Tempt the Fates

For everyone, here’s a hot flash
The Treasury’s bagful of cash
May soon start to shrink
And analysts think
That could lead to quite the backlash

The Fed might be forced to raise rates
A prospect that could tempt the fates
How might stocks respond
If the 10-year bond
Sees yields rise as growth now reflates?

You cannot scan the financial headlines these days without seeing a story about either, the extraordinarily low interest rates that non-investment grade credits are paying for money (the average junk bond yield is now below 4.0%, a record low) or about the remarkable bullishness exhibited by investors regarding the future of the stock market given the ongoing reflation story and expected future growth once the pandemic subsides.  In other words, risk is on baby!

But is it really that simple?  There are those, present company included, who believe that the current situation is untenable, and that the future (for markets anyway) may not be as rosy as currently believed.

Consider the following: last summer, as Treasury bond yields were making new all-time lows, we saw a spectacular amount of investment in the stock market, with a particular concentration in companies that were deemed to be beneficiaries of the lockdowns and evolution toward working from home.  These (mostly) tech names have carried the broad indices to record after record and, quite frankly, don’t seem to be slowing down.  Essentially, it could be argued that the tech mega-cap stocks were acting as a substitute for Treasuries, and that the relationship between the stock and bond markets had evolved.  After all, if interest rates were going to remain permanently low, courtesy of the central banks, then it was far better to seek yield in the stock market.  and the situation was that the yield from the S&P 500, at 1.57%, was substantially higher than the yield on 10-year Treasuries, which traded between 0.6%-0.85% for months.  One could define this ‘equity risk premium’ as ~0.80%, give or take, and when combined with the growth prospects it was deemed more than sufficient.

But that was then.  Lately, as the reflation story has really started to pick up, we have seen the Treasury steepener trade come to the fore.  The spread between 2y and 10y Treasuries has risen to 1.13%, its highest level since early 2017 and up from the ~0.50% level seen last summer.  Not only that, but the strong consensus view is that there is further room for 10-yr and longer yields to rise.  After all, expectations are that the Treasury will be issuing another $1.9 trillion of bonds to pay for the mooted stimulus package, and all that supply will simply add pressure to the bond market, driving yields higher.

However, if the bond market story is correct, what does that say about the future of the equity market?  From a positioning perspective, it can be argued that being long the stock market, especially the NASDAQ, is akin to being short a put on the Treasury market (h/t Julian Brigden for the analogy).  In other words, if the premium required to own stocks over bonds is 0.8% of yield, and if the 10-year yield continues to rise to 1.50% (it is higher by 4 more basis points this morning), that means the dividend yield on stocks needs to rise to 2.3% to restore the relationship.  Doing the math shows that stock prices would need to decline by…33% to drive yields that much higher!  I’m pretty sure, that is not in the reflation story playbook, but then I’m just an FX salesman.

Which brings us back to the Treasury and the Fed.  The Treasury, during the pandemic, has maintained an extraordinarily high level of cash balances at the Fed, roughly $1.6 trillion, far above its more normal $500-$600 billion.  It seems that Secretary Yellen is looking to draw down those balances (arguably to spend money), which means that the likely market response will be much lower front-end yields, with the possibility of negative rates in the T-bill market quite realistic.  This outcome is something which the Fed would deeply like to avoid, and so they may find themselves in a situation where they need to raise IOER and the reverse repo rates in order to encourage banks to maintain the cash as reserves, like they currently are, instead of having them flow to the T-Bill market driving rates lower.  But how will the markets respond if the Fed raises rates, even if it is IOER and even though it will surely be described as a technical adjustment?  It could be completely benign.  But given that this is truly ‘inside baseball’ with respect to the markets functioning, it could also easily be misinterpreted as the Fed starting to remove liquidity from the markets.  And that, my friends, would not be taken lightly.

Summing all this up leaves us with the following: Treasury yields continue to rise on the reflation trade and pressure is coming to the front end of the curve which could result in the Fed acting to make technical adjustments to raise rates there.  The combination of these two events could easily result in a repricing of equity markets of some substance.  It would also result in a tightening of financial conditions, something the Fed is very keen to prevent, which means the story would not end here.

And how would this impact the dollar?  Well, the combination of higher rates and risk reduction would likely see a strong, initial bid in the buck.  But this is where the idea of the Fed capping yields comes into play.  A reflating (inflating) economy with rising yields will be quite problematic for the US government and with the justification of tighter financial conditions, the Fed will smoothly pivot to extending QE tenors if not outright YCC.  And that will halt the dollar’s rise, although not inflation’s, and the much-vaunted dollar weakness is likely to be a result.  But as I have said consistently, that is a H2 event for this year.

So, has that impacted markets negatively today?  Not even close.  Risk remains in favor as we saw the Nikkei (+1.3%) and Hang Seng (+1.9%) both rise sharply.  Shanghai remains closed until Thursday.  Europe, however, has been a bit more circumspect with very modest equity gains there (CAC +0.1%, DAX 0.0%, FTSE 100 +0.15%) although US futures are higher by roughly 0.5% across the board.

Bond markets are continuing to sell off, even after yesterday’s sharp declines.  Treasuries, this morning, are higher by 5bps now, while bunds (+2.1bps), OATs (+2.5bps) and Gilts (+3.7bps) are following yesterday’s moves further.  In fact, bund yields are now pushing toward their post-pandemic highs.

On the commodity front, oil continues to perform well, although WTI is benefitting from the ongoing problems in the Midwest where production is being shut in because of the bitter cold and ice thus reducing supply further.  Meanwhile, base metals are modestly higher, but precious metals are unchanged.

Finally, the dollar remains under pressure and for those who thought that the correction had further to run, it is becoming clear that this gradual depreciation is back.  Of course, with risk in demand, the dollar typically suffers.  In the G10, NZD (+0.5%) is the leading gainer although the entire bloc of European currencies is higher by about 0.3%.  The kiwi story seems to be expectations for eased pandemic restrictions to enable further growth, and hence reflation.  But given the dollar’s broad-based weakness, I don’t ascribe too much to any particular story here.

In the EMG bloc, there are more winners than losers, but the gains are not that substantial.  TRY (+0.6%) continues to benefit from the tighter monetary stance of the new central bank governor, while CLP (+0.6%) seems to be the beneficiary of higher copper prices.  On the downside, PHP (-0.6%) is the laggard, falling after both a sharp rise yesterday and news that foreign remittances and foreign reserves both declined in January.  But the rest of the movement here is much smaller in either direction and the main story remains broad dollar weakness

On the data front, this morning we saw that the German ZEW Expectations Survey was much better than expected despite the ongoing lockdowns across the continent.  Here, at home, we get Empire Manufacturing (exp 6.0), which seems unlikely to move things, but then we hear from three Fed speakers, ranging from the erstwhile hawkish Esther George to the unrequited dove Mary Daly.  But any change of message would be shocking.

And that’s it for the day.  With risk continuing to be embraced, the dollar is likely to remain under pressure.

Good luck and stay safe