Market Commentary 2/02/2024

US Economy Defies Skeptics With Blowout Jobs Number

Skeptics grappling with conflicting data between the substantial increase in state unemployment figures and the recent non-farm payroll data were surprised by the blowout December Jobs Report. It showed that hourly earnings exceeded expectations, and the unemployment rate remained at a low 3.7%. Additionally, treasury yields surged, with the 10-year Treasury rising above 4% mid-day.

Today’s nonfarm payroll report highlights the strength of the US economy while also diminishing the likelihood of a Fed rate reduction in March. The Federal Reserve had recently met and signaled that a rate cut in March was improbable. The stellar earnings from companies like Meta and Amazon, as well as record highs in the stock market further suggest the overall health of the economy, making the Fed question if they should consider rate cuts in a seemingly robust environment. Better to keep rate cut powder dry in the event of a financial accident or deep recession.

Nonetheless, it’s essential to consider the backdrop of numerous layoff announcements. Despite the dominance of big tech companies in financial news, all is not entirely well in the broader economy. A significant regional bank experienced a 40% drop in its stock price due to issues related to its commercial real estate portfolio. UPS, often considered a barometer of economic activity, reported significant layoffs and plans to cut 12,000 jobs. While the exact timing of a potential negative jobs report remains uncertain, there are indications that the economy might be showing signs of weakness. This could lead to lower bond yields later in the year, though perhaps not as soon as initially anticipated by Wall Street.

Inflation is on the decline but may not reach the 2% target anytime soon. Hot wars in the Middle East and robust consumer spending are creating uncertainty on inflation. However, even with a baseline assumption of 3% inflation, the Fed still has room to cut short-term interest rates by as much as 1.00% to 1.5% from the current 5.25%. This would keep rates in a “restrictive territory” without harming the economy and the banking system. Lower rates would particularly benefit real estate activity. The expectation is that rates will trend lower come August.

One consideration for lower rates, even with elevated inflation, is the global surge in government debt, with the US being no exception at over $34 trillion in debt. The Fed is cognizant of this massive liability and might be compelled to lower rates to assist the Treasury in servicing the country’s bill. The size of the US debt is gradually becoming a prominent issue that cannot be ignored any longer.

Market Commentary 12.15.2023

Fed Forecast To Bring Down Rates Pushes Mortgage Rates Lower

The recent dovish pivot by the Federal Reserve, along with projections of up to three rate cuts next year, brought a sigh of relief to the markets. Equities, bonds, gold, and oil, all rallied in response. This shift by the Fed signaled a so-called “soft-landing” narrative. Inflation data has been pointing toward lower inflation as the economy continues to move forward with weak manufacturing data, but a strong service sector.

Mortgage rates also saw a significant drop, with 30-year mortgages now below 6.50%, and adjustable-rate mortgages anticipated to dip below 6%. This is a remarkable change from just a few weeks ago when mortgage products were touching 8%. Let’s delve into the reasons behind this sudden change of heart by the Fed and the markets.

Inflation Trends

Consumer and producer inflation data have been showing positive trends for quite some time. With inflation on the decline, the Fed Funds Rate, currently at 5.37%, stands well above the inflation rate (CPI) of 3.1%. This significant spread is viewed as restrictive, and now the Fed must consider if keeping rates higher for an extended period might do more harm than good. Additionally, signs of a slowing economy are emerging, which further supports the case for lowering interest rates.

Inverted Yield Curve

The yield curve has been inverted for an extended period, and the Fed would like to see it normalize. This normalization would benefit lenders who borrow short and lend long. When long-term interest rates are lower than short-term interest rates, it becomes challenging for lenders to generate profits due to the negative spread. A robust economy requires lenders willing to extend credit. Moreover, the massive US debt and the costs associated with servicing that debt become unsustainable at higher interest rates.

Quantitative Tightening (QT)

The ongoing QT (Quantitative Tightening) may provide the Fed with some flexibility to lower short-term interest rates and allow bonds to run off their balance sheet. Over the past decade, global central banks’ money printing and bond buying have led to enduring issues, as the cost of money became distorted. By lowering the Fed Funds Rate while continuing QT, the Fed remains somewhat restrictive but with a bit less tightening.

Nonetheless, we still anticipate a 10-year Treasury yield north of 4% and encourage clients to pursue financing at these current rates. We believe that the journey from 3% to 2% inflation will be challenging, and the so-called neutral rate of interest will likely settle above 3%. When you add a term premium of 1% to 1.5%, that’s where the 10-year Treasury should find its equilibrium.

10 Year Treasury & Employment

As previously stated, we continue to anticipate a 10-year Treasury yield north of 4% and encourage clients to pursue financing at these current rates. We believe that the journey from 3% to 2% inflation will be challenging, and the so-called neutral rate of interest will likely settle above 3%. Employment remains tight and wages appear to be sticky (and possibly rising again) which will continue to be monitored by the Fed. This could inhibit interest rates from going much lower than current levels.

For the moment, we will take the late-year gift from the Fed of the prospect of lower interest rates which is leading to a big pickup in borrower inquiries.

Market Commentary 12.8.2023

A Quick Read On Rates, Jobs And Housing

A better-than-expected November Jobs Report took some shine off the recent rally in bonds, which had been surging over the past few weeks. The report was positive, but not great, although it did surprise Wall Street as both new hires and unemployment beat economists’ estimates. Something that is of particular concern and a focus of the Federal Reserve is the slight acceleration in wage growth, adding to some uncertainty about when the Fed might change its stance. The direction of interest rates from here is anyone’s guess, but the stronger-than-expected jobs data likely keeps the Fed in the “higher for longer” camp, at least in our opinion.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the economy might be slowing, based on reports from local business owners. However, this has yet to translate into jobs data or consumer spending. Inflation, while still at elevated levels, seems to be moderating. Nonetheless, high credit card balances, rising delinquencies, and the overall high cost of debt are indications that consumers are feeling some pressure. Despite these concerns, GDP and other economic indicators still point to the economy being in reasonably good shape. Overall, the prediction suggests that the path ahead is challenging.

Turning to the housing market, activity in the existing home market, particularly in Southern California, appears to be picking up. Interest rates have fallen to under 7%, and some well-qualified borrowers are securing rates as low as 5.875%. This has prompted buyers to reenter the market, taking advantage of small price reductions and more reasonable interest rates. Large-scale home builders are employing various strategies to attract buyers, including helping first-time home buyers qualify for mortgages. Although construction loans from banks remain subdued, the private lending market is bustling, offering more expensive financing with greater leverage, something most developers need to initiate projects.

While there has been a downward trend in interest rates, it’s important to note that we may have reached a bottom, at least for now. A few additional thoughts on this matter; first, the Bank of Japan is likely to move away from its negative interest rate policy, which could exert pressure on bonds worldwide. Second, assuming a 3% inflation rate and real economic growth of 1.5%, the 10-year Treasury rate could stabilize around 4.5%, give or take 0.5%. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that historical interest rates have averaged significantly higher than current rates. While the recent rate increases have caused discomfort, part of the pain is due to the steepness of the rate hikes and the extended period during which rates were held at arguably too low levels. Looking ahead, if the spread over treasuries narrows, it’s conceivable that mortgage rates could range from the high 4s to the mid-5s in 2024, potentially providing significant support to the real estate market.

Market Commentary 12/01/2023

Both Bonds & Stocks Rally Into December

November marked an exceptional month for both bonds and equities. Just a few weeks ago, interest rates surged above 5% and sent mortgage markets into a frenzy. Fast forward to today, and we’re witnessing the 10-year Treasury hovering around 4.25%. In addition, lenders are beginning to reduce interest rates. If this trend persists (we discussed this in previous commentaries) mortgage rates in the mid-5% range could become a reality. This is expected to entice buyers who have been sitting on the sidelines, as more affordable mortgage payments beckon.

Having said that, it’s essential to consider the reasons behind this decline in rates. One perspective is that the market anticipates the Fed will lower short-term interest rates next year as inflation subsides. While there’s cautiousness surrounding inflation, given its deep-seated presence in the economy, the consensus leans toward a more extended timeline to control it. Nevertheless, dovish Fed statements, coupled with moderating inflation data, have relaxed financial conditions as evidenced in the lower interest rates and now flourishing stock market. While there’s optimism that the Fed will engineer a soft landing, reflecting Wall Street’s current sentiment, the recent rally underscores the market’s exuberance. Our concerns are centered around the possibility of eased financial conditions rekindling inflation.

Another narrative suggests that interest rates are declining as bond traders assess the broader economy, indicating an economic slowdown. Assuming a 3% inflation rate and 1.5% GDP growth, a 10-year Treasury around 4.5% appears plausible. For now, the downward rate movement should be acknowledged and leveraged, given that borrowing costs have decreased by 0.50 to 0.75 basis points across the board. This is a significant development.

This year, regions primarily driven by the existing homes market like Southern California have faced challenges. Recently there has been a significant uptick in activity over the past few weeks, encompassing refinance, purchase, and construction loan requests. The drop in interest rates is fostering momentum, and we are encouraged by the resurgence of inquiries. After a challenging year, it’s heartening to hear the phones ringing again. To hear borrowers express enthusiasm about the prospect of interest rates stabilizing at acceptable levels. A welcome development timed for the holiday season. 

Market Commentary 11/17/2023

Mortgage Rates Ease as Inflation Data Arrives Better Than Expected 

Interest rates continue to settle around 4.500% on the 10-year Treasury, with emerging signs of easing inflation and potentially achieving a soft landing for the economy (meaning no recession or a mild one).  Having observed the markets for a considerable time and recalling the challenges the Fed faced wrangling inflation in the 1970s and 1980s, we maintain a cautious stance. We believe the Fed will keep rates higher for an extended period, even though they are likely done with rate hikes for now. 

We are closely monitoring Treasury issuance, given that the US debt load exceeds a concerning $33 trillion. Managing this massive debt ultimately depends on the reduction of interest rates over time. Hence, it is imperative for the Fed to navigate the inflation challenge skillfully. Should they ease too early, there’s the risk of rapid inflation, necessitating rate hikes and possibly the destabilizing of the global economy. Conversely, tightening too much could squeeze businesses and banks, possibly harming the economy unnecessarily. 

The recent drop in interest rates is a welcome development. As we previously mentioned, there’s a chance for adjustable-rate mortgages on residential real estate to settle below 6%. Such a move would be highly beneficial for housing and commercial real estate. With the recent rate decline, our office has witnessed an uptick in larger purchases as buyers cautiously re-enter the market. While underwriting remains challenging, some lenders are making sensible decisions for well-qualified borrowers. Additionally, smaller banks, in their quest for loan volume, are willing to forgo income documentation for borrowers with strong credit, at least 40% home equity, and a willingness to deposit funds with their bank. 

Housing, however, continues to face challenges. Homebuilder sentiment dipped when mortgage rates briefly touched 8%. Housing starts remain sluggish as construction lenders remain cautious and concerned about construction costs as well as affordability. We’re also detecting a broader economic slowdown, influenced by higher interest rates and a 30% surge in most goods prices over the past few years, just as pandemic stimulus funding tapers off. Nonetheless, low unemployment and the resilience of the US economy should not be underestimated. 

Market Commentary 11/4/2023

Fed’s Commentary Eases Bond Market As Yields Fall

Both bond prices (yields move inversely to price) and equities moved higher this week. This event was spurred by what many believe to be the end of the Federal Reserve’s rate-hiking cycle. Unemployment and manufacturing data came in worse than expected. When coupled with the commentary on rising subprime auto delinquencies, signs indicate that consumers, especially those on the lower end, are reaching their financial limits. It’s hard to believe that less than two weeks ago, the markets were quite worried about the 10-year Treasury touching 5%. However, the all-important 5% threshold was breached but never did close above that critical level.

In this classic “bad news is good news” situation for both bonds and stocks, the markets have found comfort in the 10-year falling back down to around 4.5%. Assuming the 10-year stays at this level, and that mortgage term premiums shrink, it is not impossible to see mortgage rates in the mid-5s. This would be welcomed news for mortgage originators and real estate brokers alike.

It is important to note that the volatile moves in US government bonds are not healthy, which makes lending decisions quite difficult. Watching bonds move over 50 basis points in three days is rare and emblematic of the varying views on economic and geopolitical risks. The relaxation of bond yields suggests that traders were either expecting a much more hawkish Federal Chairman, that geopolitical risks are rising, or that the economy is deteriorating, as supported by the fall in oil prices.

While the world is in a heightened state of anxiety, lower rates have the potential to encourage risk-taking, refinances for real estate and businesses, as well as a renewal in purchases of big-ticket items like homes, autos, and machinery. The real estate market was frozen when conforming loans touched nearly 8% late last month, as lenders feared the 10-year would quickly run well above 5%. That risk has been significantly reduced by this week’s action in the bond market, and we are happy to report this positive development.

Market Commentary 10/20/2023

10-Year Hits 16-Year High as Fed Extends Higher Rates Push  

In these uncertain times, geopolitical risks rightly dominate headlines. However, the expected “flight to quality” trade, where U.S. interest rates typically decrease as investors seek the safety of government-guaranteed bonds during conflicts, has been notably absent. The primary reason appears to be that substantial government spending has overwhelmed the bond market, in addition to major foreign holders of U.S. debt becoming sellers. Currently, the private sector, including businesses, individuals, and funds, has stepped in to fill this gap. Still, without foreign support, it is likely that bond yields will not fall by much if at all. 

Despite the recent poor performance of the equity market, overall economic data remains relatively strong. Retail spending data released earlier this week indicates that consumers are still spending, albeit more cautiously. Additionally, initial jobless claims came in lower than expected, which underscores an increasingly tight labor market. Even so, it is unlikely that the Fed will raise short-term interest rates at their next meeting, even though the data suggests otherwise. This is because the longer end of the yield curve is rising, with 10-year Treasuries grazing 5% before finally settling at 4.91% on Friday morning. The 10-year Treasury note rate serves as the benchmark for pricing all forms of personal, real estate, and business debt. The rapid increase in yields on this instrument is adding pressure to all types of borrowers, so the Fed may allow the market to contribute to slowing down the economy. 

Loans, Rates, and Real Estate

Real estate, which is highly sensitive to interest rates, continues to face challenges. It is difficult to gauge precisely how higher rates have affected prices due to sluggish sales. However, builder sentiment is declining, and new home sales show signs of following suit, despite incentives offered by home builders such as buy-downs and free upgrades. The commercial lending markets are under significant pressure, as a 5% 10-year Treasury rate is expected to push cap rate floors to 6% or even higher. Private debt funds providing bridge loans remain active, while traditional banks are cautious on most deals. With many billions of dollars in loan resets scheduled for 2024, the commercial lending market is shaping up to be remarkably interesting. 

We have said it before and will reiterate that in today’s market, independent mortgage brokers with a wide range of lending options are providing value to potential borrowers. The significant disparity in rates from one bank to another often reflects the bank’s perception of the economy, the housing market, or the local area, rather than market conditions alone. Large banks are keeping their margins healthy, except for their high-net-worth clients. Brokers are once again making a meaningful difference. 

Market Commentary 9/22/2023

A Quick Comment on the Fed, Bonds & Housing

The FED

The bond market, which had initially resisted the idea of a prolonged period of higher interest rates, has embraced the idea that inflation is likely to remain elevated. We have consistently stressed that transitioning from a 3% to a 2% inflation rate would be fraught with challenges. As inflation accelerates, bond investors are increasingly seeking higher yields to compensate for this risk. Additional factors exacerbating the inflation issue include surging oil prices, large unions demanding substantial wage increases, a staggering $33 trillion deficit, and a Federal Reserve engaged in selling (QT) rather than buying bonds, among other pressing concerns. Unfortunately, none of these factors bode well for lower interest rates. The Fed’s recent communication, particularly the dot plot, has pushed expectations of rate cuts further into the future. This is because the economy continues to perform better than anticipated, and some indication that inflation may have plateaued at a level that remains unacceptably high for most Americans. While the likelihood of a soft landing is slim, we recognize that anything is possible in these complex economic times.

Bonds

Shifting our focus to bonds, it’s intriguing to consider why many on Wall Street seemed caught off guard by the prevailing interest rate environment. Although we acknowledge our own past misjudgments, we have consistently argued that there is a high risk of shifting toward a higher interest rate environment. Assuming inflation stabilizes at 3%, and incorporating a term premium of 1.5% to 2%, longer-dated bonds should hover around 4.50% to 5%. This appears to be the new normal, and individuals and businesses alike should base their investment and lending decisions on these assumptions. The far-reaching impacts of rising interest rates are just beginning to permeate the system. We can attest to this firsthand as prospective borrowers grapple with refinancing challenges and encounter difficulties in qualifying for new purchases.

Housing

While housing affordability remains a significant issue for many, home prices continue to remain high and are even rising in certain markets. In hindsight, the reason for this becomes apparent: nearly 15 years of ultra-low interest rate policies have left the majority of U.S. homeowners locked into mortgages below 5%. This has discouraged potential sellers from listing their homes, while higher rates have deterred would-be buyers. In an unusual twist, the forces of supply and demand are to some extent canceling each other out. This dynamic has helped sustain property values in the non-ultra-luxury segment of the market. 

Still, there are signs of potential trouble ahead as home builders are starting to offer major incentives such as 2-1 buy downs on mortgages as well as lower prices, in an effort to stimulate volume. Additionally, pressure increases on the commercial and multi-family segments of the market as loans begin to adjust. In some cases, current values considerably decreased compared to just a few years ago.

Market Commentary 9/8/2023

Has Inflation Peaked? Bond Market Yields Suggest Uncertainty… 

Where Does Inflation Go from Here? 

A peak in service inflation may be on the horizon. A noteworthy example is Walmart, one of the nation’s largest employers, which recently announced that new hires will be earning less. This adjustment signifies a potential slowdown in wage inflation, which had surged to unsustainable levels due to the pandemic, supply chain bottlenecks, and substantial government stimulus. Initially encouraged by the Fed, this wave of inflation is unlike anything witnessed in the past 40 years and was largely due to the assumption that inflation would be transitory. 

While we are witnessing some moderation in inflation concerning goods (though still too high by our standards), service inflation remains persistently elevated. This is placing significant strain on businesses of all sizes, as consumers are becoming less tolerant of higher-priced goods and services. This is why the Fed is not rushing to lower interest rates.  

The situation becomes increasingly complex when we consider why interest rates remain high despite indications that inflation might be cooling off. Two key factors come into play. Firstly, the price of oil, hovering around $90 per barrel, is preventing a more significant drop in inflation. Although the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has declined from over 9% to roughly 3.2%, moving from 3.2% to 2% will be a lengthy process for the Fed. Secondly, the massive budget deficits of many developed nations are no longer being disregarded by bond traders (this includes the United States). Our government’s debt burden has led bond buyers to demand higher yields to compensate for the perceived risks associated with holding such bonds. 

Lastly, it is important to recognize that interest rate cycles are lengthy, whether on the ascent or descent. We are currently on an upward trend. Unless significant adverse events occur, this trajectory is likely to persist.  Assuming a 3% long-term inflation rate, it is not inconceivable that longer-dated bonds trade between 4% -5%.   

In the Next Two Weeks… 

Keep a close watch on next week’s inflation readings and the subsequent week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting. In the current climate, everything revolves around inflation and interest rates. Additionally, pay attention to the 10-year Treasury bond, which is teetering at the 4.25% mark. If it breaches 4.35%, the markets could face a challenging remainder of the year. 

Market Commentary 9/1/2023 

Bonds Can’t Catch A Break Amidst Unemployment Rate Increase 

The July Jobs Report brought encouraging signals for both the bond market and the Fed. However, the workforce saw an influx of more workers than could be absorbed, resulting in the unemployment rate rising from 3.50% to 3.80%. While wages are still growing, they are beginning to moderate and show signs of trending lower. This shift might provide the Fed with justification to hold off raising rates at its next meeting. Although the futures market indicates around a 40% chance of a November rate hike, we anticipate that this might mark the last rate increase of the cycle (if it does occur). On the other hand, mortgage bonds and Treasury yields oddly increased, potentially influenced by a weakening dollar and surging oil prices. 

Nonetheless, it’s important to avoid drawing broad conclusions from a single report. Commodity price inflation and service inflation remain high, and the Fed would likely want to see more substantial declines in these numbers. Conversations with local business owners reveal that input costs are eroding profits. Passing these increases on to customers is becoming increasingly challenging. The persistent difficulty business owners have in finding staff is keeping wages elevated. Notably, a major national retailer catering to lower to middle-income consumers, Dollar General, has reported that its customers are feeling financial pressure and adjusting their purchasing habits. This demographic has been hit hardest by elevated prices and could be a significant concern for the Fed. This context supports our belief that even if the Fed stops raising rates, a downward shift in interest rates might be a prolonged journey. Fed Funds rates could remain potentially elevated well into 2024 or even 2025. 

Loan Success Takes Grit 

Navigating the mortgage landscape is no longer a straightforward endeavor. While we maintain access to excellent products and lenders and are successfully closing loans, the path can be turbulent. Underwriting guidelines at banks are tightening, debt funds and mortgage banks are grappling with an illiquid secondary market, and limited housing supply in major cities complicates loan qualification. Financing costs have surged while housing prices have remained stagnant, particularly affecting higher-end home purchases. In this landscape, experienced mortgage brokers are proving invaluable by sourcing better-priced loan options, exploring more nuanced alternatives like interest-only or investment property loans, and connecting with smaller banks that embrace innovative thinking. Our broker team at Insignia Mortgage, for instance, achieved over $40 million in closings in July, while our fix-and-flip and bridge lending arm, Insignia Capital Corp, closed over $12 million in business. It was far from effortless. What matters most is that all our clients successfully completed their crucial transactions.