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.
The bond market took on a very strong position about the Fed in its recent rally—that rate cuts were likely this year in order to stimulate the economy. However, upon the release of the most recent Fed minutes, that view appears to be quite clearly wrong. The Fed minutes show no indication at all of cuts to come this year. Instead, those at the Fed merely indicate that hikes are likely to be put on hold for the rest of the year.
FINSUM: We don’t think there is much of a chance the Fed will cut this year. Recent economic data has been a little better, which means they seem much more likely to stand pat than to cut.
Investors have been very worried about the yield curve’s recent inversion, and with good reason—an inversion is the most reliable indicator of a forthcoming recession. That said, there are two important factors to note. The first, of which most readers will be aware, is that it takes an average of 18 months for a recession to arrive once the curve inverts. However, the second factor, which is less well understood, is that the specific pairing of yield curves that are inverted also makes a difference. The media and market have been totally focused on how the 3-month and ten-year yield has inverted, but the best indicator historically has been the two-year and ten-year, which is still 18 basis points or so shy of an inversion.
FINSUM: The signal from the 2- and 10-year pairing has been a much better indicator. Accordingly, the inversion the market has been obsessing about may be less relevant.
What is the biggest short-term risk to markets? Is it a recession, China trade relations, and EU meltdown? None of the above. Rather, it is the upside risk of better economic data. A short burst of good US economic data, and the resulting comments from the Fed, could send US bond markets into a tailspin after the huge rallies of the last several weeks. The market for long-term Treasuries looks overbought, which means a reversal in economic data could bring a lot of volatility which could even whiplash equities.
FINSUM: At this point, a round of good economic data, and a stray hawkish comment from the Fed, would deeply wound bonds and hurt equities too (because everyone would again grow fearful of hikes).
Do you remember those glory years between the taper tantrum and the end of 2017? The time when inflation was low, but not totally weak, growth was solid but not great, and the Fed decided to do nothing and say little? That was the time when the market surged. Well, those days may be here again as the economic signals right now, and the Fed’s language, are starting to look like they are returning to the post-Crisis “new normal” of moderate growth and inflation, but not enough to bring on a policy response.
FINSUM: Our own view is that we are not headed for recession, but rather a return to the pre-tax cut rate of growth and inflation. This is a solid setup for markets as it produces a dependable environment and a good atmosphere for corporate earnings growth.
The yield curve is the center of attention right now. The short end is yielding more than the long end, everything feels upside down. So how to play it? Yields on long-term bonds have fallen so steeply that it seems foolish to think they will continue to do so. Inflation is still around and the Fed still has a goal to get the country to 2%, which means yields seems more likely to rise than fall (unless you think a recession is imminent). Accordingly, there are two ways to play this curve. The first is to use a “bullet” strategy by buying only intermediate term bonds, which tend to do well when the yield curve steepens, especially if short-term rates actually fall. For this approach, check out the iPath U.S. Treasury Steepener ETN (STPP). The other option is to remain agnostic as to direction, buying something like the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond fund (AGG).
FINSUM: Our own view is that we are not headed into an immediate recession, and thus the long end of the curve looks overbought.