As we have told readers, we have been keeping our antennae up for signs that an economic downturn may be on its way. Well, the biggest one of all just showed its head, and investors need to take notice. An important part of the rates market just showed an inverted yield curve. The one-month U.S. overnight indexed swap rate is now inverted, and this implies some expectation of a lower Fed policy rate after the first quarter of 2020, says JP Morgan. The Bank summarizes the situation this way, saying “An inversion at the front end of the U.S. curve is a significant market development, not least because it occurs rather rarely … It is also generally perceived as a bad omen for risky markets”.
FINSUM: If the market thinks rates are going to be lower in 2020, that means parts of the bond market are expecting a recession between now and then. Take notice.
The US credit market has not exploded, but as yields drift higher, the situation is worsening. High yield is seeing yields and prices back to where they were in 2016, though not quite as bad as in early 2016, which was the last time there was an equity market correction. There are big worries about the huge ($2.5 tn+) pool of triple B bonds, which look vulnerable. Triple Bs now account for half of the US investment grade market. The good news is that corporate earnings are in good shape, which means credit-worthiness is still strong.
FINSUM: We think fears about the credit market are a little overblown at the moment. Earnings and credit-worthiness are still strong, and there is going to be good demand for decent yields, which should keep things in a band.
The bond market is scaring a lot of investors right now. It is caught between the likelihood for higher rates and fears over a recession. With that in mind, we thought our readers would be interested to hear some thoughts from WisdomTree Financial, who has put out their “highest conviction fixed income trade” over the next two years. While shorter term duration bonds look attractive, especially one- to three-month bills, WisdomTree says investors should move into floating rate treasuries instead. The US floating rate note (FRN) debuted in 2014 and the rate floats based on the 13-week t-bill yield plus a spread. Coupons are paid quarterly.
FINSUM: So shorter duration bonds look attractive because their yields are strong relative to longer maturities and they have less sensitivity to rates. The FRN seems to accomplish the same goal.
While there are a lot of concerns about the bond market right now, one of the risks that is being ignored is credit quality itself. Well, there might be a bomb set to go off in credit. In particular, there appear to be major risks in the Triple BBB category of bonds. This group is considered investment grade, but only just so. There are currently $2.5 tn in US debt with this rating, double the level of five years ago, according to Morgan Stanley. MS says that in a downturn, investors may abandon this type of debt, raising rates for the borrowers, and in turn exacerbating the economic contraction. All of which seems likely to hurt the stock market.
FINSUM: This part of the bond market is so huge, that an exodus from this area would greatly wound the economy.
The bond market is in flux. It is caught between several strong opposing forces. On the one hand, the Fed looks intent to raise rates. On the other, many are worried about a recession. Finally, the huge and increasing crop of retirees need reliable income. With that in mind, here are some potentially good bond buys from Pimco. The fund manager doesn’t think we will have a recession soon, saying “We think the [economic] cycle will continue for the next couple of years, but stocks aren’t cheap and bonds aren’t cheap”. Pimco suggests looking at high quality junk bonds, and the short end of the Treasury yield curve (e.g. 2-years, which are yielding over 2%).
FINSUM: High quality junk is still yielding over 5%, while the short-end of Treasuries also looks appealing. We don’t think there is a reason to flood out of bonds yet.
One of the most popular fixed income assets for wealthy US investors are municipal bonds. Their tax exempt status has made them continually popular, but what will their fate be during a period of rising rates? There are currently fears that tax cuts and rising rates will wound the sector, but one top financial advisor says the muni sector “will retain its rightful position as a place where wealthy Americans protect their wealth”. Despite rising rates there will be lower issuance this year, which will protect the sector. Additionally, tax cuts for the wealthy will be modest, and not really enough to damage munis. “They will still be a relative value compared with other fixed-income, high-grade asset classes”.
FINSUM: We suspect munis will continue to have a high degree of demand, and if issuance stays low, then those are two important supportive factors. However, some municipalities are facing big budget and pension issues, which could pose a risk.