All the biggest names in bonds—Gross, Gundlach, Dalio—have been warning that a major bond bear market is on the way. However, Bloomberg is arguing that bears may have to wait as the tide in the bond market is reversing. Treasury yields’ rise has stalled, and in certain parts of the world (e.g. Germany), yields are once again falling. The big reason why is global fears over a possible trade war which could sink the economy broadly. This would weaken inflation and hamper hikes by central banks, pinning rates.
FINSUM: We have repeatedly said that we do not think there will be a bond bear market. There is a lot of natural demand for bonds given the aging population, which should keep yields at bay even if other forces are causing them to rise.
One way to judge the fear level of investors in regards to inflation is to look at flows into TIPS, or Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. The bond market had its biggest bout of volatility in around a decade over the last 6 weeks, and one big upshot of that has been a surge into TIPS, as investors seek a safe haven for the strong rise in inflation which they see coming. BlackRock’s TIPS ETF, for instance, just hit a new high with $25 bn under management.
FINSUM: Interest in TIPS has a lot to do with the Fed and rates, but also with the government’s budget deficit, which is set to widen.
One of the biggest surprises in the rise of ETFs has been the dominance of stocks over bonds. Bonds have always had some liquidity challenges for individual investors, so at the outset one would have expected bond ETFs to do well since they greatly enhanced accessibility to the asset class. However, while stock ETFs have exploded, bond ETFs have been more of a steady progression, but things are heating up. Bonds represent 15% of the total ETF market, but are growing quickly, with the market size doubling to $1.5 tn by 2022.
FINSUM: We think bond ETF demand will rise in line with rates. Once people start seeing 5% yields plus on solid bonds with short durations we think there will be more and more buying.
PIMCO, perhaps the most famous bond investor in the world, has just published a piece covering their view of where yields are headed. Their conclusion is that they do see the risk for rates rising as the US budget deficit grows and the economy strengthens, but that on the whole they are not too concerned about a big jump. Their view is best summarized in their own words, “Nevertheless, we believe powerful forces are working against a permanent increase in the trajectory of economic growth in the U.S., including the aging population, productivity trends, sovereign indebtedness, credit growth, and an imbalance between savings and investments”.
FINSUM: Our readers will have noticed that this view exactly matches what we have been saying about bond yields.
Despite a seemingly very hawkish Fed, bond traders just aren’t buying it, according to Bloomberg. Traders think the economy is burning very hot, and that the Fed, despite rhetoric, is actually content to just stick to only gradual rate hikes. According to one CIO, “The bond market is telling the Fed we see rising inflation pressures and if you are going to be gradual and crawl into three more rate hikes this year we are not going to wait around”, continuing “The long end of the yield curve is tightening for the Fed”.
FINSUM: Fed minutes did not show that the bank was considering four hikes this year, and the market thinks they should be.
Many investors are currently worried about the bond market. There is a lot of uncertainty over just how much rates and yields will rise and what that might mean for the economy. Well, Bloomberg is taking a strong stand on the issue, arguing that a bond Armageddon is on the way. The paper says that all the focus has been on ten-years, but that 30s might be where the danger is. They are within shouting distance of their 2015-2017 highs, and are very close to the 3.24% level, which would signal the difference between an orderly selloff and a full-on rout.
FINSUM: There may be some short-term volatility, but our overall view is that there won’t be a cataclysm in bonds. Global populations are aging and people need income. We expected yields to stay in check and spreads to narrow even if sovereign yields rise.
In an article that contrasts strongly to some others we are running today, here is a different view on bonds coming out of the Wall Street Journal—that the bull market is far from over. The argument is based on two interconnected factors. The first is that rates and yields do look likely to rise in the short term, but at the same time, there are many signs the business cycle is poised to end, which will bring on a recession. When that happens, yields will once again plunge, keeping the bond market surging.
FINSUM: If a recession does come then rates and yields will likely drop again. Unless of course inflation sticks around and we get caught in a stagflationary period.
Whether one likes it or not, Treasury yields hitting 3%, which they look bound to do, will be a major event. The big question is what to do once it happens. Is it the signal of a sharp move higher in yields, or will it be the climax to a short-lived selloff? The reality is that if Treasuries move just a little above three, there could be a strong wave of selling. However, strategies betting against volatility have been paired back in recent weeks, so the selling might not be as furious as one might fear.
FINSUM: Nobody has any idea what will happen if Treasuries move above 3%. As far as bonds, we expect that there will be more and more organic buyers above 3%, which should keep things in check. On the stock side, we do not see why a move higher would be too bad, as the spread to equity yields will still be wide.
Here is a tough question to judge—are Treasury bonds yielding 3% good news or bad for the markets? Investors themselves haven’t made up their minds. At first the prospect of rising yields spooked investors, but they have recently grown much more tolerant. While at first investors were shy about rising rates ending the recovery, higher yields now seem to be interpreted as a sign that we have finally overcome worries about “secular stagnation” in the economy.
FINSUM: Our own view is that rates rising back to “normal” is a sign of the economy doing well, and thus is nothing to fear for equity investors.
The market did something that seems quite odd yesterday. Despite inflation coming out ahead of expectations and Treasury bonds commensurately selling off, stocks rose strongly. It was the first time the two asset classes had moved in significantly opposite directions in some time. Yields on the ten-year bond extended their four-year high to 2.92%, seven basis points higher than in the previous session.
FINSUM: We have been saying for the last couple of weeks that investors would realize inflation wasn’t necessarily bad for stocks. The market seems to have woken up to that reality.
Goldman Sachs put out a big warning to the market yesterday. The bank’s fixed income division says that it thinks yields on ten-year Treasuries are going to rise to 3.5% within two quarters as the Fed continues to hikes rates and the market sells off. Goldman called its prediction “not very brave”, indicating it thinks yields might be higher, especially since it feels the Fed will hike four times this year. Goldman’s forecast for rates is much higher than most analysts, so if it comes to pass, it could have big ramifications for equity investors.
FINSUM: If yields rose to 3.5% or above that quickly, we expect the equity markets would perform very poorly, and it may be the kind of scenario where we have a recession.
So far all the attention of the selloff has been confined to two major areas: Treasury bonds, and to a greater extent, equity markets. Treasuries have stabilized a bit given all the turmoil in equities, but one of the areas investor need to watch carefully is junk bonds. The more equity-like bonds have been holding up well, but finally started to crack this week as outflows have been strong and the main junk bond ETF had its worst day in a year. The spread to Treasuries is still historically low—346 basis points—which means that there is a lot of room for a correction, though Bloomberg says this is giving fund managers some comfort.
FINSUM: If equities keep falling it seems like junk will fall some. However, the protection of yield, and the fact that earnings and credit worthiness are good should be supportive.
One of the guiding ideologies of the bond market over the last few years has been to buy the dips. Every time that bond yields have risen some, it has been smart to go long bonds as they inevitably came back down. However, this time looks very different. The difference is that central banks are no longer fixed to their ultra-low rates policy, which means there is no big magnet that pulls rates and yields ever downward.
FINSUM: So in our view what is really happening right now is a market wide price discovery period for bonds. Because the underlying situation is changing, no one is comfortable judging bond yields and prices. This worry has spread to equities, but in our view the root anxiety is in fixed income.
Any financial advisor will tell you that most of their clients love muni bonds. The asset class has been very popular for many years among the wealthy because of the bonds’ tax exempt status. Therefore, advisors need to pay attention, as there is a little discussed, but very real ticking time bomb in the asset class. That big time bomb is unfunded pension liabilities. The projections made fifteen years ago may have been plausible, but with a financial crisis and then years of rock bottom rates, many think state and local pensions have reached a point of no return which will lead to major defaults. Barclays’ munis team recently noted “We are increasingly wary of high pension exposure, especially among state and local credits”, continuing that “short-term investment gains won’t be sufficient to plug liability gaps”.
FINSUM: There is bound to be a big wave of defaults in the muni space. This is a big and slow-moving crisis that nobody, especially the federal government, wants to deal with.