Posts tagged yield curve
Circular Reasoning

It’s easy to trip over trying to formulate a market narrative at the moment. One interpretation of the dramatic decline in global bond yields is that the smart money is de-risking their portfolios ahead of global slowdown and a rout in equities and credit. The ramp-up in the global trade wars, and still-soggy economic data seem to confirm this version of the narrative, but it is also a somewhat naive story. The global economy is not in perfect shape, but it is hardly on the brink of a recession, especially not since it is usually coordinated tightening by central banks that push the major economies over the edge in the first place. The market is now pricing-in one-to-two rate cuts by the Fed this year, and three in 2020. The money market curve in the Eurozone is even starting to price in the idea that the ECB will further scythe its deposit rate below -0.4%. The argument in the U.S. is particularly delicious. Last year, the consensus was angling for a recession in 2020 based on the idea that the Fed was in search for a “neutral” FF rate at about 3%. Now that the Fed has thrown in the towel, the idea is that it will cut rates to prevent the recession that it itself was supposed to have sown the seeds for in the first place, by hiking interest rates.

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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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