Market Commentary 12/3/21

Bond Yields Drop As Markets Cope With New Omicron Variant

Market volatility is back in a big way. While obvious for those monitoring the stock market, the major moves in the bond market are less discussed. The 10 year Treasury dropped from a high of near 1.70% and is now trading under 1.400%. These enormous 2+ standard deviation type moves in the bond market are not seen very often. The U.S. economy remains strong amidst the initial market worries over the Omicron variant. Beyond the obvious, why are the markets trading like this?  Our guess is that it’s a combination of a fully priced market, year-end tax selling, and concerns over too many dollars chasing too few goods. All of these factors contribute to substantial inflation pressures and international supply chain disruption. The Fed also came out this week and stated that inflation can no longer be viewed as transitory- that it is more structural in nature. 

The November Jobs number was a disappointment overall. While the unemployment rate dropped from 4.500% to 4.20% and the labor force participation rate improved, job creation has slowed for the moment. How the variant will affect future job prints is hard to say, although early commentary from experts suggests this new variant is not as virulent. There are many job openings and not enough demand from prospective employees to fill these jobs. It is unclear as to why those jobs are not being filled. Behavioral changes as a result of the pandemic are certainly one reason.  Income gains have continued, but with high inflation readings, those gains are being offset by higher food, energy, and housing expenses. The fact that it’s cheaper to stay at home than to pay for child care, a second car, the need to commute for work, etc., may also be keeping some from re-entering the workplace as it is.

In some markets, housing is slowing as high prices discourage average Americans from being in a position to buy homes. The mortgage market has transitioned to niche lending products in a big way as many traditional buyers and refinance applicants have taken advantage of the almost 2-year ultra-low interest rate environment.  Now, those borrowers with difficult-to-understand financials are dominating purchase money and refinance requests. Due to competition, these products are attractively priced. While terms are not as good as big money center banks, the terms are compelling for those who fall into the category of either being self-employed, a foreign national, or a real estate investor. Programs for no-income verification are also making a comeback in a big way. 

Market Commentary 11/19/21

Renewed COVID-related lockdowns in Europe are providing a tailwind for U.S. bonds as equities are trading down in the news. Further supporting lower bond yields is poor consumer sentiment and a weak Labor Participation Rate.  With 70% of the U.S. economy driven by consumption, there is a growing feeling that the economy may have peaked.  With winter approaching and COVID cases rising in Europe and in parts of the U.S., the Fed may not need to raise short-term rates as we previously believed. It is important to remember that the markets are dynamic and that the pandemic can quickly change sentiment, economic output, and overall confidence by consumers and business owners.

The counterargument for higher yields is that the COVID-related supply disruptions and behavioral changes have created rampant inflation with too much demand chasing limited goods.  Fiscal and monetary stimulus are just exacerbating the issue as more money floods into the system, costs of goods and devices will keep going up. Inflation is a problem for many working-class Americans as food, gas, and shelter costs have risen. Next week the Fed’s favorite reading on inflation, core PCE, will be released and closely read by bond traders and economists. 

It would be wise to take advantage of this dip in interest rates. With inflation running well above 4%, locking in a rate lower than inflation is a great example of positive leverage while locking in a real negative rate. 

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 10/22/21

There is a growing sense that the U.S. markets are fully priced. That does not mean that U.S. equities, crypto, and real estate assets cannot go higher, or that bond yields will immediately shoot up. The Fed is making it clear in its messaging that inflation is becoming more of a concern, and that it’s time to begin reducing the extraordinary monetary stimulus that served the U.S. economy well during the Covid pandemic. Many economists believe that the Fed will announce tapering at the next Fed meeting in November. 

By back-stopping the bond market and including BBB-rated bonds, there’s no dispute the Fed’s actions have created inflation. This includes the act of pumping the printing press with transfer payments in a way never before imagined in response to a once in a 100-year pandemic. The big question is determining how the world has changed post-Covid and if we’re entering a new period of sustained inflation. With help-wanted signs everywhere and companies of all sizes paying up for employees, it is starting to feel as if there is a changing dynamic within the workforce. Surprisingly, employees are not being lured in by these higher wages. Perhaps this is due to the incredible rise in home valuation, or in part by how much money has been made trading stocks and crypto. With the pandemic waning, the next few months of economic data will be closely be monitored to determine if employment rates drop as Federal stimulus payments end and Americans continue to get vaccinated; or if something else is at work. Consumer inflation is also at near 30-year highs. We continue to be told that bottlenecks and supply chains are the cause of rising costs but this theory is losing steam as inflation holds firm. 

Home sales remain very active and borrowers remain well qualified. The pace of transactions has slowed a bit, but that may be good for the market and bring in more sellers. Mortgage banks are providing attractive financing options for larger-sized purchases, especially for those borrowers with hard to analyze income. Refinance volume is slowing as expected. It may be a now or never for those borrowers looking to lock in ultra-low interest rates as the 10 year U.S. Treasury touched above 1.700% on Friday before settling in a bit lower.  With inflation running hot and the Fed exiting the bond purchase market, bond traders will begin demanding higher yields. 

Market Commentary 10/15/21

Banks kicked off earning season with the major banks reporting positive growth, inspiring the equity markets to move higher. Although inflation is becoming a bigger concern, the market has momentarily put those worries to the side. Interest rates have drifted lower, which is perplexing, as the cost of all goods (food, gas, rent, materials) show no signs of lowering. Supply chains and lack of available workers are delaying the delivery of goods and also increasing costs. Companies are having to pay up for workers and there is some worry that the Fed is being pushed into a corner it will not easily be able to get out of unless it restricts monetary policy in a way that could upset markets. Should the bond market change its feeling about inflation, interest rates will move up quickly. One cannot underestimate the Fed’s ability to buy up the market, impose interest curve controls or other measures to contain interest rate volatility. However, while Fed policy is effective in creating demand, very low rates may actually be creating more demand than the supply side can handle. With no lack of demand in the U.S. for goods and with 11 million job openings, one has to wonder if we have reached the limits of what monetary policy is capable of. There seems to be more money chasing fewer goods (think autos, homes, washing machines, etc) and an increased threat of structural inflation.

China’s property market is of some concern as several trillion dollars of real estate corporate debt are at risk. Most don’t think what is happening in China will have a negative impact on the U.S., but some worry is warranted given the size of the Chinese property market, the size of the leverage, and the unforeseen risks associated with a drawdown on the largest property market in the world may have on the global economy.  

Some parts of the U.S. are starting to see a slowdown in home sales. Interest rates are still cheap so that is definitely a major factor for those who are actively looking to buy a new home. The rise in home prices has been dramatic over the last 18 months, and while there is concern about a market top, ultra-low interest rates have kept affordability at reasonable levels. Also, real estate has served as an excellent hedge against inflation historically with investment properties offering some excellent tax write-offs that help to lower ordinary income. One of many reasons that make California the leading residential real estate market is the diversity of businesses within the state. While an expensive state to operate in, it provides many entrepreneurs with such great opportunities. This is reflected in the housing market and many of the mega-homes sales that we read about weekly. Insignia Mortgage is honored to be part of many of these large sales as our expertise in structuring complex loans is a perfect fit in this type of market.

Desk chair in the light - October 8 2021 blog image

Market Commentary 10/8/21

Today’s poor jobs report was a surprise as Covid cases have been declining for the last few weeks. There is a strange dichotomy that has developed in the U.S. labor market. There are over 11 million job openings, yet there has been a continuous decline in the working population. The Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) fell to 61.6% as 183,000 people left the labor force. Businesses across the county are offering higher starting salaries and cash perks to attract workers. Higher up the pay scale, policies such as work from home and flexible work schedules with higher wages seem to favor the employee, yet all types of businesses are struggling to fill open positions. 

The combination of wage inflation and goods inflation remains top of mind for many economists, along with the fear of a slowing economy and rising costs. With major supply chain disruptions, as well as a lack of workers, the busy fall buying season is shaping up to be one for the ages. Cargo ships at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach are backed up for weeks. Dry shipping costs are outrageously expensive. Companies that can pass on the rise in the costs of goods and labor will do so. The big concern is that even with rising wage inflation if the prices of goods go up more than the increase in wages it is still a net loss for lower-paid workers. The massive disruption by Covid will take many months to work itself out and the cost to the consumer is higher prices. 

Support for the transitory argument on inflation by the Fed is beginning to wane as the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond is trading above 1.60%. For the moment, the equity market is agnostic to this move higher in bond yields, but should this trend continue, volatility will pick up, especially with high-beta long-duration technology stocks. Rising rates may also cool the red-hot housing market. Even with the rise in housing prices in the last 18 months, ultra-low interest rates have kept payments reasonable and therefore have offset the expensive housing market. With a high probability that the Fed will need to begin tapering its bond purchases by the end of this year, rates could move up meaningfully. Absent Fed QE, time will tell what the market will require for bond and mortgage yields to catch a bid and how other markets will be affected if interest rates drift higher.

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Market Commentary 10/1/21

It was another volatile week on Wall Street as bond yields drifted higher and then fell. Inflation remains elevated and Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the supply chain and logistical delivery of goods which is a big deal given a great majority of the U.S. economy is consumer-driven.  

There was some very good news on the pandemic this morning as Merck announced very positive results from its oral antiviral treatment for Covid. Perhaps the threat of Covid will soon be behind us we all look forward to a return to a more normal way of life.  

Congress is grappling with two major spending bills: one aimed at infrastructure and the other focused on societal benefits. Both packages are enormous and should be carefully thought out. The debt-to-GDP ratio is already highly elevated. Each side of the aisle bears responsibility for spending through the years, but now, we are talking about trillions upon trillions of dollars of debt. It will be interesting to see how the bond market responds to the bill’s (or bills’) passage. For now, bond traders have not been bothered about these proposals, and some might argue the way bonds are responding, these bills may not pass or they may end up quite diluted. 

Core inflation came in at over a 25-year high this morning. Fed Chairman Powell spoke about his frustration with the ongoing inflation problem but reiterated that the Fed believes inflation will temper in the coming months as the supply chain issues are smoothed out. While we certainly hope inflation does not run hotter for longer, there are some signs that inflation is not going away anytime soon. Once businesses raise prices, these prices remain intact absent a major recession. Also, wage inflation is trending nationwide as many businesses have raised their minimum wages and even offering signing bonuses to attract employees. Powell has the confidence of bond traders still or yields would have spiked this morning after this inflation report came out.  

The alternative mortgage market remains very busy. As a leading broker of niche mortgage products in California, we are helping many self-employed borrowers, foreign buyers, and real estate investors obtain financing with attractive interest rates and terms. Our new CDFI program, which does not require a borrower to provide income or employment records, has been especially helpful. These loan amounts are good for up to $3 million and interest rates start in the low 4-percent range for interest-only.

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Market Commentary 9/17/21

Bond yields are under some pressure this week as the equities markets trade with renewed volatility and investors become more cautious. We also saw a mixed bag of economic reporting with some manufacturing data and retail sales coming in better than expected. Inflation remains a global concern and while the Fed remains in the transitory camp. For the moment, there is no denying that the cost of living has increased. Landlords are raising rents, costs of goods and services have surged, and while income has risen it is not keeping up with inflation for the average wage earner. The 10-year Treasury breached its 200-day moving average for the first time in many months. Fears of inflation and of the even more worrisome stagflation (slowing growth and high employment) are the topic of anxious conversation. Compounding matters are the 4 million people who have decided to leave the workforce permanently due to the Covid epidemic while help wanted signs are omnipresent and companies struggle to fill positions.

The markets are also digesting the administration’s new tax proposal which is focused on increasing tax rates on those who earn over $400,000. This new proposal will also increase tax on capital gains and place limits on how retirement savings, affecting primarily upper-income workers. Overall, I believe this plan is a negative for the equity and real estate markets as higher taxes mean less available funds would be freed up for investing in stocks and buying real estate. The impact will be felt especially in very expensive coastal cities.  

On the housing front, San Francisco and other California cities are experiencing a surge in homes for sale. High home prices and high demand are encouraging sellers to list properties, a boon for prospective buyers. We will see if it continues. If yields move up, more supply will be needed to cool off buying frenzies. Tight home supply remains a major issue as the Covid pandemic has triggered supply chain issues and delays in home construction.   

The market could be impacted by a recent development we noticed in the margins. A large Chinese development firm, Evergrande, has defaulted on billions of dollars of debt. While this will have little effect in the U.S., it could ripple out to multi-national banks that lent billions Evergrande. It is also a reminder of the consequences of what may happen when companies lever up to unreasonable levels and banks permit this to generate fees. Whether this is the first of many overleveraged Chinese developers to default is yet to be seen, but this story reminds me of what happened in the U.S. with Lehman Brothers, which started off as an isolated incident and quickly devolved into the Great Financial Crisis of our time.  

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Market Commentary 8/13/21

Consumer Sentiment Dims As Rates Push Lower To End The Week

Interest rates dipped on a surprisingly negative consumer sentiment report which was the worst reading since 2011. The report was a surprise given the strength of the economy over the past many months and considering the positive trends in inflation, individual finances, and employment. Earlier this week, reports of tapering inflation were welcomed news to the stock and bond market. However, producer prices ran hotter than expected, so the direction for inflation remains a bit unknown.

Fed members have started talking about initiating bond tapering as we see improvements in employment, increased housing prices, and stronger personal finances. Some voting Fed members are pushing for a tightening of asset purchases in September. However, Fed Chair Powell has been adamant that he wants to run the economy hot for longer even with robust GDP growth and the highest inflation readings in years. A cross-current of thinking abounds on where we go from here, but a careful eye must be kept on the bond market in the coming weeks for signals on the overall health of the consumer and potential supply chain disruptions due to the Delta variant and impacts on retail in the US and globally.

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Market Commentary 7/23/21

Bond Markets Await Big Inflation Reading Next Week

Equity markets started the week with a big downdraft but have rebounded to new highs. Bonds dipped and then rebounded. This all supports the notion that we should expect to see more volatility in the coming months. While equity markets appear fully priced, the bond market’s paltry yields will continue to support riskier behavior. This will bode well for equities and alternative assets including real estate and private equity.  

Central banks continue to reinforce low rates for longer as the Delta variant spreads and creates more uncertainty about the pandemic and how it will affect the reopening of the world’s economy. 

Next week will be an important one as the Fed’s favorite inflation indicator, the core PCE, reports for June. Inflation is front-page news and the debates are ongoing about whether inflation is transitory or sticky. It will be interesting to see the responses from both sides on the current state of inflation. Bond yields will be on edge as it awaits this critical report. 

Mortgage rates have held up well during this time. While it is hard to argue for lower interest rates as the economy improves, the Delta variant has increased the risk of a market setback which has helped keep interest rates low.