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.
In what has become a tale of two different forecasts on the state of the U.S. economy, bond yields continue to test multi-year lows as stocks continue to climb the wall of worry. With all eyes on the G-20 summit and if a trade deal or path to a trade deal can be worked out, interest rates are stuck and equities grind higher. The outcome of this summit has the potential to move bond and equity markets in a big way, as well as the structure of our global economy. Also of concern is the slowing of corporate earnings, the decline in manufacturing data, and the move lower in consumer and business confidence (although readings still are high but off of higher levels).
Lack of inflation, as indicated by the Fed’s favorite inflation reading, the May core PCE reading, was unchanged at 1.60%. Low inflation serves as a benefit to bond yields and is yet another reason the Fed may bring down short-term lending rates at their next meeting. However, it is important to note that future price reductions in short-term lending facilities have already been priced in by “Mr. Market.” With the middle of the yield curve beginning to steepen from recent levels (although parts of the curve still remain inverted and should serve as a warning sign of heightened recession risk), absent a very big unforeseen negative event such as major bank default or big slowdown in economic activity, interest rates may be near the bottom in the U.S and both individuals and corporations are taking advantage of these lower rates via the surge in loan application and corporate bond deals.
The savings in monthly mortgage payments is a positive sign for consumer spending as those savings can be used to buy other goods and services. Lower rates also make home buying more affordable assuming it is not offset by a price increase. Considering the health of the U.S. economy in relation to the plunge in bond yields, we continue to be biased toward locking-in interest rates at these extremely accommodative levels.
The “Sell in May and Go Away” theory is on full display as stocks endure a tough week of trading to the benefit of lower bond yields. The main culprits are ongoing trade tensions with China and strong rhetoric from President Trump concerning Mexico. The U.S. will begin imposing tariffs on Mexican goods coming to the U.S. until Mexico applies stricter measures to help halt the illegal immigration crisis. This surprised the market on Thursday. Adding to the volatility is a slower growing global economy, negative interest rates on German and Japanese government debt, and fears of a potential recession. All of these factors have helped push U.S. Treasury yields to a many months low even against the backdrop of strong consumer confidence, a 3.1% GDP 1st quarter reading, and a fairly decent first-quarter earnings season. For the moment, it certainly is a tale of two stories with the “fear trade” winning.
Mortgage rates are also benefiting from lower rates and low inflation readings, but not as much as U.S. Treasuries. We continue to advise borrowers to take advantage of this very low rate environment as it would not take much to push yields higher should some positive comments come out of Washington or Beijing concerning trade talks.
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.
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.
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.