Stocks surged mid-week in response to some positive news regarding the news that the U.S. and China may be returning to the negotiating table on trade talks. Also, the U.S. economy, while slowing, appears to be in pretty good shape for the moment. The August jobs report was lower than expected but had no real effect on stocks and bonds. The unemployment rate held steady at 3.70%, and while the report suggests the economy is slowing, there were no real surprises within the report.
However, multiple mixed signals regarding recession persist. It is hard to reconcile the various reports as there many cross-currents on the direction of both the economy. Interest rates and bond yields are flashing different signals. Recently published manufacturing data in the U.S. is worrisome and support the need for lower rates to boost growth, but better than expected economic data out of China suggest otherwise. An inverted yield curve in the U.S. (indicating a potential recession) support the argument that U.S. interest rate policy may be too tight, but low inflation and low unemployment suggest that interest rate policy may be near neutral and on target. Strong consumer spending and high levels of small business optimism argue strongly against the recession outcome, while a global slowdown and negative yields in Europe and Japan are an ominous signal of a recession or worse in the coming 24 months.
What has been great for many homeowners or those buyers sitting on the sidelines is that low-interest rates are either lowering monthly expenses or helping new home buyers qualify for a bigger mortgage or a better quality home. We continue to be in the rate-lock camp and continue to advise clients to take advantage of the 10-year Treasury note at ~1.500% which has pushed loan rates way down.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In a volatile week on Wall Street, bonds have traded well with the 10-year Treasury note touching 2.350% for the week. Market strategists have had to react to both tough trade talk on China by the Trump administration, as well as elevated tensions with Iran in the Middle East in directing trades this week. Traders flight to quality investments benefited high-quality bond yields such as government-guaranteed and A-paper mortgage debt with yields moving slightly lower but within a tight band.
Back home, the U.S. economy is humming, job growth is robust, and inflation is tame as evidenced by GDP expanding at a 3.2% annual pace in the first quarter. Unemployment touched a 50-year low and year-over-year CPI is running at 1.9%. This begs the question “why are rates so low?” The answer probably lies in long-term economic growth forecasts as well as fears of a looming recession given the potential for an elongated trade negotiation with China and anemic economic growth out of Europe and Japan. Continue to keep an eye on the 2-10 Treasury spread as signs of looming trouble ahead. For the moment, the spread is around 19 basis points and rebounding from the 9 basis point spread just a short while ago. Treasury inversions are one of the most reliable indicators of a recession and need to be taken seriously when they occur.
Home sales have rebounded due to both the time of year as spring is an important home buying season enhanced by the low-interest rate environment. Our feeling remains that the economy is strong and rates should be higher. However, we have no magic ball and so for the moment, we continue to advise clients to lock-in interest rates at these highly attractive levels.
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.