One of the core tenants of US central banking is being shunned by Jay Powell’s Fed. Former central bank leadership had always taken the approach that tight labor markets posed a serious threat for higher inflation. However, Powell is stepping away from that view. Labor markets remain tight, with unemployment very low and strong job creation consistent. Yet, the Fed has completely stepped off the gas pedal on rate hikes, a position that runs counter to previous approaches.
FINSUM: At least in this cycle, the relationship between labor markets and inflation seems to be thoroughly broken. The reality is that no one can give a great answer as to why, but Powell’s policy nonetheless sticks to the idea that the link is severed.
One of the odd things about the recession fears since December is that spreads on junk bonds have not risen. Usually, junk bonds sell-off when there are recession fears, as they are the riskiest credits and likely to suffer the worst downturns. However, the opposite has happened in junk, with spreads to investment grade very tight. In fact, investors are picking up so little extra yield in junk bonds, that in many cases they are not even worth the risk. Spreads are tied for their narrowest since the Financial Crisis at just 60 basis points.
FINSUM: The last time spreads got this tight was last October, right before the market tanked. Warning sign.
A rising tide lifts all boats right? Well it also means credit scores get lifted alongside the economy. Goldman Sachs thinks this is a problem. The bank is arguing that credit scores have been artificially inflated by FICO, a dangerous development that could have implications for all sorts of lending. Goldman thinks that current FICO scores are not an accurate reflection of consumers’ ability to pay in an economic downturn, meaning there is much more credit risk sloshing around in the economy than is currently priced into the market.
FINSUM: The big risk here is really at the lower end of the lending spectrum. There are 15 million less consumers with scores of 660 or below than there were before the last Crisis. Therefore, the risk of borrowers in that area is probably being underappreciated.
There is a LOT going on in fixed income markets right now, and for the most part, those developments are confusing. Treasury bonds had a huge rally, and then a little pull back, on worries about the economy. But at the same time, the riskiest bonds—high yield—have been doing very well even though they are the most likely to suffer in a recession. So where should investors have their money in fixed income? Long-dated municipal bonds might be one good idea. Advisors will be well aware of their tax exempt status, but what is interesting right now is that they appear a relative discount. 30-year munis have yields over 3%, well above Treasuries, making them look like a relative steal.
FINSUM: These seem like a good buy right now, especially with the rate outlook being so dovish.
US core retail prices came in soft in new data this week. The US core consumer price index, which excludes food and energy, rose 0.1% from the previous month and 2% from a year earlier in March. The readings both underperformed expectations, but are not considered indicative of a recession or any real economic trouble.
FINSUM: This data reinforces the idea that we are in a goldilocks moment with the economy. Let’s see if that continues. If it does, it sets up a nice environment for asset price growth.