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.
We don’t want to say that we told you so, but we have been broadcasting that bond markets had overreacted to the Fed’s change of tune. This week, bond investors have started to correct themselves as yields on the ten-year have jumped considerably on better economic news. With that in mind, limiting rate risk on bond holdings has taken on renewed importance. Accordingly, where better to be that in short-term, less rate-sensitive, bond funds. For options here, take a look at the Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF (BSV), yielding 2.8%, and the PIMCO Enhance Short Maturity Active ETF (MINT), yielding almost 3%.
FINSUM: We think there could be some significant yield volatility in the next few months, and therefore feel it is best to stay rate hedged/defensive.
Gold is an interesting asset class right now. Everyone knows it has been in the doldrums for many years, but with recession fears brewing, and rates falling, the outlook is an interesting one. Goldman Sachs thinks gold is headed higher. Their thesis is that late cycle worries and falling rates will combine to push up the shiny metal. Falling rates will weaken the Dollar, further helping overseas buyers purchase gold.
FINSUM: In general, we like this thesis. However, we think gold would do better if there was more worry about a huge downturn/crisis, which there doesn’t seem to be. Fears right now are about a standard recession, which would help gold, but maybe not be ultra bullish.
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.
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.