Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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Macro Letter – No 87 – 24-11-2017

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

  • Stock markets have generally taken a breather during November
  • High yield and corporate bond yields have risen, but from record lows
  • Since April, the Interest Rate Swap yield curve has flattened far less than Treasuries
  • Global economic growth forecasts continued to be revised higher

Stock markets have finally taken a breather over the last fortnight, although the S&P 500 has made a new, marginal, high this week. Cause for concern has been growing, however, in the bond markets where 2yr US bonds have seen a stately rise in yields. The chart below shows the constant maturity 2yr (blue) and 10yr (red) Treasury Note since January 2016:-

2yr - 10yr Treasury Jan 2016 to present

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The flattening of the yield curve has led many commentators to predict an imminent recession. Looking beyond the Treasury market, however, the picture looks rather different. The next chart shows the spread of Moody’s Aaa and Baa corporate bond yields over 10yr Treasuries:-

Moodys Aaa and Baa Corps spread over 10yr Bond

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Moody’s

Spreads have continued to tighten despite the rise in short-term rates. In absolute terms their yields have risen since the beginning of November but this is from record lows. The High Yield Index (purple) shows this more clearly in the chart below:-

Moody Aaa and Baa plus ML HY since Jan 2016

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Moody’s, Merrill Lynch

A similar spike in yields was evident in November 2016. I believe, in both cases, this may be due to position squaring ahead of the Thanksgiving holidays and the inevitable decline in liquidity typical of December trading. There are differences between 2016 and this year, however, the strength of the high-yield bond bull market was even more pronounced last year but Treasury 2yr Note yields had only bottomed in July, it was too soon to predict a bear market and the Federal Reserve were assuming a less hawkish stance. This year the rising yield of 2yr Notes has been more clear-cut, which may encourage further liquidation over the next few weeks, however, with economic growth forecasts being revised higher, rating agencies have upgraded many corporate issuers. Credit quality appears to be improving even as official interest rates rise and the US Treasury yield curve flattens.

In Macro Letter – No 74 – 07-04-2017 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter? I examined the evolution of the interest rate swap (IRS) market over the last few years. I’ve updated the table showing the spread between T-Bonds and IRS across maturities:-

Spread_spreads_April_vs_Nov_2016

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

At the 10yr maturity the differential between IRS and Treasuries has barely changed, but elsewhere along the yield curve, compression has occurred, with maturities of less than 10 years narrowing whilst the 30yr IRS negative spread has also compressed, from nearly 40 basis points below Treasuries to just 20 basis points today. In other words, the flattening of the IRS yield curve has been much less dramatic than that of the Treasury yield curve – 2yr/30yr IRS has flattening by 36 basis points since early April, whilst 2yr/30yr Treasuries has flattened by 76 basis points over the same period.

It is important to note that while the IRS curve has been flattening less rapidly it still remains flatter than the Treasury curve (IRS 2’s/30’s = 0.67% Treasury 2’s/30’s = 1.00%). One interpretation is that the IRS curve has been reflecting the weakness of economic growth for a protracted period while the Treasury curve has been artificially steepened by the zero interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Many commentators have pointed to the flattening of the Treasury yield curve as evidence of an imminent recession, the IRS curve, however, has flattened by far less, partly because it was flatter to begin with. Perhaps the IRS curve reflects the lower trend growth of the US economy since the great recession. An alternative explanation is that it is a response to investment flows and changes in the regulatory regime (as discussed in Macro letter – No74). One thing appears clear, the combination of unconventional central bank policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and the relentless, investor ‘quest for yield’ over the last decade has distorted the normal signalling power of the bond market.

Economic growth forecasts continue to be revised upwards, prompting central banks to begin reducing the quantum of QE in aggregate. Corporate earnings have generally been rising, credit quality improving. We are nearer the end of the bull market than the beginning, but it is much too soon to predict the end, on the basis of the recent rise in corporate bond yields.

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Is there any value in the government bond markets?

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

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Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 4 – 12-5-2017

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

  • Since 2008 US 10yr T-bond yields have fallen from more than 5% to less than 2%
  • German 10yr Bunds yields have fallen even further from 4.5% to less than zero
  • With Central Bank inflation targets of 2% many bond markets offer little or no real return
  • In developed markets the inverse yield gap between dividend and bond has disappeared

Since the end of the great financial recession, bond yields in developed countries have fallen to historic lows. The bull market in stocks which began in March 2009, has been driven, more than any other factor, by the fall in the yield of government bonds.

With the Federal Reserve now increasing interest rates, investors are faced with a dilemma. If they own bonds already, should they continue to remain invested? Inflation is reasonable subdued and commodity prices have weakened recently as economic growth expectations have moderated once more. If investors own stocks they need to be watching the progress of the bond market: bonds drove stocks up, it is likely they will drive them back down as well.

The table below looks at the relative valuation between stocks and bonds in the major equity markets. The table (second item below) is ranked by the final column, DY-BY – Dividend Yield – Bond Yield, sometimes referred to as the yield gap. During most of the last fifty years the yield gap has been inverse, in other words dividend yields have been lower than bond yields, the chart directly below shows the pattern for the S&P500 and US 10yr government bonds going back to 1900:-

Chart-2-the-reverse-yield-gap-in-a-longer-term-con

Source: Newton Investment Management

Bonds_versus_Equities

Source: StarCapital, Investing.com, Trading Economics

The CAPE – Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings Ratio and Dividend Yield Data is from the end of March, bond yields were taken on Monday morning 8th May, so these are not direct comparisons. The first thing to notice is that an inverse yield gap tends to be associated with countries which have higher inflation. This is logical, an equity investment ought to offer the investor an inflation hedge, a fixed income investor, by contrast, is naturally hedged against deflation.

Looking at the table in more detail, Turkey tops the list, with an excess return, for owning bonds rather than stocks, of more than 7%, yet with inflation running at a higher rate than the bond yield, the case for investment (based simple on this data) is not compelling – Turkish bonds offer a negative real yield. Brazil offers a more interesting prospect. The real bond yield is close to 6% whilst the Bovespa real dividend yield is negative.

Some weeks ago in Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI VI looked more closely at India and Indonesia. For the international bond investor it is important to remember currency risk:-

Currency_changes_MITI_V (1)

Source: Trading Economics, World Bank

If past performance is any guide to future returns, and all investment advisors disclaim this, then you should factor in between 2% and 4% per annum for a decline in the value of the capital invested in Indian and Indonesian bonds over the long run. This is not to suggest that there is no value in Indian or Indonesian bonds, merely that an investor must first decide about the currency risk. A 7% yield over ten years may appear attractive but if the value of the asset falls by a third, as has been the case in India during the past decade, this may not necessarily suffice.

Looking at the first table again, the relationship between bond yields in the Eurozone has been distorted by the actions of the ECB, nonetheless the real dividend yield for Finnish stocks at 3.2% is noteworthy, whilst Finnish bonds are not. Greek 10yr bonds are testing their lowest levels since August 2014 this week (5.61%) which is a long way from their highs of 2012 when yields briefly breached 40% during the Eurozone crisis. Emmanuel Macron’s election as France’s new President certainly helped but the German’s continue to baulk at issuing Eurobonds to bail out their profligate neighbours.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunity

Returning to the investor’s dilemma. Stocks and bonds are both historically expensive. They have been driven higher by a combination of monetary and quantitative easing by Central Banks and subdued inflation. For long-term investors such as pension funds, which need to invest in fixed income securities to match liabilities, the task is Herculean, precious few developed markets offer a real yield at all and none offer sufficient yield to match those pension liabilities.

During the bull-market these long-term investors actively increased the duration of their portfolios whilst at the same time the coupons on new issues fell steadily: new issues have a longer duration as well. It would seem sensible to shorten portfolio duration until one remembers that the Federal Reserve are scheduled to increase short term interest rates again in June. Short rates, in this scenario will rise faster than long-term rates. Where can the fixed income portfolio manager seek shelter?

Emerging market bonds offer limited liquidity since their markets are much smaller than those of the US and Europe. They offer the investor higher returns, but expose them to heady cocktail of currency risk, credit risk and the kind of geopolitical risk that ultra-long dated developed country bonds do not.

A workable solution is to consider credit and geopolitical risk at the outset and then actively manage the currency risk, or sub-contract this to an overlay manager. Sell long duration, low yielding developed country bonds and buy a diversified basket of emerging market bonds offering acceptable real return and, given that in many emerging markets corporate bonds offer lower credit risk than their respective government bond market, buy a carefully considered selection of liquid corporate names too. Sadly, many pension fund managers will not be permitted to make this type of investment for fiduciary reasons.

In answer to the original question in my title? Yes, I do believe there is still value in the government bond markets, but, given the absence of liquidity in many of the less developed markets – which are the ones offering identifiable value – the portfolio manager must be prepared to actively hedge using liquid markets to avoid a forced liquidation – currency hedging is one aspect of the strategy but the judicious use of interest rate swaps and options is a further refinement managers should consider.

This strategy shortens the duration of the bond portfolio because, not only purchase bonds with a shorter maturity, but also ones with a higher coupon. Actively managing currency risk (or delegating this role to a specialist currency overlay operator) whilst not entirely mitigating foreign exchange exposures, substantially reduces them.

Emerging market equities may well offer the best long run return, but a portfolio of emerging market bonds, with positive rather than negative real-yields, is far more compelling than continuously extending duration among the obligations of the governments of the developed world.