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Fixed Income Review – July 2019

We delayed publishing the July Fixed Income Review so we can present fresh data and comment on the surge in volatility following the Fed meeting (7/31) and new tariffs on China (8/1). 

In general, the fixed income markets were mostly sleep-walking through July in anticipation of a July 31st Federal Reserve rate cut and a much-anticipated dovish statement from the Fed.  As if on autopilot, stock markets slogged higher and credit spreads moved tighter throughout the month. Meanwhile, Treasury yields rose modestly after their dramatic declines in May and June. Indeed, as the table below reflects, Treasuries were the only major fixed-income class to lose ground on a total return basis in July. All other categories posted positive returns for the month.

In stark contrast, the ETF table below highlights some of the significant changes we have seen since the beginning of August.

Following the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting on July 31 and the subsequent press conference delivered by Chairman Jerome Powell, the future of monetary policy was suddenly in question. For the first time in several months, the Fed failed to deliver a dovish surprise.

Part of Powell’s response to the first question in the press conference regarding the “hurdle” for further rate cuts was as follows:

“…the committee is really thinking of this as a way of adjusting policy to a somewhat more accommodative stance to further the three objectives that I mentioned. To ensure against downside risks, to provide support to the economy that those factors are pushing down on economic growth and then to support inflation. So, we do think it’ll serve all of those goals. But again, we’re thinking of it as essentially in the nature of a midcycle adjustment to policy.”

Despite the evidence and assurances of rate cuts to provide a firebreak against any potential weakening of the economy, Powell’s reference to “a midcycle adjustment” suddenly raised doubts about their conviction for further easing.  

Given the strength of the U.S. economy, the “downside risks” he refers to are clearly emanating from foreign sources. Now add a Fed that may not be ready to cut rates further and the renewed escalation of the trade war between the U.S. and China and one has a potent cocktail for the volatility seen since the end of July.

As can be seen in the tables above, fixed-income markets in July were mostly a non-event but the first several days of August have been full of fireworks. The table below illustrates the move in U.S. Treasury yields since July 31.

Investment grade and high yield markets reacted with some displeasure to Jerome Powell’s comments and new rhetoric from the administration on trade and tariff challenges associated with China. Although the magnitude of the spread changes did not breach any meaningful technical levels, the speed of the change was rather head-snapping.

We end up in a familiar place. If we are to take the Chairman at his word and potential downside risks warrant a rate cut, it becomes even more challenging to justify the valuations investors are being asked to pay to own risky assets. Despite having posted new highs in recent weeks, the S&P 500 has produced a 3.48% annualized total return over the past 18 months along with volatility of 15.5%. High yield bonds have delivered annualized total returns of 4.80% with 12.9% volatility. Net out the most recent inflation data of 1.6% from those numbers and we struggle to understand why investors have been so enthusiastic.

Eighteen months ago, one could buy 10-year Treasuries at a 2.85% yield. The 7-10 year ETF (Ticker: IEF) has delivered 3.55% total return and with only 4.4% volatility. Needless to say, while not glamorous, the risk-free route provided returns on par with stocks and high-yield but with significantly less volatility. Given the risks Chairman Powell has outlined, might Treasuries, despite near-record low yields, be the safe place to hide in fixed income for the time being? Astute, rational investors will either figure that out on their own or the market will impose its will.

All Data Courtesy Barclays

Fixed Income Review – June 2019

As central banks have become collectively more dovish throughout 2019, monetary stimulus appears to be back in control of the economic cycle. The Federal Reserve ratcheted up their easing posture at the June Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting as one voting member dissented from the group in favor of a rate cut. There were other non-voting members even arguing for a 50 basis point rate cut on concerns about the economic outlook and still muted inflation pressures. Keep in mind this abrupt flip in policy is coming despite unemployment at near half-century lows and inflation hovering around 2.0%, the supposed Fed target.

With that backdrop in play, it is no surprise that June was a good month for all risk assets. Within the Fixed income arena, the riskiest of bonds outperformed against the spectrum of safer fixed-income products. As the table below highlights, every major category performed well with emerging markets (EM) leading the way and investment grade (IG) and high yield (HY) corporate returns close behind.

Fixed income has now completed a “round trip” from June 2018 as yields and spreads in almost every category are back below the levels observed at the same time last year. The tables below illustrate those moves in both yields and spreads.

The anticipation of what is being called “insurance rate cuts” from the Fed as well as easing measures expected from the European Central Bank (ECB), offered investors comfort that these potential actions will keep downside risk and volatility at bay. The hope is that the central bankers are sufficiently ahead of the curve in combating weaker global growth.

Despite investor optimism about the outlook as evidenced in the first half performance, risks remain. Most notably, ongoing deceleration in trade and industrial activity could worsen and bring an end to the current record-long economic U.S. expansion. The United States is surrounded by economies that are faltering, including Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan, much of southeast Asia and, most importantly, China. The Trump trade policy agenda only adds to these risks, especially for those countries dependent on exports for economic growth.

If risks do not abate, then we should expect forceful actions from central bankers. The common response of Treasury yields and the yield curve is for the short end (out to two- or three-year maturities) to drop significantly and the long end to either hold steady or fall but much less so than short rates resulting in what is called a bullish curve steepener. As we discussed in Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You, past episodes of rate cuts illustrate this effect.

With investors complacent, yields and spreads on risky assets back to extremely rich levels, and global trouble brewing, the pleasant by-product of recent Fed rhetoric might quickly be disrupted. If so, the gains of the first half of 2019 would become a vague memory.

Apart from slowing global trade and industrial activity, keep in mind there are plenty of other potentially disruptive issues at hand including China leverage, Brexit, the contentious circumstances between the U.S. and Iran, the Italian government fighting with the European Commission on fiscal issues, Turkish currency depreciation, on-going problems in Argentina and more.

At the moment, the Fed and the ECB appear to have the upper hand on the markets, and higher yielding asset alternatives that reward an investor for taking risk are benefiting. Still, a critical assessment of the current landscape demands that investors engage and think critically about the risk-reward trade-off under current circumstances. The Fed and the ECB are not hyper-cautious and dovish for no reason at all. There is more to the current economic dynamic than meets the passive observer’s eye.

All Data Courtesy Barclays

Fixed Income Review – May 2019

To quote from last month’s FI Review, “The performance for the rest of the year no doubt depends more on coupon than price appreciation as spreads are tight and headwinds are becoming more obvious…

On the surface, it looks as though fixed income had another excellent month with the exception of the high yield (junk) sector. Year-to-date, total return gains range from between 3.5% (MBS, ABS, CMBS) to 7.3% (junk). With equity markets up 9-10% through May, bonds are, to use horse racing vernacular, holding pace and stalking. But the monthly total return data does not tell the whole story as we shall see.

To start with an important backdrop for all asset classes, the decline in yields during May was eye-catching and most notable was the sharp inversion of the 3-month to 10-year curve spread. The table below highlights yield changes for May and the curve inversion.

The graph below shows the yields on the 3-month T-bill and the 10-year Treasury note as well as the yield spread between the two. Past inversions of this curve have tended to signal the eventuality of a recession, so this is a meaningful gauge to watch.

To reference the lead quote above, we maintain that spread tightening has most likely run its full course for this cycle and performance will largely be driven by carry. That said, we offer caution as the risk of spread widening across all credit sectors is high, and May might be offering clues about what may yet come.

The first four months of the year highlighted excellent risk-on opportunities. However, with Treasury yields now falling dramatically, they seem to signal bigger problems for the global and domestic economy than had previously been considered. The Treasury sector handily outperformed all others in May and higher risk categories (Junk and EM) were the worst performers. This is a reversal from what we have seen thus far in 2019.

Summer winds are blowing in trouble from the obvious U.S.-China trade dispute but also from Italy, Brexit, Iran, and Deutsche Bank woes.

To highlight the relationship between the historical and recent month-over-month moves in the S&P 500 returns and those of investment grade and high yield bonds, the scatter chart below offers some compelling insight. The green marker on each graph is the month of April, and the red marker is May.

Investment grade bonds have less sensitivity to equity market moves (trendline slope 0.124) and, as we should expect, high yield bonds have return characteristics that closer mimics that of the stock market (trendline slope 0.474). The scales on the two graphs are identical to further stress the differences in return sensitivity.

Finally, when looking at the spread between 5-year Treasuries and investment-grade bonds (similar duration securities) versus the spread between 5-year Treasuries and high-yield bonds, the spread widening since the end of April has been telling.

The investment grade spread to Treasuries widened by .019% (19 bps) and .82% (82 bps) against junk. Netting the risk-free interest rate move in Treasuries for May reveals that the pure excess return for the investment grade sector was -1.39% and for high yield it was -2.49%.

The month of May offered a lot of new information for investors. Most of it is highly cautionary.

All Data Courtesy Bloomberg and Barclays

Higher Rates Are Crushing Investors

There is an old saying that proclaims, “it’s not the size of the ship, but the motion of the ocean.” Since this is a family-friendly publication, we will leave it at that. However, the saying has a connotation that is pertinent to the bond market today. Much of the media’s focus on the recent surge in yields has been on the absolute increase in numerical terms. The increase in rates and yields, while important, fails to consider the bigger forces that can inflict pain on bond holders, or sink the ship. When losses accumulate and fear of further losses mount, volatility and other instabilities can arise in the bond market and bleed to other markets, as we are now beginning to see in the equity markets.

Since 1983, fixed-income investors have been able to put their portfolios on autopilot, clip coupons and watch prices rise and yields steadily fall. Despite a few bumps on this long path, which we will detail, yields, have declined gradually from the mid-teens to the low single digits.

In this piece, we discuss the effect that higher yields are having on debt investors today and compare it to prior temporary increases in yield. It is from the view of debt investors that we can better appreciate that the “motion” is much bigger today than years past.

The Motion of the Bond Ocean

As we alluded in the opening, the losses felt by bond investors cannot be calculated based solely on the amount that yields rise. For instance, if someone told you that yields suddenly rose by 1%, you have no way of estimating the dollar losses that entails for any investor or the entire universe of bond holders. For example, an investor holding a 1-month Treasury bill will have a temporary and inconsequential loss of less than 0.10%, but it will be erased when the bill matures next month. Conversely, a holder of a 30-year bond will see the bond’s value drop by approximately 20%. This example demonstrates why a bond’s duration is so important. In addition to duration, it is critical to know the cumulative amount of bonds outstanding to understand the effects of changes in yields or interest rates.

Comparing yield changes to prior periods without respect for duration and amount of debt outstanding is a critical mistake and has led to an under-appreciation of the losses already incurred by the recent rise in rates and the potential future losses if rates increase further. The importance of this analysis comes back to the central premise of an investor’s objective – wealth is most effectively compounded by avoiding large losses. In the end, we care less about the change in interest rates than we do the impact of that change on the value of a portfolio.

Amount of Debt Outstanding: Since 1993 total U.S. debt outstanding, including federal government, municipalities, consumers, and corporations have risen from about $14 trillion to nearly $60 trillion, a 318% increase as graphed below. The table below the graph compares the surge in outstanding debt among the various issuers of debt as well as the nation’s GDP.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

Duration of Debt Outstanding: The duration of a bond is a measure of the expected change of a bond’s price for a given change in yield. For example, the U.S. Treasury 10-year note currently has a duration of 8.50, meaning a 1% change in its yield should result in an approximate 8.50% decline in price. Since it quantifies the price change of a bond for a given change in interest rates, it affords a pure measure of risk. For simplicity’s sake, we omit a discussion of convexity, which measures the second order effect of how duration changes as yields change.

Think of duration as a fulcrum as shown below.

As illustrated, an investor of these cash flows would receive the weighted average of the present value of all of the expected cash flows at the three year mark.

Duration is a function of the current level of yields, the nominal coupon of the security, and the time to maturity of the debt issued.

The following graph highlights that the weighted average duration of total U.S. debt outstanding (including Federal, consumer, municipal and corporate) has increased by approximately 1.30 years to almost 6 years since 1993. All else equal, a 1% increase in yields today would result in an approximate 6.0% loss across all U.S. debt versus a 4.7% loss in the early 1990’s.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

The table above shows the changes in duration for various classes of fixed-income instruments since 1993. Consumer debt includes mortgages, credit cards and student loans. As an aside, the increase in yields since 2016 has caused the duration of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) to increase by over 3.0 years from 2.25 to 5.30 years.

Duration and Amount of Debt Outstanding

If we combine the duration and debt outstanding charts, we gain a better appreciation for how fixed-income risk borne by investors has steadily increased since 1993. The following graph uses the data above to illustrate the sensitivity of bond investors’ wealth to a 1% change in yields. For this analysis, we use the change in 5-year U.S. Treasury yields as it closely approximates the aggregate duration of the bond universe.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

The table below displays the way that the recent uptick in bond yields has been commonly portrayed over the prior few months.

Tables like the one above have been used to imply that the 2.13% increase in the 5-year U.S. Treasury yield since 2016 is relatively insignificant as three times since 1993 the trough to peak yield change has been larger. However, what we fear many investors are missing, is that the change in rates must be contemplated in conjunction with the amount of debt outstanding and the duration (risk) of that debt.

The table below combines these components (yield change, duration, and debt outstanding) to arrive at a proxy for cumulative dollar losses. Note that while yields have risen by only about two-thirds of what was experienced in 1993-1994, the dollar loss associated with the change in yield is currently about three times larger. Said another way, yields would have needed to increase by 9.73% in 1993-1994 to create losses similar to today.

Data Courtesy: Bloomberg

Summary

We have often said that our current economic environment is much more sensitive to changes in interest rates because of the growth in debt outstanding since the financial crisis and the recent emergence from the ultra-low interest rate period that crisis produced. Although 5-year yields have only risen by 2.13% from the 2016 lows, losses, as shown above, are accumulating at a faster pace than in years past.

Furthermore, because of the difference between the amount of debt outstanding and the actual currency in the economic system, most of that debt represents leverage. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore those implications but, as illustrated in the table above, rising rates will decidedly reveal the instabilities we fear are embedded in our economy but have yet to fully emerge.

If we are near the peak in interest rates for this cycle, then unrealized losses are likely manageable despite the anxiety they have induced. On the other hand, if we are in the process of a secular change in the direction of rates and they do continue higher, then nearly every fixed-income investor, household, corporation and the government will be adversely impacted.