Bonds: Total Market
You may normally think of it in terms of stocks, but “buy low, sell high” applies to bonds just as much, and that is a good way to think of the market right now. With yields having fallen so far since last year, one strategist said it was time to accept the “the present the Fed has given us”, and swap out bonds for floating rate securities, which have lagged this rally. The scale of returns in the bond market is impressive. For instance, the iShares 20+ year Treasury Bond ETF has risen over 9% since the beginning of the year.
FINSUM: It seems unlikely to us that bond yields are going to drop much further, which means there is little reason to wait for further gains.
With all of the volatility of the last months, bond ETFs are taking on a new life. As an asset class, bond ETFs have surged in popularity in recent years as a much easier and cheaper way of accessing bond market liquidity. Recently, bond ETFs have seen their role morph. Whereas they have often been seen as a safe haven from periods of volatility, they are now being used as a risk management tool, says the head of iShares U.S. Wealth Advisory Product Consulting at BlackRock.
FINSUM: So many of the newer bond ETFs are designed to thrive in volatile markets, not just provide a low volatility safe haven. This means they are more of a proactive than reactive product.
One of the best indicators of the health of the economy from the last several years has been the strength of the labor market. In particular, low unemployment and jobless claims have highlighted a tight labor market traditionally associated with a strong economy. However, what if the opposite was the case? Recent academic studies show a new recession indicator: full employment. Historically, downturns have typically started about 12 months following the lowest unemployment rate reached in a cycle.
FINSUM: We are currently at 3.7% unemployment, which is VERY low. It seems like the economy is exactly in the “12 months from a recession” position, at least according to this research.
JP Morgan thinks bonds are the best of a bad bunch. That is essentially what JP Morgan is saying about the asset class. The investment bank says that bonds are not in a bubble, though there are no good discounts either. JP Morgan, which is the world’s largest underwriter of bonds, says that despite the 100 bp dive in Treasury yields, bonds are not a bubble ready to burst. The bank thinks the Fed will stay on hold, not cut, until the end of 2020 given the increased pressure the trade war will put on the economy.
FINSUM: Despite the speed with which the bond market has seen yields fall, it is relatively hard to imagine them rising back to over 3% any time soon (even if China dumps its holdings). Thus, we generally agree with JP Morgan’s assessment.
One of the most famous names in bonds, Jeffrey Gundlach, has just put out a bold statement. Gundlach thinks there is forthcoming trouble in markets and he thinks it is the Fed’s fault. Specifically, Gundlach thinks the bond market is set for a lot of volatility. “interest rates cannot maintain the low volatility they have maintained over the last eight years”. To be clear, Gundlach is not calling for a recession, but says “But I am starting to think it is much less of a lock that there won’t be a recession before the next recession”.
FINSUM: There are two conflicting ideologies here. The Fed thinks volatility is largely an extension of the economy and policy, both of which it feels it can control to an extent. Gundlach and many other investors think there are underlying forces in the economy and markets that can only be pacified for so long. We think they are both right to an extent.
The markets are gleeful right now. Stocks are up 25% since their bottom in December, and things on the economic and Fed fronts look rosy. However, Citi says investors need to get out of some assets before “rain spoils the picnic”. The bank is worried about the difference between asset prices and underlying economic conditions (when looking globally). Its biggest area of worry is in corporate bonds, which have seen spreads to investment grade narrow sharply, especially in high yields, which look overvalued. Investment grade debt is troubling too, as debt levels jumped by their biggest amount in 18 years over the last 4 months. Citi thinks companies are burning through way too much cash for the growth levels they are achieving.
FINSUM: So Citi thinks this is going to be a bond market reckoning (which would surely impact stocks too). That is different than the consensus, but perhaps a good way to view the situation.