Bonds have been in a bull market for the entire living memory of almost everyone in the financial industry. Yields are extremely low, prices are high, and stocks are peaking every week. Even if you are worried about bonds, the odds that they keep rising seem strong given some undeniably supportive factors. Those include a Fed that not only says it has no intention of hiking rates, but is actually undertaking a stealth form of QE by buying $60 bn of Treasury bills every month to make sure the financial system has adequate cash reserves.
FINSUM: Everything in the market is pointing to a repeat of the post-Crisis market paradigm—ultra-low rates, rising stocks. Should we expect a different outcome this time?
The new SARS/Coronavirus that has broken out in China has been serious enough that it has actually spooked markets. 17 people have already died and 600 more have the pathogen, which is as yet poorly understood. Now the city where it was first found, Wuhan, has been quarantined. However, the quarantine has been greatly undermined by the fact that it was instituted after the country’s biggest annual migration—the Lunar New Year, when Chinese go home to visit family. One the big worries is that the virus seems to have “superspreading” characteristics, or the kind of virus that spreads much more rapidly from person to person than normal.
FINSUM: This is a pretty scary bug, and the US already had its first confirmed case (a man in Seattle that had come directly from Wuhan).
Investors seem to have every reason to worry about bonds. Prices are high, yields are low, and low quality companies are accessing easy financing even in the face of an uncertain economic future. With all that said, there might not be any reason to worry at all. Central banks are still gaming the system. From the Fed being really conservative with rates, to the ECB and BOJ doing massive QE, the whole central bank mechanism is conspiring to prop up bond prices in a major way.
FINSUM: As long as that pre-condition of huge central bank support is in place, it is hard to see bonds taking much of a hit.
If you think the economy is going to keep humming along, then buy small caps, as they look set to gain the most from that scenario, at least according to Leuthold group. Small caps look likely to benefit disproportionately from the rising inflation and higher appetite for risky assets that accompany a strong economy. That said, small caps have lagged large caps for the last decade, so there is some reason to be skeptical about this call. Accordingly, “If 2020 should prove difficult for earnings growth, we would expect large-caps to maintain their earnings growth superiority”.
FINSUM: We can see the economy continuing to roll, but we have a harder time seeing inflation jumping up. We think the status quo will continue.
For many, many years muni bonds have been the go-to for tax-free income. While their yields were lower than conventional credits, there was usually a significant cost-savings by investing in the bonds because of the lack of taxation. However, the muni market is so over-bought that it is very difficult to find bonds where that is still the case. Prices have moved yields so low that there are virtually no savings versus Treasuries. 2019 saw muni bonds experience their highest inflows since 2009, and according to Morningstar “For most taxpayers, there’s no longer a significant yield advantage for muni funds after you take taxes into account”.
FINSUM: Weak yields and no savings, which is going to push investors to buy ever riskier munis. Boom time coming for lower-rated credits?
Ban of America says it is a very good time for investors to buy TIPS, or Treasury Inflation-protected securities. The bank thinks inflation expectations are going to rise this year and they are bullish on long-dated TIPS. The call is notable as many fund managers lost money with similar bets after the Crisis, when many thought inflation would jump alongside QE. This time may be different as the Fed has explicitly said it would let inflation run hot to compensate for the slow inflation we have had for the last decade.
FINSUM: We just don’t see inflation rising much in the near term. There are still a lot of worries about the economy. We feel like 2019 would have been the year for big inflation worries/rises, but it didn’t materialize.