Market Commentary 5/13/2022

Hot Hot Hot – Inflation Data Substantiates More Fed Rate Hikes 

Inflation paired with a sluggish economy wreaked havoc on the equity markets this week. Equities fell hard (before rising on Friday) while bond spreads widened. Inflation remains public enemy number one as a hotter than expected CPI report confirmed what many of us already know…  Inflation is running strong and has yet to subside. Once inflation seeps throughout the economy, it is notoriously difficult to regain composure without the Fed breaking some part of the economy or the market.  Fed Chairman Powell suggested this much when he said he “cannot guarantee a soft landing” with the economy as the Fed raises short terms rates and begins to tighten its balance sheet. 

Prepare For Continued Volatility 

Expect continued volatility as market participants work through their models on where the Fed funds rate will settle in. This will determine if earnings and multiples on equities require recalibration. The highly speculative crypto space had a horrible week with $800 billion in value evaporating from the market. Fears of systemic risk have been discussed but have since been discounted. These types of conversations take place during bear markets and are often preludes to a market blow-up or recession. 

Real estate remains a favored asset class in times of inflation. This should bode well for a housing market that is already constrained by supply. However, in bad markets, all asset classes tend to re-price. It is hard to say if the supply limits are such as to not affect a drawdown in home valuation.  Banks remain eager to lend and with interest rates increasing, we expect a very competitive lending landscape. This should result in lenders willing to take a tighter margin to get money out the door.  Underwriting standards remain robust, so loan quality remains high. This is good for banks and ultimately the economy. We don’t expect a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, even though we see a tough year in markets.

Interest rates touched well above 3.000% before falling later in the week.  The yield curve remains very flat as we stay on recession alert. With consumer sentiment and business sentiment negative, this should help slow down spending… And hopefully, bring down demand while lowering inflation.    

Market Commentary 5/6/2022

Fed Chairman Comments Fail To Calm Markets

Fed Chairman Powell appeared to be in high spirits after his press briefing on Wednesday this week. His commentary, along with the only a .50 bp hike to the Fed funds rate, was lauded by U.S. equity markets.  Markets appreciated his willingness to take a .75 bp rate hike off the table. They also found relief in the fact that an impromptu FOMC did need to take place to address current economic conditions. Despite the temporary mirth, Thursday’s depletion of markets around the world suggests the Chairman’s comments were flawed.  Critics question the removal of any policy response with so many conditions at play: a tight labor market, aggregate demand greater than what suppliers can deliver, a war in Ukraine, and COVID-induced lockdowns in China. The bond market is skeptical of this rhetoric, as the 10-year Treasury is now above 3.000%. This is an interest rate that many experts believed would not come to light for a long time, if ever.  In addition, mortgage rates are now touching 13-year highs. Equity markets are re-pricing risky assets as speculators are getting crushed amidst fear running high.  

Just How Bad Are The Markets?

The traditional 60/40 stock to bond ratio is down over 10% year-to-date. Ultra-low bond rates have not provided the ballast that higher-yielding bonds would have given in previous down markets. With inflation running above 5%, even as high as 8.5% in some cases, there is nowhere to hide. 

Although investors are worried, it is important to note that the U.S. economy is currently doing well. This is evidenced by the April Jobs report and the fact that wage growth is moderating. The stock market can be irrational and is not always indicative of actual economic health. Inflation does remain a problem. Fortunately, the Fed is doing its job by speaking tough on inflation. High beta stocks have lowered along with other speculative investments.  As consumer and business confidence crumble, prices will eventually come down. The big question is whether the Fed should be tightening more aggressively or continue to proceed with a “go slow” mentality.  Many experts would like to see the Fed move quickly to get in front of inflation and then adjust policy once inflation is tamed. 

Moving Into Creative Financing Options

As we indicated a couple of weeks ago, the WSJ is now writing about rising rates and borrowers becoming more creative with financing choices. Most notably is the move into adjustable-rate mortgage products. ARM loans adjust after a fixed-rate period but have much lower note rates. With 30-year fixed-rate mortgages above 5.00%, ARM products can still be had at rates under 3.00%. While these products are not for everyone, given the escalation in rates, these programs offer lower monthly payments and are becoming quite popular in the current rate environment. This is especially true in more expensive areas like Southern California.  

Watch the full statement from Fed Chairman Powell here.

Market Commentary 4/29/22

GDP Slows As Fed Eyes Rate Hikes

It’s becoming clear to everyone that the Fed failed to act sooner. There is now a 50% -50% chance of a .75 bp Fed hike next week, in addition to the many other indicators that are turning negative on the U.S. economy.  Stagflation is now being talked about as a real threat (stagflation is the combination of slow growth and rising prices). The employment picture remains tight which supports the “no recession” argument, but this time may still be different. The combination of the geopolitical issues in Europe, global inflation, rising energy costs, a zero-Covid policy in China, and general overall unease, may produce a recession quicker than many analysts believe. Big tech names such as Apple and Amazon reported worse than expected earnings and warned of tougher times ahead due to supply chain disruption and margin declines due to inflation. While the major indexes are down from 12% to 23%, many stocks are down 50% or more. Speculation is being sucked out of the equity markets which will affect how investors look at all types of assets: private equity, real estate, and bonds. The risk premium is increasing on investments as both equity and bond markets get hammered. Remember the human psychological component of investing, when every investor runs for the exit, the price is whatever you can get and not what that asset is worth. Watch the VIX index this week, also known as the fear gauge, to blow out as a sign that near-term market capitulation is finally over.

Personal savings is going in the wrong direction as inflation outpaces gains in income.  This speaks to the heart of the issue and why I believe the Fed will let the equity market fall much further than some pundits believe. Why, you ask?  The bottom 40% of the U.S. workforce cannot handle double-digit inflation. The combination of zero interest rates and too much stimulus has now created a massive demand shock, too much money chasing too few goods. While raising interest rates will not solve this issue overnight, the downside volatility in equities will discourage consumers and businesses from spending money. This should quell inflation over time.  The Fed will come to the equity markets rescue at some point (if need be). However, we are a long way away from that conversation. 

The yield curve remains on recession watch as the 2-10 and 5-10 year U.S. Treasuries are flat. This is beginning to affect lending rates across all product offerings since ARM’s vs. Fixed rates are also pricing at nearly the same note rate.  With mortgage rates on the rise, and affordability becoming stretched due to higher interest rates, the housing market appears to have peaked. Unlike 2008, loan underwriting remains robust, so while there could be a drift down in home values, it is hard to see an outright correction on the horizon. There are also many potential homebuyers who gave up the last year and a half on buying a home, who may re-enter the housing market should prices correct slightly. The refinance market is drying up as ultra-low interest rates have pulled forward demand and so many mortgages were written with sub 3.00% debt. As stated previously, caution is warranted as the return of capital becomes more important than the return on capital.

Market Commentary 4/22/22

Fed Speak Shakes Markets As Rate Hikes Loom

Markets remain confused about Fed policy.  The Fed voting committee was out talking up their points this week. Suggestions of a .75 bp increase in Fed funds were discussed, with some Fed members supporting this increase and others stating that this high of an increase was unnecessary. Many investors have found this situation both mystifying and frustrating. I have written previously that the Fed should have raised short-term rates sooner as well as stopped QE earlier.  Many of us did not believe the Fed’s “transitory” stance on inflation as autos, homes, food, and other essential goods have increased dramatically in price over the last couple of years.  Now, the Fed is way behind on inflation and is facing several challenges: a tight labor market, rising prices in oil and food, high rents, and supply chain challenges.  It may be too late for the Fed to slow inflation in a timely manner absent a major drawdown in the equity markets. This drawdown would have ripple effects throughout all segments of the economy.  A few more days like Thursday and Friday in the equity markets, and the wealth effect the equities market creates will be under pressure, ultimately dragging on consumer sentiment and business and consumer spending.

Interest rates are rising quickly. Banks are increasing spreads on rates. There was a recent article on the negative impact floating rate loans (which move up or down based on SOFR + margin) are having on businesses as those loan rates surge and increased debt service payments for companies.  For perspective, the 2-year Treasury was ~.50% in November 2021 and is now ~2.67%.  The bond market has been the first to react to Fed policy as of late after having shrugged off the idea of higher rates for many years. While the long bond has flirted with 3.000%, short-end bonds have shot up in anticipation of several rate hikes in the coming months. The equity market finally got the message this week.  The 2 – 10 year Treasury spread is under .25 bp, suggesting heightened concerns about a recession sometime in late 2022 or 2023. 

Mortgage rates remain elevated.  The 30-year mortgage rate is now above 5.000% from most lenders.  It is becoming harder to qualify borrowers as rates have risen and rates are no longer considered “cheap money.” How this affects the real estate market given the supply constraints in some markets such as Southern California is yet to be determined. It is worth noting that the combination of higher rates, the increased cost of living, and a very volatile equity market, will weigh on the minds of new home buyers.  Home prices may need to come down to adjust for the many households being impacted by the pressure of added costs.  There was not much to celebrate this week. It is starting to feel as if harder times are ahead of us for the coming year. 

Market Commentary 4/15/2022

Economic Worries Intensify As CPI Hits 40 Year High

Central bankers across the globe are raising rates in response to inflation. The world has become increasingly volatile and dangerous with the war in Ukraine, China-Taiwan tension, Israel-Iran flare-ups, Covid lock-downs in China, and rampant inflation globally. The long-term consequences of inflation are quickly becoming a major threat to world harmony.  Rising prices impact the poorest people most, and in any measure of inflation anywhere in the world inflation is at 40-year highs. 

Once thought to be a problem for past generations, the combination of too much stimulus and a Fed that was certain (wrongly) that inflation would be contained even with zero interest rates, has put the Fed Chairman on his back foot.  The Fed definitely has the tools to crush inflation, however, their blunt instruments to combat inflation could also create a recession or worse. Many important economic indicators are flashing warning signs: yield curve inversion, CPI over 5%, and oil doubling in price are major headwinds to the economy.  Consumers are worried while businesses are struggling to keep up with increased costs and a lack of workers. Full employment complicates the story as the economy appears to be healthy, but, inflation readings this high and a Fed committed to multiple rate hikes in 2022 can quickly slow down economic activity (this is what the Fed is desirous of).   

Interest rates have risen dramatically, especially on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages.  With 30-year money near 5%, adjustable-rate mortgages are gaining traction as the preferred product. While ARM products carry interest rate risk after the fixed-rate period ends, the delta between ARM products and 30-year fixed products is wide enough to be the product of choice for jumbo loans. Should rates move higher (which is likely), expect housing demand to slow. There are already signs that housing has peaked as new home builders are sitting on more inventory, and second home sales are slowing. Finally, one important point to ponder is the massive amount of homes bought by investment companies such as Black Rock.  These institutional buyers may flood the market with homes at the first sign of a slowing down. While a major downdraft in housing is unlikely, it is quickly turning into a buyer’s market in certain areas.  Southern California remains supply-constrained. To date, the rise in rates has not materialized into a major slowdown as of yet. Caution remains the word of choice.

Market Commentary 3/11/22

Spreads Widen On Mortgages As Inflation & War Weigh Down On Markets

The global economy remains on edge with the war in Europe and surging inflation. Many of us are worried about the state of the world, our savings, and the cost of living; especially after two years in a pandemic. Consumers are very concerned about the rising costs of food, gas, as well as other goods and services. Too many headwinds remain to write with any conviction about where the economy or the markets are headed. It certainly feels eerie, but may encourage some greater risk-taking for those who can stomach the volatility. Fearful times usually present opportunities. However, no one can say for certain if this time will be different. 

I remain of the mindset to look for good quality investments which require digging into financial statements and determining if the business has an investible moat around it and a good balance sheet. The meme stocks have been crushed and unfortunately many people have learned the hard way how challenging investing can be. The same thought process applies to buying real estate when volatility picks up and sentiment sinks. The combination of more fear and higher interest rates should be a tailwind for new buyers. Also, with no more easy money being made perhaps buyers will be less excited about bidding up houses. However, the limited supply of homes in big cities such as Los Angeles will provide a floor to prices. This will keep home valuations steady even as the major U.S. indices flirt with bear market drawdowns. 

Interest rates should go higher near term. Regardless, the flattening yield curve must be watched closely and could limit how tight Fed policy may become. Recession talk has picked up as of late. High commodity and food prices along with ongoing supply chain issues do not bode well for GDP growth.  Consumer confidence, the best form of stimulus there is (when we feel good about the world we spend more) has languished. The war in Ukraine touches many emotional nerves and should keep consumer confidence low until it ends (hopefully soon).  Put all of this together, on top of our massive deficit, and it makes one wonder how far the Fed will be able to go with rate increases.

Market Commentary 12/10/21

Interest Rates Hold Steady As U.S. Inflation Hits 39-Year High

Inflation readings rose to levels unseen in almost 40 years, with the CPI index clocking in at 6.80% annually. We don’t expect these readings to cool off anytime soon, as the slow housing-related component of the inflation calculation has risen dramatically.  As an example of how bad the supply chain really is, the local Starbucks I usually go to was out of all breakfast items this morning except for one or two of the less popular foods. The manager informed me that they simply can’t get the food on time or consistently from their suppliers. This is holding true for so many goods, leaving companies scrambling.

Further complicating matters is the imbalance between job openings and job seekers which currently stands at over 5 million. Companies are scratching their heads as the promise of higher wages, signing bonuses, and more flexible hours isn’t filling the void. The dynamics of employment have changed since COVID.  Employees have pricing power for the moment and this will lead to still higher inflation. As wages and fixed costs are elevated, companies will do all they can to pass those costs to customers. Supply chain issues will also force companies to bid up inventory. These factors will keep inflation as a key concern for the U.S. consumer through the foreseeable future. 

Bonds curiously took the hot inflation reading in stride.  The reasons for this are many, but, perhaps long-term bond traders know that these soaring input costs and wage increases will lead to an economic slowdown.  The equity market was unconcerned with the news as well.  Equity traders are working hard to keep the year-end rally intact after a quick but violent shake-out at the start of the month.  Rest assured if inflation stays at these levels or higher, volatile days are ahead. The impact probably won’t start to be felt until early next year.

Housing and real estate remain a great hedge against inflation. Low long-term rates are helping borrowers pay for houses, but with low fixed interest expenses. There is something for everyone in terms of mortgages- from private banking with extra-low rates for the ultra-rich, to the community bank who is eager to gain market share, to the alternative doc mortgage bank who is willing to support customers with or without income verification.  Thankfully, Insignia Mortgage has access to all of these products which are keeping us very busy finding solutions for our many clients.

Market Commentary 11/12/21

Consumers are starting to voice displeasure with inflation over important items such as food and gas, amongst many other costs. It is hard to say whether inflation will be transitory (the experts keep redefining what transitory means).  Some goods such as used cars and lumber are falling in price, while other goods will come down in price as the supply chains open up. However, with a shrinking able work population, wage inflation is stickier and the cost of hiring employees is rising.  You are hearing stories of businesses offering 20 per hour for entry-level jobs, as well as, investment banks offering over 300,000 for young investment banking associates who graduate near the top of their class. With rents rising and a tight housing market, it feels inflation will be with us longer than the Fed expected.

So why haven’t long bonds risen? Well, that is a tough question to answer. The Fed controls short-term rates by moving up or down the Fed Funds rate. Typically, longer-duration bonds are not controlled by the Fed. However, some bond analysts believe that the Fed is buying long-dated bonds which have kept rates lower than they should be. Others believe that the Fed will need to act quickly in raising short-term rates and in doing so, potentially harm the economic recovery. Therefore the next couple of monthly inflation readings will likely determine where interest rates move. It will be difficult to argue that inflation is transitory should the readings continue to come in “hot.”  This week’s CPI readings were remarkable and at the highest since 1991. There has never been a time where inflation was running this hot and interest rates this low.   

Real estate remains a great hedge against inflation, especially with such limited supply in the market. While prices can’t go up at this clip forever, historically low-interest rates are keeping affordability in the housing sector reasonable. Most people finance home purchases and are comfortable with the monthly debt payments. The growing number of non-traditional banks and mortgage companies are helping the higher-priced markets by accommodating borrowers with unique situations (those with hard-to-understand financials or originating from a foreign country). Insignia Mortgage remains very busy placing jumbo loans for these borrowers who are looking for a piece of the California dream.

Market Commentary 10/29/21

The upcoming weeks are developing into an interesting time for the financial markets. While the argument can be made that all things are transitory, the Fed’s definition of transitory has been a few months. Core inflation is at a thirty-year high with no sign of abatement. Inflation appears likely to linger. Many of America’s best companies have commented about the supply chain and labor shortages. Numerous companies are offering several thousand dollars in signing bonuses to entry-level employees just to attract new hires. Other companies are addressing the employee shortage by finding their own logistics solutions to get goods to their customers. 

Rising inflation is just not a U.S. issue. As the world recovers from the shock and reopening of COVID, the global supply chain has been broken. Some countries have seen enough of rising prices. The combination of surging demand with easy monetary and fiscal policy has created a massive amount of money in the global financial system. 

To combat run-away inflation, some foreign central banks have begun raising short-term interest rates. It is not believed the U.S. is ready to raise interest rates, but the Fed has been signaling its intention of slowing the pace of purchases of bonds and mortgage-backed securities, a measure known as Quantitative Easing.  By signaling the market of this intention, the Fed is hopeful the markets will take the news in stride. So far, so good. But there is no doubt that policymakers will be monitoring the markets very closely should the taper become official.

The Biden infrastructure, social welfare, and taxation plan are still not a done deal. Odds are that the plans will be implemented. There has not been enough time to adequately review the policy and how it might affect the U.S. financial and real estate markets.  However, as we have opined previously, we don’t like the idea of increased taxes on capital gains on investments, especially if not inflation-adjusted. If taxes are raised too high on speculative investments, the desire to take risks will diminish. 

The bond market remains sanguine on inflation but the yield curve has begun to flatten as future rate hikes seem more likely. As a result, slowed economic growth is probable. Remember, the Fed can control the short end of the curve but not the long end of the curve (unless the Fed implements yield curve control). Many banks price corporate bonds off of the 5-year Treasury so as this yield rises, so will corporate interest expense.  With mortgage rates drifting higher, loan volume has slowed. This should come as no surprise. Alternative mortgage products are leading the charge for many of Insignia Mortgage’s clients. Many new home buyers and refinance applicants are not bankable with traditional lenders as many applicants have opaque financial structures. This segment of applicants tends to have hard to understand income, be from a foreign country, or are quite substantial from an asset standpoint. Real estate has been a great hedge against inflation historically. The combination of low-interest rates and rising real estate values continue to keep transaction activity high.

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Market Commentary 7/9/21

Rates Fall Then Rise As Markets Await Key Inflation Data

Bond yields fell mid-week and then recovered Friday. The drop in bond yields appears to be due to technical moves more than concerns about a slowing economy. The more virulent Delta variant of Covid is spreading widely and swiftly, potentially threatening to dampen the global economy.

Some economists are concerned about “stagflation” as a result of falling yields while inflation is rising. For the moment, the economy remains strong and those fears are not justified. Yet with central banks pumping trillions of dollars into the financial system, true price discovery and market independence have been lost. Therefore, we should be cautious about the unknowns of these never-before-seen policies. With equities and housing at record levels, volatility could pick up in the back half of the year. Next week, all eyes will be on key inflation data. Should the print be hotter than expected, the Fed will be under pressure to do more sooner. This could have a big impact on all markets.  

Mortgage volume in the jumbo sector remains robust. Borrowers are eager to close on either refinances or new purchases, as evidenced by the high volume of SBA loans, commercial building purchases, and high-end residential purchases. Low interest rates locked-in long-term are helping buyers justify the high cost of homeownership.