Market Commentary 10/7/2022

More Pain On The Horizon As Fed Pivot Is Deferred

The decent September jobs report had a “good news is bad news” effect on the markets. Traders were looking for signs that the Fed’s super-sized rate hikes are lowering wage inflation, which would indicate that overall inflation may be coming down. While wage growth eased and the overall jobs picture declined, it was not enough to sway the Fed from its restrictive stance. More likely than not, another .75 bp rate increase will occur at the next Fed meeting. Combining these large rate hikes with the balance sheet runoff, also known as QT, is quickly creating very cramped financial conditions. Our suspicion is that it will not take much longer for the Fed to break something in the financial system. Risks are high for a black swan type of event. There is real destruction happening in the marketplace as riskier bond yields start to tick up again. Oil is now over 90 and investor confidence is crumbling. It seems unlikely that the Fed can orchestrate an elegant economic soft landing. Caution remains the word du jour.

It is going to take time for real estate prices to adjust, especially in the way many of us believe they will.  It is simple math. If your cost of carry doubles this quickly, prices and cap rates must adjust despite a limited supply. Next week holds a lot of critical news for CPI, PPI, retail sales, and bank earnings. Buckle up as it is going to be a rough ride as we anticipate these updates. We hope things will not be as painful as the Fed wants us to believe.

Market Commentary 9/9/2022

Equity Markets Move Higher, Encouraging Soft Landing For The Economy

U.S. equity markets proved resilient against the backdrop of a Hawkish Federal Reserve. Several voting members of the Fed spoke this week and the message was clear: short-term interest rates are going higher to combat inflation. The Fed wants input inflation to go down (think wages and energy) as well as consumption (think feeling poorer due to home value or retirement accounts being down).  However, the equity markets didn’t get the memo and rallied into the weekend.

Markets can sometimes react in a way that may seem irrational initially, but over time proves correct. In my mind, the equity rally suggests inflation may be coming down and job destruction may be happening more quickly. The so-called soft landing for the economy will be the result of Fed tightening. My prediction is there is more pain ahead. Volatile markets both up and down will be the norm for the balance of the year. The Fed will err on the side of higher interest rates for longer, which will put continued pressure on bonds and all investable assets. Remember, it takes time for the Fed’s policies to work their way into the system. That is why caution in this type of environment is so important.  Don’t fight the Fed. 

75 bp seems to be the likely direction in short-term interest rates when the Fed meets later this month.  That number was forecasted to the Wall Street Journal to help mitigate any surprises. The cost of debt is rising quickly. Higher yields are becoming attractive for savers, which is one positive to this so-called “return to normal interest rate” journey central bankers are taking us on. Real estate prices are adjusting as expected in the face of higher interest-carrying costs. Buyer and seller negotiating is back in vogue and all offers are being looked at. 

One interesting phenomenon that’s presented itself has me particularly excited to share. This past week Insignia Mortgage has located three new lending sources which specialize in the following: (1) financing high-net-worth domestic or foreign borrowers, (2) a new regional bank that offers attractive interest-only jumbo loans, and (3) a new commercial bank that offers investment property loans up to 20 million dollars. As rates have increased, so has the appetite to lend for those banks that didn’t chase yield to near zero. While business remains challenging, all is not lost in this wonderful free market economy we get to live in.

Market Commentary 8/19/2022

Economy and Interest Rates Present Mixed Signals

Interest rates surged late in the week with the release of the alarming UK and Germany inflation data, especially within the context of a slowing economy. Mixed economic signals in the U.S. did not help markets either with slowing GDP or rising weekly unemployment claims. Nonetheless, there were some good manufacturing reports and a better-than-expected retail sales report. Existing housing sales softened again, resulting in home builders’ confidence being dismal. Housing starts also fell. Since housing is a major component of the economy, the current housing industry status is not positive.

The Fed and The Average American Head Towards Black Swan Event

The inability of the S&P to break through the 200-day moving average is challenging the bullish narrative.  Also, Fed speak, in my opinion, shows no signs of easing. Inflation is a problem, and it must be dealt with.  Talks of 75 bp rate hikes by Fed officials as well as the start of 95 billion balance sheet run-off per month are not accommodative. These discussions also raise the possibility of a black swan type of event.  However, not dealing with inflation now results in harsh problems for the average American. When food and life’s basic essentials become unaffordable to many, the government loses creditability.  This is what concerns Fed officials the most.

Real estate activity has slowed, but every market presents opportunities. Buyers are becoming increasingly more aggressive in negotiating with sellers. The combination of higher mortgage rates and tighter lending guidelines makes qualifying for a mortgage tougher. Thankfully, niche lenders are returning to fill in the gap. Adjustable-rate mortgages and interest-only products are in demand to offset the rise in mortgage rates.

Next week’s Jackson Hole symposium will be watched closely as central bankers, economists and the Fed chairman gather to speak about the economy and fiscal and monetary policy. Stay tuned for this. 

Market Commentary 7/22/2022

Treasury Rates Decline As Corporate Earnings Disappoint

Inflation continues to deplete consumer spending power. This trend aligns with some very interesting reports from AT&T on the increase in late payments and rising defaults on smartphones. Since many of us can’t live without our smartphones for work or social interaction, failure to pay smartphone bills is concerning. It also suggests the economy may be worse off than many economists believed. Credit balances rise along with other loan types like non-performing auto loans and BNPL (buy now and pay later). The massive stimulus that was pumped into the market appears to have left the economy to work towards normalization while also battling high inflation and slowing growth. Many layoffs in the banking business are being announced. I expect unemployment to rise in the coming months as companies expand layoffs and banks pull back on lending. The recession is here, in my opinion. The big unknown is the Fed’s strategy to combat persistent inflation in a slowing economy. 

The Fed’s Big Squeeze

The haste with which the Fed has risen and may continue to raise short-term interest rates is squeezing all but the biggest banks. This squeeze is distressing for housing as banks pull back on LTVs, Cash-Out Refinances, and Investment Property Loans. Prices will need to adjust to the combination of higher interest rates and tighter bank guidelines. Mortgage banks that have filled the void on the more niche product offerings are also being affected. The one silver lining in all of this? There is a dramatic increase in housing inventory from very low levels of supply. There are many prospective buyers who have been waiting to buy for quite some time. Their time may be here in the upcoming months.

The ECB raised rates and now short-term interest rates are no longer zero. Personally, I never understand negative interest rates. As an observer, why would you lend money to get less of a return in the future?  As we witness this all in real-time, the winding down of easy money policies and as central banks experiment with negative interest rates, remember the old saying “it doesn’t make sense.”  Should inflation persist and the recession be deeper and longer than forecasted, central bankers in the developed world should remember the damage easy money policies have historically resulted in. While we all loved zero rates (or near zero or negative in some countries), the use of these policies is so destructive that it would be wiser to shelve them for future generations. Basic finance requires a discount rate to calculate risk properly. Ultra-low interest rates increase wealth and risk-taking, while rates remain low. The flip side is what happens when rates rise and inflation becomes unanchored, as we are experiencing today. Wealth is destroyed, confidence is eroded, and the most fragile in our society suffer through the high prices of basic necessities. Free money and zero interest rates have consequences. 

Market Commentary 07/01/2022

Mortgage Rates Fall As Recession Fears Intensify

Treasury yields quickly raced to well under 3.00% this week. In my opinion, this is not a good sign of things to come. Recession fears have escalated. The long bond acts like this when recession fears rise.  GDP now has economic growth at -2.1%. Micron, a major chip supplier, guided down and reaffirmed what many of us already know. The economy is slowing. The combination of Fed rate hikes and quantitative tightening is a dangerous cocktail for the equity, real estate, and debt markets. I am hearing from several banks that liquidity is quickly drying up. They are weary to lend, and risk spreads have increased. As expected, housing supply has jumped as homeowners look to sell before things get worse, or in some cases unload their second or third home. A violent stock market and bitcoin correction have consumer confidence at a many years low, with liquid savings and retirement accounts down a great deal.  With margins being squeezed and earnings estimates falling, S&P year-end estimates have come down with year-end S&P to be somewhere in the range of 3,200 and 4,100.   

Where Do We Go From Here? Equity, Real Estate, Inflation. 

First, let us start with the equity market. Equities rise and fall and are prone to large drawdowns and rebounds. Many of us got into trouble chasing momentum stocks and high beta tech stocks, which have no earnings power.  Stocks represent ownership in a business, but zero rates and money spraying had fooled many professionals into believing that stocks only go up. The same applies to crypto. 

Two, regarding real estate, price is what you pay, and value is what you get.  Homes are a bit different asset class than other real estate as many homeowners were able to lock in exceptionally low-interest rates. Even if the housing market declines, homeowners will be able to service their debts. Home appreciation over the last few years has been unsustainable. The new listings appearing amidst the dwindling economy warrant the need for a correction. People are becoming increasingly cautious. As interest rates return to the historical mean, speculation will lighten, and buyers and sellers can enter a more even playing field.   

Three, the Fed will beat inflation. It is already happening. It will occur at a significant cost and over time, but inflation will come down. The Fed’s tools are very good at breaking inflation (higher rates and quantitative tightening). The collective negative sentiment compounded with quickly deteriorating financial conditions indicates the need for the Fed to halt its rate-hiking cycle expeditiously. The 2-year Treasury has fallen mightily the last few days which supports the notion of fewer rate hikes ahead.

Finally, it is important to remember that this is a long game. Absent the last 20 years or so, recessions and rebounds were much more common.  Recessions clean out the financial system and are healthy.  Speculators are taught about assessing risk, bad companies die off – clearing the way for new more innovative businesses, and prices reset allowing investors to buy assets for cheaper.  While I may be negative on the markets currently, I am always bullish on America. We have so much to be grateful for, even in tough times.

Have a great 4th of July.

Market Commentary 06/24/2022

Treasury Yields Dip On Fears Of Slowing Economy

The economy is slowing. This is evidenced by the recent layoffs amidst many technology companies, lenders, and other businesses that were benefactors of stay-at-home and low-interest rates. The leisure industry remains strong as people continue to spend money on experiences and travel, with the exception of restaurants, which seem a lot less busy. Many clients are complaining about the cost of living which becomes exacerbated in a downward trending equity market. The front-page news of a looming recession and its potential certainly does not help quell public concern. Consumer and business confidence remains low. In my opinion, there is a fairly good chance the economy is already in a recession. It certainly feels that way. 

Inflation Is Always And Everywhere A Monetary Phenomenon

If the Fed has the resolve to break inflation, it will. More clarity should be available by the end of next week when the PCE inflation reading (the Fed’s favorite gauge of inflation) is released. Should that reading come in hot or as expected, the Fed will most likely go up 75 bp again in July. The old saying that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” rings true these days. The markets will stay volatile during the next few months as the new terminal rate for rate hiking is established. There’s a big chance that the Fed’s double-barreled strategy of increases in rates and balance sheet runoffs could result in them breaking something in the financial system. Caution remains warranted even during strong rallies like today.

I expect the Fed to move above 3% on Fed funds sooner than later. 40% of Americans are now living paycheck-to-paycheck and are struggling to pay for life necessities. The one positive here is that I think the Fed is now taking inflation seriously enough to ensure that it should come down fairly quickly, maybe by the fall. That is just my best guess. Earlier this week, the yield curve continues to be flat and briefly inverted. This is almost always an ominous sign.

Interest Rates In The Ether

How higher interest rates will affect home prices is yet to be established. My belief is that prices will need to come down. Some models are showing a 20% or so draw down in values. However, in supply-constrained cities like Los Angeles, there are still not enough homes to meet demand. Should interest rates remain persistently high, I imagine home prices will slide even in supply-constrained markets. I am hearing from commercial bankers that higher interest rates will have an immediate effect on cap rates and that exit cap rates have been reduced as well. Cautious underwriting is being implemented across the board, which I applaud. Better to stress-test loan applicants than be sloppy in a rising rate environment. I expect as interest rates remain elevated, refinance of real estate will be used to pay down more expensive personal or business debt.  ARM loans and interest-only loan demand has picked up. Borrowers are attempting to offset the rise in interest rates with an interest-only payment. 

Market Commentary 5/20/2022

Equity Market Volatility Pushes Bond Yields Lower

It was another week of agonizing volatility in both the bond and equity markets. Big box retailers reported tighter margins due to high inflation. Economists continue to move year-end targets down. One wonders if all of this negativity signifies an end to selling.  S&P touched correction territory before trading higher into the close on Friday.  Long-dated bond yields fell below 2.800%. Trading remains volatile but orderly.  As we have mentioned previously, don’t expect the Fed to step in and backstop the equity or housing market anytime soon.  Inflation is the Fed’s primary concern and they will tolerate a falling equity market and a higher unemployment rate to subdue inflation. Case in point, the WSJ reported that subprime credit delinquencies are rising from historically low levels as the increased cost of food and energy preys on consumers.  Even the wealthy appear to be cutting back on spending. The soaring costs across all corners of the economy are weighing on people’s confidence and willingness to spend.

Impact On Real Estate & The Global Economy 

Limited housing inventory will keep home prices from falling too dramatically. However, given the wealth destruction incurred in both the bond and equity market, it is difficult to see real estate being impervious to recent events. The dramatic rise in mortgage rates over the last 60 days will push some buyers to the sidelines. 

With China shut down, and the world economy slowing, perhaps long-term interest rates will continue their recent descent. This would be helpful to growth stocks in addition to homebuyers, consumers, and businesses. We hope that long rates don’t move too low, as an inverted yield curve would be worrisome. Housing demand remains healthy, which bodes well overall for the economy.  Should this change, we would become very nervous over a deep recession. 

Next week is important for the markets as the Fed’s favorite inflation gauge, the PCE, is released.  The markets will respond favorably should inflation appear to be topping out.  However, should the reading come in hotter than expected, be prepared for a sobering market reaction. 

 

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 4/1/2022

U.S. Economy Complicated By War, Inflation, Yield Inversion & Strong Jobs Data

Nonfarm payrolls added close to 500,000 new jobs in March in an already tight labor market.  The unemployment rate dipped to 3.600%, a tick above the 50 year low of  3.500% back in February 2020. The long-term jobs picture is concerning as there are many more job openings than jobs available. The large number of job openings relative to the population actively seeking work could cause wage inflation to rise faster than economists prefer. Wage inflation is both sticky and a big component in overall inflation readings. Should companies have to pay even more for new hires, those companies will do all they can to raise prices to offset the higher employment cost. This in turn raises all prices, and so on and so forth.  It becomes clear how inflation can become embedded throughout the economy as you game this out, and why the Fed is talking up rate hikes to cool off the economy and lower inflation expectations. 

The PCE, the Fed’s preferred method of inflation came in at 6.40%, a 40 year high. PCE strips out volatile food and energy costs. Many forecasters see a 9% plus CPI number for March. Inflation is real and probably not going away any time soon. Using the PCE as an example, the Fed funds rate in real term is -6.15% when measured against inflation. This is destructive to savers and imposes a hidden tax on the population. Caution is warranted as the Fed’s policy shift stands for the benefit of main street, which may very well come at the expense of Wall Street.   

With the Fed moving away from QE and intending to initiate both higher rates and QT, there is an increasing probability that the Fed may put the U.S. into a recession. This may not occur in the immediate moment, but prior to the end of 2023. The flattening and momentarily inverted 2-10 yield curve is supportive of this thought. How far the Fed will be able to raise short-term rates is unknown, but bond trading supports not much more than 2.00%-2.500%, which still leaves short-term rates negative when measured against present inflation. Fed hikes much higher than this level could be quite destructive given the absurd amount of U.S. debt. The Fed is truly embarking on a journey “where no man has gone before” when it comes to Fed policy. 

Now, a few general observations. The war in Ukraine remains an international concern, but the markets for the moment seem to have moved past the troubling headlines. Also, the oil markets are trading better which will provide some relief to consumers over time. Mortgage rates are no longer cheap and the rise in interest rates will slow the pace of refinances. There are approximately 6 million homes that can still benefit from a refinance, down from 14 million not too long ago. However, the purchase market remains active. The dream of homeownership has not cooled as of yet. On the higher end, many potential buyers we speak to are looking to make gains from the stock market, or crypto market, to buy real estate. The recent volatility which saw many asset classes get crushed early in the quarter and then resurge probably has a lot to do with the desire to move into the safety of real estate. Moreover, lack of supply (as we have spoken about in many blog posts) will provide a natural floor to how low housing in markets such as Southern California may go down, even if the overall housing market is slowed by rising rates.

Market Commentary 3/25/22

Flattening Yield Curve Worrisome As Economic Growth Slows

I feel as if I have seen this movie before. With that thought in mind, the idea that this time may be different is what makes previous patterns in markets hard to handicap.  But, make no mistake, a flattening yield curve is a worrisome sign. This is especially concerning, given how hot inflation is currently running and where low-interest rates are at present.  The bond market had a terrible week as 30-year mortgage rates hit near 5.000%, which is a dramatic increase from the 3.25% or so rates were at the beginning of the year. I also find it strange that the equity markets are surging on a week when bond yields have risen to levels not seen in several years. The erratic behavior of the market is one reason why it’s so difficult to both predict the future or place big investment bets in one direction or the other. Even when all signs point to an outcome, that outcome may not happen.   

Take housing as an example. Given the lack of housing supply, the way in which rates will affect housing demand remains uncertain. I do expect sales to slow as the combination of very high inflation and much higher mortgage rates are not favorable. Yet, at the moment, many real estate brokers remain very busy and our office has a near-record amount of purchase volume.   

One of the great joys of my job is speaking to so many people each and every week. One client who is in the online retail business informed me that as soon as gas hit $6 per gallon, the business fell off a cliff.  Disposable income is getting eaten up by life’s necessities in a way unseen in over 40 years. Gas prices, food, rent, you name it, and the price is higher.  There is much talk of the strong possibility of a 9%-10% CPI print.  Should this happen, the Fed will need to act quickly and strongly with at least a .50 bp increase in rates and perhaps even do so sooner than their next meeting.  Inflation is beginning to erode economic growth. Bond guru, Jeffrey Gundlach, said recently that he is on recession watch. He looks at the 2-10 and 5-10 Treasury spread as one of his main predictors of a recession. Should both of these spreads go negative from very flat, he fully expects a recession.  A steepening yield curve will give the all-clear. 

Now for the positives. One, real estate has historically been an excellent hedge against inflation. This means that should the markets swoon, investors may want the security of a hard asset such as real estate. Two, a more downbeat mood opens the door to better negotiations between buyers and sellers.  As the market normalizes, there is a chance there will be more homes for sale or that sellers will be willing to work with potential buyers in ways that have not been seen over the last two years. Finally, rates are still attractive from a historical perspective (real rates are deeply are negative when measured against inflation), especially adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs).  While it seems likely the 30+ year bull market in interest rates has been broken, let’s not forget the 10 year Treasury is still only at 2.48%.