There has been considerable chatter over the last week or two by observers and participants in the junk bond market. Prices for HYG, the iShares ETF that tracks the iBoxx US high yield bond index, started to fall sharply at the beginning of this month and continued through midweek this week, when investors mobilized for at least a modest buy-the-dip clawback. The chart below shows HYG’s price trend for 2017 year to date.
This performance has prompted the largest weekly investment outflows from the junk bond market in three years and sparked concerns among some about a potential contagion effect into other risk asset classes. It comes at a time when various markets have wobbled a bit, from industrial metals to emerging market currencies and even, if ever so briefly, the seemingly unshakeable world of large cap US equities. Is there anything to the jitters?
Pockets of Pain
We don’t see much evidence for the makings of a contagion in the current junk bond climate. First of all, the pain seems to be more sector- and event-specific than broad-based. While junk spreads in all industry sectors have widened in the month to date, the carnage has been particularly acute in the telecom sector (where average bond prices are down more than 3 percent MTD) and to a somewhat lesser extent the broadcasting, cable/satellite and healthcare sectors. The key catalyst in telecom would appear to be the calling off of merger talks between Sprint and T-Mobile, while a string of weak earnings reports have bedeviled media and healthcare concerns. High yield investors seem particularly inclined to punish weaker-than-expected earnings.
There gets to be a point, though, when spreads widen enough to lure in yield-starved investors from the world over. We have seen that dynamic already play out twice this year. As the chart above shows, high yield prices fell sharply in late February and late July, but were able to make up much of the decline shortly thereafter. So while pundits are calling November the “worst month of 2017” for junk debt, they are somewhat facetiously using calendar year start and end points that obscure the peak-to-trough severity of those earlier drops. We still have the better part of two weeks to go before the clock runs out on November, which is plenty of time for buy-the-dip to work its charms.
Bear in mind as well that there is very little in the larger economic picture to suggest a higher risk profile for the broader speculative-grade bond market. Rating agency Moody’s expects the default rate for US corporate issues to fall in 2018, from around 3 percent now to 2.1 percent next year. An investor in high yield debt will continue receiving income from those tasty spreads above US Treasuries (currently a bit shy of a 4 percent risk premium) as long as the issuer doesn’t default – so the default rate trend is an all-important bit of data.
About Those Investment Grades
Meanwhile, conditions in the investment grade corporate debt market continue to appear stable. The chart below shows yield spreads between the 10-year US Treasury note and investment grade bonds in the Moody’s A (A1 to A3) and Baa (Baa1 to Baa3) categories. Baa3 is the lowest investment grade rating for Moody’s.
Investment grade spreads today are a bit tighter than they were at the beginning of the year, and much closer than they were at the beginning of 2016, when perceived economic problems in China were inflicting havoc on global risk asset markets. In fact, investment grade corporate yields have been remarkably flat over the course of this fall, even while the 10-year Treasury yield gained almost 40 basis points in a run-up from early September to late October.
Investors remain hungry for yield and the global macroeconomic picture remains largely benign. Recent price wobbles in certain risk asset markets notwithstanding, we do not see much in the way of red flags coming out of the stampede out of junk debt earlier this week. A spike in investment grade spreads would certainly gain our attention, but nothing we see suggests that any such spike is knocking on the door.
Every industry sector has its own received wisdom. In the energy sector, the two pillars of conventional wisdom for much of the past eighteen-odd months could read thus: (a) crude oil will trade within a range of $40 to $60, and (b) the fates of crude prices and shares in energy companies are joined at the hip. Recently, though, both of these articles of wisdom have come under fire. Energy stocks, as measured by the S&P 500 energy sector index, are up by a bit less than 14 percent from their year-to-date low set in late August. But the shares came late to the party: Brent spot crude oil reached its year-to-date low two months earlier, in late June, and has jumped a whopping 45 percent since. At the end of October the benchmark crude crashed through that $60 upper boundary and has kept going ever since. Are more good times in store, or is this yet another false dawn in the long-beleaguered energy sector?
Whither Thou Goest
That energy shares and oil prices are closely correlated is not particularly surprising, and the chart below illustrates just how much in lockstep this pair of assets normally moves. The divergence in late June, when crude started to rally while E&P shares stagnated and then fell further, caught off guard many pros who trade these spreads.
Given that close correlation, anyone with exposure to the energy sector must surely be focused on one question: is there justification for crude oil to sustain its move above the $60 resistance level, thus implying lots more upside for shares? A few weeks ago the answer, more likely than not, was “no.” Long-energy investors, then, should take some comfort in a recent prognostication by Bank of America Merrill Lynch opining that $75 might be a “reasonable” cyclical peak. If that level, plus or minus a few dollars, is a reasonable predictor – and if the historically tight correlation pattern between crude and shares still holds – then investors in energy sector equities could have a very merry holiday season.
The Upside Case
Perhaps the most convincing argument for the energy bulls is that much of the recent strength in crude prices is plausibly driven by organic demand. The global economy is in sync, with two quarters in a row of 3 percent US real GDP growth along with steady performances in China, India and other key global import markets. The continuity of global growth may finally be delivering a more durable tailwind to resource commodities. Meanwhile, on the supply side inventories wax and wane, but the supply glut that dominated sentiment a year ago seems to have waned. And US nonconventional explorers have also taken a pause: rig counts and other measures of activity in the Permian Basin and other key territories have stalled out now for a number of months. Add to this picture the ongoing effects of the OPEC production cuts and the recent political tensions in Saudi Arabia, and there would appear to be a reasonable amount of potential residual upside.
Caveats Still Apply
On the other hand, though, the structural reality remains in place that those US nonconventional producers are the key drivers of the marginal price of a barrel of crude. The recent downsizing of rig counts and active drilling projects may well be temporary as E&P firms look to shore up their beaten-down margins. Most shale drillers can now turn a profit at prices well below the current spot market. It is only a matter of time – and price level – before the activity will ramp up again. And we’re talking mostly about short-cycle projects that can turn off and on more nimbly than the traditional long-cycle, high capital expenditure projects of old.
Crude prices may well have another $10 or more of upside, but they come with plenty of caveats. For the next couple months though, at least, energy equities would seem to offer a reasonably robust performance opportunity.
Like most of our fellow investment practitioners, we subscribe to a variety of daily market digests – those couple paragraphs at the market’s opening and closing bell that purport to tell us what’s up, what’s down and why. A brief summary of these digests over the course of 2017 might go something along the following lines: la la la la TAXES la la la la TAXES la la la…you get the picture. Not corporate earnings, certainly not geopolitics – nothing, it would seem, has the power to capture Mr. Market’s undivided attention quite the same way as potential changes to our tax code.
Well, this week is one of those times where the subject is front and center as Congress attempts to set the process in motion for some kind of tax “reform” before the end of the year. As we write this, more information is coming out about what the legislation may, and may not, ultimately include. We should note that it is far from certain that anything at all will be accomplished within this year. Taxes affect everyone in some way – individual and institution alike – and literally every item on the table will have its share of vocal backers and opponents. Over the coming weeks we will share further insights on these developments; our purpose today, though, is to consider at a more fundamental level the relationship between taxes, economic activity and markets.
Taxes and Growth
One of the central motivations for just about any attempt at tax reform is to stimulate economic growth. There are plenty of competing ideologies about this – and it matters for purposes of the discussion whether we are talking about the short term or the long term. But one reasonable question to ask would be how relevant a factor tax rates have been as an influencer of growth over the long term. The chart below illustrates year-on-year GDP growth in the US since 1950, along with the top marginal (individual) tax rate over the same period.
Top tax rates on wealthy individuals were very high – 91 percent in the 1950s and a bit lower (77 and then 70 percent after 1964) before coming down to 50 percent in the first wave of Reagan-era tax reform in the 1980s. Subsequently they have fluctuated between the high and the low 30s through the successive policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. What conclusions could be drawn from the impact of alternative tax regimes on long term economic growth? In our opinion only one; namely, that any correlation between marginal tax rates and growth is very weak, at best. The high rates of GDP growth in the 1950s and 1960s took place neither because of nor in spite of high taxes, but for a whole host of other reasons based on global economic conditions at the time.
The same could be said when considering the economic growth spurt of the 1990s, after the Clinton administration had raised taxes in 1993: the growth happened because of many different variables at play, and taxes were at best a peripheral consideration. It is particularly important to keep this absence of causation or even correlation in mind when we are told by policymakers that any revenue lost from tax rate reduction will pay for itself from higher growth. That’s ideology – but the numbers simply aren’t there to back it up, and not for lack of ample data.
Taxes and Earnings
Individual tax rates are only part of the equation, of course. A big part of the market’s focus this year has been on corporate taxes. The statutory US corporate tax rate of 35 percent is high by world standards, so the argument goes that reducing this rate to something more competitive (with 20 percent being the number floated in the current version of the plan being floated by Congress) would be a powerful catalyst to grow US corporate earnings. How does this claim stack up?
At one level the math is fairly simple. Earnings per share, the most common number to which investors refer to measure the relationship between a company’s profits and its stock price (expressed as the P/E ratio), is an after-tax number. If Company XYZ paid 35 percent of its operating profits to the tax man last year, but this year Uncle Sam only gets 20 percent of those profits, then the other 15 percent is a windfall that goes straight to the bottom line (to be retained for future growth or paid out to shareholders at the discretion of Company XYZ’s management). That growth – all else remaining equal – will make XYZ’s shares seem more reasonably priced, hence, good for investors.
There are two things to bear in mind here. First, that tax windfall happens only once in terms of year-on-year growth comparisons. Once the new rate sets in, XYZ will get no future automatic tailwind from taxes (i.e., EPS growth will then depend on the usual revenue and cost trends that drive value). Second, the potential ongoing benefits from the lower tax rate (e.g. a larger number of economically viable investment projects) will depend on many factors other than the tax rate. It’s not irrelevant: taxes do figure into net present value and weighted average cost of capital, which in turn are common metrics for go / no-go decisions on new projects. But many other variable are also at play.
The other issue with regard to the statutory tax rate is that it is a fairly poor yardstick for what most companies actually pay in taxes. The mind-numbing complexity of the US tax code derives from the many deductions and loopholes and credits and other goodies that influential corporate lobbyists have won for their clients over the years. The influence of these groups is already on display: the US homebuilder industry, for example, has come out vehemently against some of the proposed changes being floated by policymakers. Time will tell how successful any new legislation will be at productively broadening the base (i.e. reducing the loopholes and exclusions).
So what’s the takeaway? There are many miles to go before the proposal coming out today arrives at any kind of legislative certainty. As managers of portfolios invested for long term financial objectives, our views on taxes focus largely on how they impact, or do not impact, key economic drivers over the long term. We will continue to share with you our views as this process continues.
The current bull market in US equities, the pundits tell us, is the second-longest on record. That may sound impressive, given that domestic stock exchange records go back to the late 19th century. But it doesn’t even hold a candle to the accomplishments of the current bull market in bonds. The bond bull started in 1981, when the 10-year US Treasury yield peaked at 15.84 percent on September 30 of that year. It’s still going strong 36 years later, and it’s already one for the record books of the ages.
According to a recent staff working paper by the Bank of England, our bond bull is winning or placing in just about every key measurement category going back to the Genoese and Venetian financial economies of the European Middle Ages. Lowest risk-free benchmark rate ever – gold medal! The 10 year Treasury yield of 1.37 percent on July 5, 2016 is the lowest benchmark reference rate ever recorded (as in ever in the history of money, and people). The intensity of the current bull – measured by the compression from the highest to the lowest yield – is second only to the bond bull of 1441-81 (what, you don’t remember those crazy mid-1400s days in Renaissance Italy??). And if the bull can make it another four years it will grab the silver medal from that ’41 bull in the duration category, second only to the 1605-72 bond bull when Dutch merchant fleets ruled the waves and the bourses.
Tales from the Curve
But does our bull still have the legs, or is the tank running close to empty? That question will be on the minds of every portfolio manager starting the annual ritual of strategic asset allocation for the year ahead. Let’s first of all consider the shape of things, meaning the relative movements of intermediate/long and short term rates.
We’ve talked about this dynamic before, but the spread between the two year and ten year yields is as tight as it has been at any time since the “Greenspan conundrum” of the mid-2000s. That was the time period when the Fed raised rates (causing short term yields to trend up), while the 10-year and other intermediate/long rates stayed pat. It was a “conundrum” because the Fed expected their monetary policy actions would push up rates (albeit at varying degrees) across all maturities. As it turned out, though, the flattening/inverting yield curve meant the same thing it had meant in other environments: the onset of recession.
An investor armed with data of flattening yield curves past could reasonably be concerned about the trend today, with the 10-year bond bull intact while short term rates trend ever higher. However, it would be hard to put together any kind of compelling recession scenario for the near future given all the macro data at hand. The first reading of Q3 GDP, released this morning, comfortably exceeded expectations at 3.0 percent quarter-on-quarter (translating to a somewhat above-trend 2.3 percent year-on-year measure). Employment is healthy, consumer confidence remains perky and most measures of output (supply) and spending (demand) have been in the black for some time. Whatever the narrowing yield curve is telling us, the recession alarms are not flashing orange, let alone red.
Where Thou Goest…
So if not recession, then what? Leave aside for a moment the gentle undulations in the 10-year and focus on the robust rise in the 2-year. There’s no surprise here – the Fed has raised rates four times in the past 22 months, and short term rates have followed suit. Historically, the 2-year yield closely tracks Fed funds, as the chart below shows.
The upper end of the Fed funds target range is currently 1.25 percent, while the 2-year note currently yields 1.63 percent (as of Thursday’s close). What happens going forward depends largely on that one macro variable still tripping up the Fed in its policy deliberations: inflation. We have two more readings of the core PCE (the Fed’s key inflation gauge) before they deliberate at the December FOMC meeting. If the PCE has not moved up much from the current reading of 1.3 percent – even as GDP, employment and other variables continue trending strong – then the odds would be better than not the Fed will stay put. We would expect short term rates, at some point, to settle perhaps a bit down from current levels into renewed “lower for longer” expectations.
But there’s always the chance the Fed will raise rates anyway, simply because it wants to have a more “normalized” Fed funds environment and keep more powder dry for when the next downturn does, inevitably, happen. What then with the 10-year and the fabulous centuries-defying bond bull? There are plenty of factors out there with the potential to impact bond yields other than inflationary expectations. But as long as those expectations are muted – as they currently are – the likelihood of a sudden spike in intermediate rates remains an outlier scenario. It is not our default assumption as we look ahead to next year.
As to what kept the bond bull going for 40 years in the 1400s and for 67 years in the 17th century – well, we were not there, and there is only so much hard data one can tease out of the history books. What would keep it going for at least a little while longer today, though, would likely be a combination of benign growth in output and attendant restraint in wages and consumer prices. Until another obvious growth catalyst comes along to change this scenario, we’ll refrain from writing the obituary on the Great Bond Bull of (19)81.
And the band plays on. Some random convergence of factors could conceivably interrupt and reverse today’s upward push in the S&P 500 before the benchmark index ends with its seventh straight record close…but those would likely be bad odds to take. Yesterday was the 30 year anniversary of 1987’s Black Monday, when stocks tanked by more than 20 percent in a single day. Financial pundits, with not much better to do, spent much of the day in college dorm-style bull sessions with each other, speculating about whether 10/19/87 could ever happen again. It certainly didn’t happen yesterday, even though lower overnight futures injected a frisson of excitement into the morning chatter that dissipated as the afternoon yielded a predictable recovery and small gain for share prices.
We feel for those journalists – it’s tough being a financial commentator these days! Nothing ever happens except for the market shrugging off any potentially disruptive event, while displaying brief spasms of ecstasy whenever the subject of tax cuts percolates to the top of the daily news feed. Now the chatter is homing in on what may well be the only remaining story of any note (from the market’s perspective) before the end of the year: the identity of the new Fed chair when Janet Yellen’s term ends next January. A decision is supposedly forthcoming in the next couple weeks (the incumbent administration suggests it will be before November 3). Our sense is that, regardless of who among the short-listed candidates is tapped, the impact on markets will likely be negligible.
If It Ain’t Broke…
There are two issues at stake here: first, who the winning candidate will be, and second, how that candidate would actually govern once ensconced in the Eccles Building. There are currently five names under consideration. On a spectrum from dove to hawk they read as follows: current Fed governor Jerome (Jay) Powell, current Fed chair Janet Yellen, former Fed governor Kevin Warsh, Stanford University economist John Taylor, and current Trump advisor Gary Cohn. Let’s say right off the top that we see next to no chance that Cohn will draw the winning ticket; among insiders close to the decision process, his name appears to still be in the mix for cosmetic reasons only.
That leaves four. Two, Powell and Yellen herself, reliably fall into the camp of “stay the course” – their votes on FOMC policy decisions, after all, are publicly documented and widely known. Speculation this week has Powell as the overall front-runner with considerable support both from the administration’s inner circle and among both Republican and Democratic senators who will be involved in the confirmation process. There would be a rational logic for Trump to ultimately thumbs-up Powell: in so doing, he would be making the safest choice for business as usual, while still getting to theatrically crow to his base that he dumped the Obama-era Fed head.
…Don’t Fix It
Just because Powell’s star seems ascendant this week, though, does not mean that the two more hawkish choices of Warsh or Taylor are out of the picture. This is not an administration known for predictably rational decision making. So what happens then? Speculation is particularly focused on John Taylor, the Stanford professor whose “Taylor rule” – a mathematical formulation of the responsiveness of interest rates to inflation and other economic inputs – suggests that rates should currently be higher than they are. Would a Taylor Fed necessarily mean a dramatic acceleration of rate hikes and attendant balance sheet normalization?
Perhaps not. It’s worth remembering that a Taylor Fed would be looking at the same data as the Yellen Fed, and that data include inflation readings, the danger-zone indicators of which are conspicuously absent. The Taylor rule is not immune to the inflation conundrum with which the Fed’s other analytical models have struggled. It’s also worth remembering that the Fed chair still has to take into account the positions of the other FOMC voting members. Whoever the new chair is, he or she will not be any less interested in building consensus towards unanimous decisions than past chairs. That’s how stable monetary policy is conducted.
The global economy is largely in sync with low to moderate growth, decently functioning labor markets and modest levels of inflation. That’s the real context in which stock prices can keep drifting up with no sizable upside headwinds. We think it is unlikely that, come 2018, a new Fed will be tempted to push their luck with policies that could choke off the growth before its time. For these reasons we think it unlikely that the identity of the new Fed chair will stand in the way of a business-as-usual mood in the market that, barring something currently unforeseen, could carry into and through the upcoming holiday season.