The general understanding of markets is that bond investors are signaling that there is going to be a recession. Treasury yields have tumbled, and the Treasury yield curve has inverted, both signs of a coming downturn. However, the corporate bond market is sending a different signal, and it is worth paying attention to. The big sign of economic worry in the corporate bond markets is widening spreads between investment grade bonds and junk, but that is exactly the opposite of what is happening. The market is sanguine, and showing little of the concern that Treasury markets are. “Corporate spreads are extraordinarily narrow”, says Dan Fuss, vice chairman of Loomis Sayles.
FINSUM: This is a very good sign in our opinion. While it could turn out to be wrong, we do think this signals that Treasury investors may simply be overreacting.
For the last year all the fear in bond markets was about inflation and how the Fed would handle it. Were we going to be hiked into a recession? Now all of that has shifted and fixed income gurus are concerned over an entirely different beast—recession. In many ways the fears of recession have become so strong that they are intimidating the market as a whole, making the term “bond vigilante” more than appropriate here.
FINSUM: The speed with which the bond market has reversed since December is pretty alarming. We do wonder if this inversion might be a false signal.
The professor who first identified yield curve inversions has written an article explaining what the development really means. First identified in 1986, a yield curve inversion is considered the most widely accurate indicator of recession. Since it was first identified and back tested, it has accurately predicted a further 3 out of 3 recessions. This is a point its “discoverer” Campbell Harvey hammers home in his article. He explains that an inversion is usually followed by a recession within 12-18 months. The yield curve has not been inverted since before the Crisis, but just did so on Friday.
FINSUM: One of the important points Harvey makes is that in order for the inversion to really indicate a recession, it needs to remain in place for at least three months. We are only at one day.
It finally happened. After dangling on the edge of an inversion for months, the US yield curve has just officially crossed into one. The gap between 3-month and 10-year Treasury yields is now negative. 10-year yields have been falling, recently hitting a low of 2.439%. Yield curve inversions are seen as the most reliable indicator of forthcoming recessions. Yields have been falling as a reaction to a highly dovish Fed and weakening economic data.
FINSUM: This is a reason to worry about he economy, but remember that there is often a long lag between an inversion and a peak in the stock market.
In another sign of the deteriorating global economy, bond yields in Europe are once again moving negative. German Bund yields fell in trading recently and are now below zero. The move reflects the recently weak data coming out of Europe as fears grow about a recession there. Europe had seen negative bond yields for a long period until the brief bout of economic strength over the last couple of years.
FINSUM: Can the US be the odd man out in deflecting the global downturn? We have done it before, but this time feels different.
The bond market seems to have blind faith in the Fed right now. Longer-term bond yields have fallen dramatically, a sign that fixed income investors are sure the Fed is not planning any moves. Not only are bonds up considerably lately, but implied volatility is very low. That means investors are discounting both the chance for an inflation increase and an economic downturn. In other words, they think the economy and Fed is going to stay right where it is.
FINSUM: Can you blame them? The economy lingered in what we think of as an investor’s “goldilocks” phase for several years after the Crisis—inflation not too low, not too high, Fed on hold, asset prices rising. It does not seem unlikely we go back into that mode.