Posts tagged yield curve
The End of Easy Street

One great quarter down, only three to go to wash away the horror show of 2018. The portfolio did well, though it is still bogged down by a number of single names which are beginning to look a lot like value traps, of the nastiest kind. I am, as ever, optimistic about redemption in coming quarters, but I fear that the retired Macro Man, a.k.a. Bloomberg strategist Cameron Crise, is right when he says that; “the sobering reality for asset allocators is that the returns of balanced portfolios are going to struggle mightily to approach anything like 1Q performance.” It won’t be as easy for punters from here on in, but they’ll do their best.  Bond markets have taken centre stage in recent weeks, aided and abetted by significant dovish shifts in the communication by both ECB and the Fed. The result has been a heart-warming rally in both front-end and long-end fixed income, or a pain trade if you’ve been short, and the U.S. yield curve showing further signs of inversion. The 2s5s went a while a ago and now the 3m/10s is gone too, which, apparently, is a big thing. As per usual, economists and strategists are squabbling on the significance of this price action, and I doubt that I’ll be able to settle anything here, so I will stick with the grand narratives, which are tricky enough. 

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Making sense of it all

I think that I am on record somewhere for saying that I would sell everything if the 2s5 inverted. Well, it just did—by a slender margin of 2bp—and for that reason alone, I should have a view. It isn’t easy, though, to add something that hasn’t already been added by the cacophony of comments on the back of recent gyrations in U.S. bonds. If a falling tree in an empty forest doesn’t make a sound, does a yield curve inversion matter if everyone has been talking about it for a year? As it happens, the tree does make a sound, and the yield curve inversion does matter, though not for the reason that you might think.  Rick Reider, CIO of the investment manager Blackrock, is a smooth operator, and he delivers the goods in a few tweets. The significance of a yield curve inversion is not about its ability to predict a recession in the U.S., or elsewhere—more about that in a bit—but about the following three points. First, the Fed has some questions to answer; second, an inverted yield is as much a statement of markets’ perception of the Fed’s neutral/terminal rate as it is about its ability to forewarn about a recession, and third; bonds are finally offering a bit of protection for balanced portfolios. This week, I’ll go through each of these points in turn. 

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Are Bonds Setting a Trap?

The easiest way for U.S. bond markets to entice investors to abandon their obsession with a flattening yield curve—and whether it’ll soon invert—always was to steepen it. The spreads between 5y/10y and two-year yields have widened to 17bp and 30bp, respectively, about 10bp wider than at the end of August. More importantly, this move has occurred as a result of higher mid-to-long term yields. A few basis points don’t make a trend, but the combination of U.S. 5y and 10y bond yields pushing above 3% introduces a number of erstwhile dormant narratives into the mix. Perhaps the mythical neutral, or terminal, rate is higher than the Fed and markets think? Fed Chair Jerome Powell admitted recently that the FOMC probably doesn’t know where this rate is. This argument makes little sense in the context of the dots, which seem to imply that a policy rate of a bit over 3% in 12-to-18 months time is deemed restrictive. But it makes sense if this signal is no longer relevant for markets. The always optimistic David Zervos, the Chief Strategist for Jeffries, detects a shift at the Fed. “The most important takeaway here is that the probability of an aggressive late-cycle curve inversion has plummeted. (...) Maybe Jay goes there if we start ripping toward 3500 in spoos, but it won’t be because of the inflation or growth data.” 

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Is the Fed's Script Already Written?

I have a feeling that many readers didn’t like my conclusion last week, that the major markets and asset classes are a bit like watching paint dry. I concede that it was a lousy metaphor, but last week provided an excellent example that markets are still playing second fiddle to events elsewhere in the public sphere. The NATO summit in Brussels and Mr. Trump’s visit to the U.K. drew all the headlines*, once again forcing economists and strategists to take on the uncomfortable mantle as armchair political analysts. To the extent that Mr. Trump’s odd ways are the common denominator across most geopolitical risk these days, experience suggests that investors should ignore it. That said, I suspect the resurgence in the dollar has something to do with it. The U.S., and by extension Mr. Trump, wield extensive power in the global economy. The more that the White House throws its weight around—on the laughable premise that the U.S. is being short-changed as part of the post-WWII world order—the stronger the dollar gets. In other words, Mr. Trump can win the trade wars, and extract pounds of flesh from his allies, but if the dollar zooms higher, the end-result could be the opposite of what the president, and his base, set out to achieve in the first place. 

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