Mixed Signals

In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, the bond market is signaling that the U.S. economy is headed for a recession, rather than the economy telling the bond market that news, which it doesn’t appear to be doing.

On Wednesday, yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell below two-year yields for the first time since 2007. “This kind of inversion between short and long-term yields is viewed by many as a strong signal that a recession is likely in the future,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Except, of course, when it doesn’t, and this just may be one of those times. The economy, albeit weaker than it was late last year and earlier this year, doesn’t seem to be close to a recession.

Actually, Treasury yields have been inverted for a while, depending on which spread you look at it. At the same time, yields along the curve have dropped sharply in recent weeks, with some securities dropping to record lows.

For example, on Thursday, the yield on the 30-year bond dropped below 2.0% for the first time ever. That’s down from 3.45% on Halloween. The 10-year yield plunged below 1.60%, down from 3.16% last October 1 and it's lowest level since it hit 1.46% three years ago in July.

Meanwhile, the price of gold has jumped 18% since May to more than $1520 an ounce, its highest level in more than six years. And of course, stocks are down, with the S&P 500 off more than 6% since hitting a record high just a couple of weeks ago.

Why is the market so panicky? Continue reading "Mixed Signals"

One Lump Or Two?

With the financial markets already primed for a 25-basis-point cut at next week’s Federal Reserve monetary policy meeting, the talk has now shifted to the possibility that the Fed may go even further and reduce its benchmark federal funds rate by 50 basis points instead.

That speculation was fueled by New York Fed President John Williams, who exhorted an audience of the Central Bank Research Association in New York last week to “take swift action when faced with adverse economic conditions” and “keep interest rates lower for longer” when reducing rates.

“Don’t keep your powder dry—that is, move more quickly to add monetary stimulus than you otherwise might,” he added, which may have left some listeners wondering what year this was – 2008, when the Great Recession was just beginning, or 2019 when the economy is still growing. Either way, listeners on Wall Street were happy to hear it and immediately pushed stock prices higher.

The New York Fed subsequently walked back Williams’s comments, saying that he didn’t mean to suggest that the Fed was about to double-down on a rate increase next week, downplaying his comments as an “academic speech” and “not about potential policy actions at the upcoming FOMC meeting.”

But Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida swiftly echoed Williams’ comments, telling the Fox Business Network, “You don’t wait until the data turns decisively if you can afford to. If you need to [cut rates], you don’t need to wait until things get so bad to have a dramatic series of rate cuts.”

The only difference is that Williams described the economy as “pretty strong” – begging the question why the Fed feels it needs to lower rates at all, whether by 25 or 50 basis points – while Clarida implied that the economy is ready to hurtle over the cliff unless the Fed rides to the rescue.

Along comes Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren with a different take. Continue reading "One Lump Or Two?"

Promises, Promises

Pity poor Jerome Powell. He just can’t seem to stay out of his own way.

For the past several weeks the Federal Reserve chair has been promising – ok, maybe not promising, but strongly “indicating” – that it’s only a matter of time that the Fed will cut interest rates. He’s certainly been grooming the financial markets for such a move, and the markets have duly responded, as the major U.S. equity indexes all jumped more than 7% last month while bond yields plunged.

Now comes last Friday’s jobs report that came in much stronger than most people expected and far stronger than the previous month’s totals. The Labor Department said the economy added 224,000 new jobs in June, well above not only the consensus Street forecast of 165,000 but also the most bullish individual estimate of 205,000. It was also far stronger than May’s total of 72,000, which was actually revised downward by 3,000 from the original figure.

Following May’s underwhelming report, most people seemed to believe that the jobs boom had finally played itself out, and it would be all downhill from here, with a recession looming in the not-too-distant future. And then what do you know, the June report comes out and takes everyone by surprise, not least of all Jay Powell himself. Continue reading "Promises, Promises"

Silence is Golden

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a young cub reporter fresh out of college covering the bond market for a Wall Street trade newspaper, I used to scratch my head over how traders and investors would try to discern what the next Federal Reserve move would be. Obviously, not much has changed since then.

Back then, however, the Fed rarely said anything, and when it did, its words would be couched in the famous “Fed speak,” in which the chairman – Alan Greenspan was the best (or worst) at it – said a bunch of gobbledygook that few people could understand but spent countless hours trying to decipher.

In my innocence, I asked one of the senior reporters, “Why doesn’t the Fed just tell us what it intends to do instead of making everybody guess?” I don’t remember ever getting a good explanation.

The problem with that type of “communication” – or lack of it – is that investors are prone to make panicky, knee-jerk reactions to whatever the Fed eventually does.

Since then, the Fed, to its credit, has made a real, concerted effort to become “more transparent” in its communications and avoid surprises as much as it can. The process started with Ben Bernanke, and Jerome Powell has really run with it, holding a press conference after every Fed meeting, or 10 times a year, rather than quarterly as his immediate predecessors did. That’s on top of the countless public speeches and congressional appearances he makes, plus those of the other members of the Fed’s Board of Governors and the presidents of the regional Fed banks, those with a vote on monetary policy.

Now, it seems, we’re at the point where the Fed is confusing the markets by having too many voices say too many things, rather than confusing the markets by saying as little as possible. Which situation is better, I’m not sure.

Case in point: Continue reading "Silence is Golden"

Lock In Now Before It's Too Late

I’ve been shopping for brokered certificates of deposit, and the rates between one-year and five-year CDs aren’t a whole lot different. Rates at my broker range from 2.4% for one-year to 2.65% for five, with two- and three-year rates in between.

My first inclination was to stay short. Why lock up my money for five years when I can get nearly the same rate for one, two, or three years? What if rates go up in the meantime?

Fat chance. Given the Federal Reserve’s past behavior, the odds of that happening are pretty slim, if nonexistent. It may make more sense to lock up your money – if you don’t want to risk it in the stock or bond market – for as long as possible now.

With all of the betting now on the Fed cutting – not raising – interest rates this year, market interest rates are only likely to go down from here, not up. Despite its recent track record of quick monetary policy reversals in the face of market volatility, shifting from a restrictive policy to a more accommodative one – i.e., lower interest rates – just makes the Fed more comfortable. Other than savers – who most people with any influence ignore – everyone loves low rates, and if nothing else the Fed wants to be loved. Continue reading "Lock In Now Before It's Too Late"