Central Banks Fear

The one thing that’s been crystal clear
Is yields have exploded this year
The question at hand
Since this wasn’t planned
Is what, most, do central banks fear?

For Jay and the FOMC
The joblessness rate is the key
For Christine its growth
And prices, as both
Refuse to respond to her plea

While the bond market has taken a respite from its headlong rush to higher yields, there is no evidence we have seen the top.  Rather, it feels very much like the market has positioned itself for the next leg higher in yields, potentially to kick off after tomorrow’s FOMC meeting.  If you recall, the last Fedspeak on the topic was by Chairman Powell and he was essentially dismissive of the issue as a non-event.  The consistent story has been that higher yields in the back end of the curve is a sign that the economy is picking up and they are doing their job properly, in other words it is a vote of confidence in the Fed.  And he was unambiguous in his discussion regarding the potential to tighten policy; it ain’t gonna happen for at least two to three more years, which is their timeline as to when the employment situation will recover to pre-Covid levels.  Remember, Powell has been explicit that he will not be satisfied until another 10 million jobs have been created and filled.

It has been this intense focus on the employment situation that has driven the Fed narrative that neither inflation or higher yields are of consequence for now or the foreseeable future.  Thus, all the positive US data, both economic and vaccine related, has served to increase expectations of a strong economic rebound consistently supported by front end interest rates remaining at zero.

But the interplay between rising yields and the speed of the recovery remains open to question.  In addition, there is the question of just how high yields can go before the Treasury gets uncomfortable that financing all this deficit spending is going to become problematic.  After all, if yields continue to rise, at some point the cost of carrying all the debt is going to become quite painful for the government.

In fact, it is this issue that has been a key feature of many forecasts of market behavior for the rest of this year and next; at some point, probably sooner rather than later, the Fed is going to step in and cap yields.  But what if the Treasury is looking at this problem from a different perspective, not what actual yields are, but the size of their debt service relative to the economy?  On that measure, despite a more than doubling of Treasury debt outstanding since 2007, interest expense is currently a smaller percentage of GDP than it was back then.  It is important to remember that Treasury debt matures monthly, not just T-bills, but also old notes and bonds, and when those notes and bonds were issued, ZIRP didn’t exist so many carry coupons much higher than the current replacements.  The upshot is that debt service costs have been declining despite the growth in the nominal amount of debt outstanding and are forecast to continue declining for the next 3 years according to the CBO.  So, maybe, Jay is serious that he is unworried about the current level of yields in the 10-year bucket and beyond.

If this thesis is correct, the implications for other markets going forward are significantly different than I believe many are currently considering.  For instance, a further rise in yields will start to have a significant negative impact on equity prices as all of the discounted cash flow models that currently assume zero rates forever to justify the current level of valuations will come crashing back to reality and there will be a realization that price-earnings multiples are unsustainable at current levels.  As well, the dollar bearish theme will likely get destroyed, as it is predicated on the idea that real yields will decline with rising inflation and capped yields.  If yields are not capped, but instead respond to rising inflation expectations by going higher unchecked, the dollar will be a huge beneficiary.  Precious metals?  They will suffer, although base metals should hold their own as growth will support demand and supply continues to be lacking, especially new supply.  And I would be wary of EMG debt as that rising dollar will wreak havoc on emerging market economies.

Perhaps it is the last thing that will cause the Fed to blink, since if the rest of the world slides into another recession amid increased demand for dollars, history has shown the Fed will ease policy to halt that slide.  Of course, for the past thirty years, any significant decline in the US equity market has been sufficient to get the Fed to ease policy, with Q4 2018 the most recent pre-pandemic episode.  But that means those valuations will compress, at least somewhat, before the Fed responds.

Add it all up and we have the opportunity for significantly more volatility in markets going forward, something hedgers need to heed.

As to today, ahead of the Retail Sales release this morning, and of course the FOMC tomorrow, markets are continuing in their quiet consolidation overall, though with a modest risk-on bias.

Equity market screens are all green with gains in Asia (Nikkei +0.5%, Hang Seng +0.7%, Shanghai +0.8%) and Europe (DAX +0.5%, CAC +0.1%, FTSE 100 +0.5%) pretty solid everywhere.  US futures are showing gains in the NASDAQ (+0.5%), but little movement in the other two indices.

Bond markets are also quietly higher, with very modest yield declines in Treasuries (-0.5bps), Bunds (-0.5bps) and Gilts (-1.0bp).  In fact, looking at my screen shows only Italian BTP’s (+1.9bps) and Greek 10-years (+2.8bps) falling as both nations impose stricter lockdowns.  Even JGB’s (-1.0bp) are a bit firmer as market participants await the BOJ’s policy framework Friday.

Commodity prices are under a bit of pressure this morning with oil (-1.3%) leading the way but base metals pretty much all lower as well.  As to the precious metals, they are little changed on the day and are the market with, perhaps, the keenest interest in the Fed meeting tomorrow.  If yields are going to continue to climb unabated, gold and silver will decline.

Finally, the dollar is having a mixed session as well, with a pretty equal split of gainers and losers against the greenback.  In the G10, SEK (+0.3%) and CHF (+0.3%) lead the way higher although both appear to be continuing a consolidation move of the past week.  On the downside, GBP (-0.3%) is the laggard after the EU brought new legal action against the UK on a Brexit related matter.  As to the rest of the space, the movements have been even smaller and essentially irrelevant.

In Emerging Markets, TRY (+0.8%) is the leading gainer as bets grow that the central bank will be raising rates later this week.  Next in line was KRW (+0.6%) which benefitted from large net inflows into the bond market, but after that, things are much less interesting.  On the downside, while there are a number of currencies that have declined this morning, the movements, all 0.2% or less, just don’t need a rationale, they are simply trading activity.

Data wise, we see Retail Sales this morning (exp -0.5%, 0.1% ex autos) a far cry from last month’s stimulus check induced jump of 5.3%.  We also see IP (0.3%) and Capacity Utilization (75.5%) a little later, but the reality is that if Retail Sales is uninteresting, markets are likely to continue to drift until tomorrow’s FOMC meeting.

For today, there seems very little likely to occur, but beware the Fed, if they really are going to allow yields to rise further, we could see some real changes in viewpoint for both equity markets and the dollar.

Good luck and stay safe