Most Are Afraid

Since pundits have often asserted
A yield curve that’s truly inverted
Will lead to recession
The recent compression
Of rates has investors alerted

Meanwhile the concerns over trade
Have not really started to fade
Twixt trade and those yields
Investors need shields
Explaining why most are afraid

It got ugly in the equity markets yesterday, with significant declines in the US followed by weakness overnight in Asia and continuing into today’s European session. With US markets closed today in observance of a day of mourning for ex-president George Herbert Walker Bush, the news cycle has the potential to increase recent volatility. Driving the market activity were two key stories, ongoing uncertainty over the US-China trade situation and, more importantly, further flattening of the US yield curve toward inversion.

At this point, unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past year (although given market activity, that may not have been a bad idea!) you are aware of the relationship between the shape of the US yield curve and the potential for a recession in the US. Every recession since 1975 has been preceded by an inverted yield curve (one where short-term rates are higher than long-term ones). In each of those cases, the driving force raising short-term rates was the Fed, which is no different than today’s situation. What is different is both the level of yields, on both a nominal and real basis, and the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.

From 1963 up to the Financial Crisis, the average of nominal 10-year Treasury yields had been 7.11%. Since the crisis, that number has fallen to 2.62%! Of course that was driven by the Fed’s policy actions of ZIRP and QE, the second of which was explicitly designed to drive longer-term rates lower. Clearly they were successful on that score. However, ten years on from the crisis, rates remain exceptionally low on a historical basis, despite the fact that the economy has been expanding since the middle of 2009. The reasons for this are twofold; first the Fed had maintained ZIRP for an exceptionally long time, and while they have been raising rates since December 2015, the pace at which they have done so has been extremely slow by historical standards. Secondly, although the Fed has begun to reduce the size of their balance sheet, it remains significantly larger, relative to the size of the economy, than it was prior to the crisis. This means that there is less supply of bonds available for other investors, and so prices continue to be artificially high.

This combination of the Fed’s rate hikes, as slow as they have been, and their ownership of a significant portion of available Treasuries has resulted in a much flatter yield curve. Adding to this mixture is the fact that the economy’s performance is now beginning to show signs of slowing down. This has been evident in the recent weakness in both the housing market and the auto sector. Meanwhile, falling equity prices have encouraged more demand for the safety of Treasuries. Put it all together and you have a recipe for a yield curve inversion, which will simply help fulfill the prophesy of an inverted yield curve leading to recession.

The other pressure point in markets has been the ongoing trade drama between the US and China. The weekend’s G20 news was quickly embraced by investors everywhere in the hope that further tariffs had been avoided and the current ones might be reduced or removed. However, China’s interpretation of the weekend discussions and those of President Trump appear to be somewhat different, and now there is concern that the delay in tariff increases may not result in their eventual removal.

Recapping the two stories, fears over a resumption of the trade war have helped undermine views of future economic growth. This has led investors to seek safety in longer dated Treasury securities helping to flatten the US yield curve. That signal is seen as a harbinger of future recession, which has led investors to sell equities, further increasing demand for Treasuries. It is easy to see how this cycle can get out of hand, and may well lead to much weaker equity prices, lower US yields and slower US growth.

That trifecta would be a cogent reason for the dollar to suffer. But remember, the FX market is a relative one, not an absolute one. And if the US is seeing declining growth, you can be certain that the rest of the world is suffering from the same affliction. In fact, the data from Europe this morning showed that Eurozone Services PMI fell to 52.7, its lowest level since September 2016 and further evidence that the Eurozone economy is quickly slowing. While Italy has garnered the headlines, and appears set to enter yet another recession, the data from Germany has also been soft, which bodes ill for the future. If the slowdown in the Eurozone economy continues its recent trend, it will be that much harder for Signor Draghi to begin tightening policy. So once again, despite the fact that the Fed may be slowing down, signs are pointing to the fact that the ECB will be in the same boat. In that case, the euro is unlikely to be seen as terribly attractive, and the dollar still has potential to rise, despite the recent US softness.

The point is that although the long-term structural issues remain quite concerning in the US, the short-term cyclical factors continue to favor the dollar over its G10 and EMG counterparts. We will need to see wholesale changes within the policy mixes around the world for this to change.

With markets closed today, there is no US data to be released, and I expect a subdued session overall. However, nothing has changed my medium term view of dollar strength.

Good luck