for the moment. With consumer and business sentiment still going strong, along with a recent surge in retail sales, low inflation and near full employment, the overall picture of the economy is good.
The Fed hitting the pause button earlier this year on raising rates and running off the balance sheet has certainly helped investor confidence as evidenced by the rise in equities. In addition, mortgage applications amongst other finance activities have improved due to the pause in short term rate increases by the Fed. Finally, the steeping of the yield curve has put to rest rumors of recession talk as several top bank economists see no signs of a recession, near-term.
For the moment, we are in a “Goldilocks Environment” with an economy that is neither running too hot nor too cold. As a result, the spring home buying season should be a good one.
Even as other parts of the world are experiencing a slow-down, it is hard to bet against the U.S. and all of the opportunity that this country has to offer its citizens. However, risks remain in Europe, and in our negotiations with China and North Korea, as well as the massive government debt burdens. These economic and geopolitical risks are capping our rates back home as the German 10-year Bund is trading in negative territory juxtaposed to US Treasuries which are trading above 2.50%.
Given the drift up in the 10-year U.S. Treasury from around 2.39% to 2.54%, we believe rates are range-bound. We can see rates continue to drift higher if the U.S. economy continues to stay strong and stocks continue to rise.
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.
Declining mortgage rates have spurred refinance activity, as well as increased the probability of a strong spring home buying season. With inflation in check and the Fed on pause, interest rates should remain attractive for the foreseeable future. However be on the alert as rates may have bottomed and hit resistance in moving lower after rallying greatly since the beginning of the year.
Fears of global economic activity slowing continue to weigh on bonds. The recent drop in rates has pushed several wealthy nations debt to trade at zero % or below. In the U.S., the 10-year Treasury bond briefly dropped below 2.4% this week and the 3 month to 10-year Treasury yields inverted, a potential ominous signal of a looming recession should the inversion hold. An inverting yield curve has predicted most recessions and the inversion is the result of fears of economic growth globally as well as a lack of inflation. These fears will keep investors on their toes and may create a more volatile rate environment in the coming months.
Given that we believe most of the concerns we’ve mentioned are priced in, we are biased toward locking in rates at these very attractive levels. Any unexpected good news could move rates up higher quickly.
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.