Morning Report: Donald Trump, The Fed, and housing affordability

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2801 -3.75
Eurostoxx index 385.19 -1
Oil (WTI) 69.83 0.37
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.85%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.50%

Stocks are lower after the Trump Administration threatened more tariffs on Chinese goods. Bonds and MBS are down.

Donald Trump jawboned the Fed a little yesterday, saying he was “not thrilled” with interest rate hikes.  “I am not happy about it. But at the same time I’m letting them (the Fed) do what they feel is best.” For all the histrionics in the business press, this was pretty mild stuff. As a general rule, presidents respect the independence of the Federal Reserve and don’t criticize policy all that much. Obama never criticized the Fed’s monetary policy but of course he never had to deal with a tightening, so there wasn’t much to complain about. Alan Greenspan was considered “The Maestro” by the business press, so both Clinton and GWB gave him a wide berth. That said, Richard Nixon criticized the Fed, and Jimmy Carter installed a political hack (G William Miller – who was a complete disaster) to run the bank, so it isn’t like political meddling is unheard of. FWIW, the correlation between rising bond yields and criticism of the Fed is about 1, so expect more as we move from a secular bull market in bonds to a secular bear market.

Trump has doubled down by tweeting about the Fed and the dollar this morning: “China, the European Union and others have been manipulating their currencies and interest rates lower, while the U.S. is raising rates while the dollars gets stronger and stronger with each passing day – taking away our big competitive edge. As usual, not a level playing field….The United States should not be penalized because we are doing so well. Tightening now hurts all that we have done. The U.S. should be allowed to recapture what was lost due to illegal currency manipulation and BAD Trade Deals. Debt coming due & we are raising rates – Really? Farmers have been on a downward trend for 15 years. The price of soybeans has fallen 50% since 5 years before the Election. A big reason is bad (terrible) Trade Deals with other countries. They put on massive Tariffs and Barriers. Canada charges 275% on Dairy. Farmers will WIN!”

These comments are smacking the dollar this morning, which is pushing up the 10 year yield. The comments have made no changed to the Fed funds futures, which are still predicting an 85% of a 25 basis point hike in September and a 58% chance of another hike in December.

Note Russia is dumping Treasuries. Most of its position has been liquidated. This was in response to sanctions imposed earlier this year.

Housing affordability has been falling as rates and prices rise. The most affordable places in the US are the Northeast and the Midwest. The Midwest is the most affordable despite having the highest regional mortgage rates. There is a surprising amount of variation between mortgage rates in different parts of the country – a range of 25 basis points. The Northeast has high prices (but low rates) and the Midwest has low prices (but high rates). Affordability is back to 2009 levels.

mortgage rates regional

At least one commentator thinks housing has peaked for this cycle. As a general rule, housing construction is an early cycle phenomenon – in other words it generally leads the economy out of a recession. Since this expansion is very long in the tooth, it would follow that housing might have peaked. The problem with that theory is that housing didn’t show up in the early recovery – it kept falling well after the recession ended. FWIW, between the shortage we currently have and the fact that building margins are still healthy indicates housing has room to run.

Morning Report; LEI shows strong growth ahead

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2808 -8.25
Eurostoxx index 386.86 -18
Oil (WTI) 68.23 -0.53
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.87%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.51%

Stocks are lower as earnings continue to come in. Bonds and MBS are down.

Initial Jobless Claims fell to 207,000 last week, which is the lowest level since 1969. Despite the tightness of the labor market, wage growth is tough to come by.

I have discussed at length the disconnect between the Northeast and the rest of the country when it comes to the real estate market. It turns out that not only does the real estate market lag, so does mortgage banking. Last year was a rough year for mortgage banking, and the typical profit per loan was about 31 basis points. That varied by region, with the Midwest in the lead at 39 basis points while the Northeast lagged at 8.

profits by region

The Fed’s Beige Book characterized the economy as strong, and said that labor shortages are beginning to impede growth. Engineers, skilled construction workers, truck drivers, and IT professionals are in short supply. So far increasing input prices are not translating into higher inflation – corporate margins are taking the hit. Residential housing continues to improve ever so slowly, and commercial real estate is flat. Overall, the picture points to a strong economy, with room to run. The lack of pricing pressures gives the Fed the leeway to go slow as they get off the zero bound.

The Conference Board echoed this assessment, with the Index of Leading Economic Indicators increasing 0.5% in June. The LEI is still rising faster than the CEI (basically the future indicators are showing that growth should accelerate) which means we have no sign of a slowdown.

Leading economic indicators

Kathy Kraninger, the Administration’s nominee to run the CFPB, will appear before the Senate Banking Committee today. Little is known about her views on financial regulation. Congressional aides have said that she will have enough support to pass the Committee on a party-line vote. In her prepared remarks, she said she will continue Mick Mulvaney’s work of balancing the need for consumer protection with the need to treat the financial sector fairly. Suffice it to say, having come from OBM, she doesn’t really fit the type of bureaucrat who would normally be tapped to run the CFPB, and that may be the point. If her nomination bogs down, Mick Mulvaney can continue to run the agency.

Interesting stat: 70% of the Millennials who own a home have buyer’s remorse. Many used their retirement savings to fund the down payment, which is generally a bad move. Many first time home buyers completely underestimate closing costs as well. Others underestimated the costs of upkeep, which is around $16,000 a year. I suspect many of these lessons are learned by every generation who buys their first home.

The CoreLogic Mortgage Fraud Risk Index rose 12% in the second quarter compared to a year ago. An increase in borrowers taking on loans for multiple properties (i.e more professional investors) appeared to drive the increase.

Morning Report: median earnings rising slower than average earnings

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2808 -2.5
Eurostoxx index 386.74 1.76
Oil (WTI) 67.62 -0.46
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.85%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.51%

Stocks are lower this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are flat.

Mortgage Applications fell 2.5% last week as purchases fell 5% and refis rose 2%. The refi share rose to 36.5%.

Housing starts hit their lowest level since September last year, falling to 1.17 million annualized. This is a huge drop from the strong May print of 1.33 million. The Midwest and the South explain the declines, which was both in single family and multi. June weather was generally good, so that isn’t the explanation. Building Permits fell as well, although not as dramatically. They came in at 1.27 million. The Midwest accounted for most of the decline in permits. Housing starts tend to be volatile, but the moving average is turning down, which is worrisome.

Despite the drop in starts, builder confidence remains strong, at least according to the NAHB. The index was flat at 68, which is an elevated number. Pricing remains strong, but the supply is not there. Rising material costs are becoming an issue as lumber tariffs raise costs. So far builders are able to pass these costs on, but there is a limit, especially if wage inflation remains below house price inflation. The median house price to median income ratio is getting back to extreme levels, and interest rates are not going to come to the rescue this time around.

Jerome Powell begins his second day of testimony on Capitol Hill. There was nothing market-moving yesterday, so expect more of the same. Yesterday, his message was that the US economy has clear sailing ahead with strong growth and moderate inflation. With regard to the potential trade war, Powell downplayed the risks to the economy and said there will be a benefit if it turns out that Trump’s actions lower tariffs overall in the global economy. The US generally has much lower tariffs than its trading partners, and Trump has already made the offer to eliminate all US tariffs if our trading partners eliminate theirs. Separately, Powell said that it would ultimately be better for the US if the GSEs were off the government balance sheet. That is pretty much a universal opinion in DC these days, as the US taxpayer bears the credit risk of the majority of the mortgage market.

Median weekly earnings have not kept pace with the CPI lately, which means workers are losing ground, at least according to the latest survey out of the BLS. It shows that the median weekly wage rose 2% in the second quarter versus an increase in the CPI of 2.7%. Interestingly, the average hourly earnings increase during Q2 was 2.64% in April, 2.74% in May and 2.74% in June. It seems strange that the difference between average wage inflation and median wage inflation would be so stark, which would imply that wages are mainly rising at the high end, not the lower end. Note the other BLS measure of wage inflation, the employment cost index, shows comp growth of 2.9%, which takes into account benefits. For the most part, average hourly earnings have been rising faster than the core PCE index:

AHE vs PCE

New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Maryland sued the government yesterday over the state and local tax deduction cap. The lawsuit if probably more for show than anything and doesn’t seem to have much chance of success. Some of the states are looking at workarounds, allowing people to “donate” to charitable funds which go to funding state and local services. Charitable deductions are still deductible. At the end of the day, the biggest issue to states like NY and NJ are the property taxes. NY and NJ have some of the highest property taxes in the country, where people routinely pay $20 – $30k or more. That explains at least partially why you can’t find buyers for luxury properties in the Northeast.

The ECB concludes that QE may have helped the rich, but it helped the poor more. While QE did boost asset prices (housing, bonds, stocks etc) it also boosted growth, which more than offset the increase in asset prices.  “Low short rates do hurt savers via a direct effect, that is a reduction in income on their assets . . . however [low rates] also benefit savers, like all other households, via an indirect effect — that is, the reduction in their unemployment rate and the increase in the labour income,” the paper, called “Monetary policy and household inequality”, said. “The indirect effect dominates . . . The paper also finds that [QE] reduced inequality, mainly through a reduction of the unemployment rate of poorer households.”

Note that this contradicts the observation between median and average earnings. If QE was actually decreasing inequality, you should see median earnings growth close to average earning growth or even slightly higher. Not way below.

Morning Report: Building permits in the Northeast struggle

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2794 -2.5
Eurostoxx index 383.01 -1.04
Oil (WTI) 68.12 0.06
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.85%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.51%

Stocks are lower after Netflix (one of the FAANG leaders of the market) missed earnings. Bonds and MBS are flat.

Industrial Production rebounded in June by 0.6% and manufacturing production increased 0.8%. Capacity utilization is 78%.

Jerome Powell heads to Capitol Hill today to begin his semiannual testimony in front of Congress. Expect a lot of questions regarding wage growth, trade wars, and regulation. Overall, he is expected to say that the economy is in good shape overall with above-trend growth and a strong labor market. He will face some questions from Democrats on regulation, especially since the Fed approved Goldman and Morgan Stanley’s capital plans despite the fact they were technically failed their stress tests. The Fed Funds futures continue to move in a hawkish direction, with the Sep futures pricing in a 88% chance of a hike and the Dec futures pricing in a 63% chance of 2 hikes.

Despite trade tensions, the IMF still expects the global economy to grow 3.9% this year and next. Trade remains a threat, however the impact is relatively small: a decrease of 0.5% in global growth by 2020. They forecast the US economy will grow 2.9% this year. Note many strategists took up their Q2 numbers on the strong retail sales print yesterday.

The Fifth Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the structure of the FHFA is unconstitutional. Not sure how that is going to play out. Separately it also ruled that the FHFA was within its authority to sweep the profit from the GSEs, which is bad news for shareholders. FNMA stock was hit to the tune of 6% after the ruling.

The difference in sentiment between Northeastern real estate markets and the West is night and day. Growth in single family permits was actually negative for the first 5 months of this year. Compare that to the West, where they are up almost 18%.

building permits by geography

The Northeast still has yet to really recover from the Great Recession, although some of that has more to do with secular trends in banking and the securities industry than it does with the real estate bubble. The securities industry has been hit by secular trends (falling commissions, ETFs) that have been great for investors but not great for employment in the industry. 5 cent commissions and 2%/20% hedge fund fees supported a lot of jobs which supported a lot of $1MM + homes. Towns like New Canaan have banned For Sale signs and the only part of the real estate market that is moving is in the sub-$750k segment. Million dollar plus listings languish. It is amazing – we have a housing shortage in the US overall, but you would never know that if you looked at the NYC suburbs.

Morning Report: Empire State Outlook dims

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2802 -1
Eurostoxx index 383.92 -1.14
Oil (WTI) 69.81 -1.2
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.84%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.50%

Markets are flattish as earnings season gets into full swing. Bonds and MBS are flat.

Oil is dropping after US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the US could waive some Iranian oil sanctions.

Bank of America reported decent earnings this morning. This is a big week for earnings, with about 200 major companies reporting. The early part of reporting season is generally dominated by the banks.

Jerome Powell will testify in front of Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday. Generally these events don’t yield much in the way of useful info – they are mainly for the benefit of politicians who want to draw attention to some issue that may or may not relate to monetary policy. Expect a lot of questions regarding how a trade war and income inequality will affect growth from Democrats, and expect a lot of questions regarding regulation from Republicans. The prepared remarks are here.

Retail Sales rose 0.5% in June, which was in line with expectations. Ex-autos and gas they rose 0.3% while the control group was flat. May numbers were revised upward. The control group was below expectations, but with the May revisions offset that. Discretionary items (clothing, sporting goods, department stores) declined, which building materials and furnishings rose.

Business Inventories rose 0.4% in May. The inventory-to-sales ratio is down to 1.34 from 1.39 last year.

Business activity in New York State exhibited continued strength in June, according to the New York Fed’s Empire State Manufacturing Survey. While the current conditions index exhibited strength, the outlook has slipped. The survey doesn’t say whether this is being driven by a potential trade war or something else. Planned capital expenditures (a proxy for expansion plans) decreased.

Empire State

The Atlanta Fed took up their Q2 GDP estimate to 3.9%. Morgan Stanley warns that we are seeing a bit of a sugar rush in the economy courtesy of trade tensions. As companies worry about a potential trade war, they stockpile raw materials and other inputs. This gooses the inventory numbers which makes the current quarter look particularly strong. The problem is that you get a double whammy if the trade war materializes. Activity will drop, and that inventory will be liquidated, both of which will reduce GDP growth. Even if a trade war doesn’t happen, uncertainty could cause companies to pull in their horns. FWIW, I am skeptical of the “uncertainty” argument. Regulatory “uncertainty” out of DC generally causes companies to be cautious. The rest of the clatter is just noise. Certainly investors (judging by the S&P 500) aren’t worried.

One stat to watch: Corporate bond spreads. We are seeing a slight widening in some of the junkier investment grade debt. Baa spreads increased to 200 basis points from 165 in February. While spreads are still tight relative to historic levels, this is something to watch. Years of financial repression have given issuers the upper hand with regards to covenants and some of those chickens will come home to roost in the next recession.

Morning Report: Bank earnings pour in

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2797 -1
Eurostoxx index 385.18 0.81
Oil (WTI) 70.6 0.27
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.84%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.53%

Markets are flat as bank earnings come in. Bonds and MBS are up small. Slow news day.

The US government held a reasonably strong auction yesterday, where primary dealers took down their smallest positions ever. Meanwhile, speculative shorts in Treasuries (one of the biggest trades on the Street) are struggling as rates stay stubbornly low. Some continue to warn that the flattening yield curve is really telling us that a recession is around the corner.

The prepared remarks for Jerome Powell’s semiannual report to Congress should be out today. Probably won’t be market-moving, but you never know.

Import prices fell 0.4% in June as petroleum and food prices fell. For the year, they are up 4.3% however.

Consumer sentiment fell according to the University of Michigan / Reuters survey. The current conditions index drove the fall, which is usually a function of gas prices. Trade fears also weighed on sentiment.

Wells Fargo reported earnings this morning. Earnings were down due to a tax charge. Stripping out the tax charge, they were flat. They had a tough quarter for mortgages like everyone else. Origination for the quarter was $50 billion, which is up seasonally from Q1, but down 11% YOY. The current pipeline of $24 billion is down 26% YOY. Margins were 77 basis points, which is down 17 from the prior quarter and down 47 bps from a year ago. The stock is down 3% pre-open.

JP Morgan had a similar story to Wells. They originated $23.7 billion in mortgages during Q2, which was higher seasonally and down about 10% from a year ago. Mortgage banking revenue (which includes servicing) was down 6% YOY. Margin compression again was the story, especially in correspondent lending. They marked up the MSR book. JPM is flat pre-open.

A bunch of other banks reported this morning and the whole sector is getting hit, with the XLF down about a percent and a half.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made positive comments about the economy, although he is concerned about trade and the effects of a long trade war with China. He is concerned about rising trade tensions, although he notes that Trump’s goal is to get others to lower their tariffs. If he succeeds in that, then the trade tension would be a good thing, not a bad thing. It is important to remember that China’s biggest weapon against the US is not imposing tariffs on US goods – it is ignoring US intellectual property laws. Those sorts of things will not really show up in the balance of trade numbers, but will have huge effects on IP firms, particularly media and software.

Morning Report: The Fed is looking for new recessionary indicators

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2790 16
Eurostoxx index 384.01 2.61
Oil (WTI) 70.92 0.54
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.86%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.53%

Stocks are higher after China made some conciliatory comments regarding the trade situation. Bonds and MBS are flat.

Inflation at the consumer level remains under control, with the consumer price index rising 0.2% MOM / 2.9% YOY. Ex-food and energy it rose 0.2% / 2.3%. These numbers were more or less in line with Street expectations. Energy, especially petroleum drove the increase in the index. Housing also pushed up the index, while autos and utilities exerted downward pressure.

Initial Jobless Claims fell to 214,000 last week, which is at levels we haven’t seen since the early 1970s (when we had a draft).

Loan performance continues to improve, according to CoreLogic. The 30+ DQ rate fell from 4.8% to 4.2% in April. DQ rates are near historic lows, except for FL, TX, and LA which are still dealing with the fallout from Hurricane Harvey. The national foreclosure rate fell by 10 basis points to 0.6%. Home price appreciation of 7% is helping matters. In fact, home equity is increasing rapidly, but HELOC are not.

As the 2s-10s spread decreases, many in the financial press are worrying whether the slope of the yield curve is signalling a recession. We already have some strategists calling for the yield curve to invert sometime in 2019. An inverted yield curve (where short term rates are higher than long term rates) has historically been a strong recessionary signal. As a general rule, the yield curve flattens during tightening cycles. In fact, it did invert in the late 90s (before the stock market bubble burst) and during the real estate bubble (before the Great Recession).

tightening cycles

Recent Fed research indicates the 2s-10s spread may not be the best signal of an upcoming recession. It suggests the spread between the 3 month T bills and 18 month Treasuries could be more predictive. Another signal is the Eurodollar futures market. The idea is that the Fed would use these indicators as a yellow signal and stop tightening before they risk a recession.

To me at least, the last two recessions had very little to do with the Fed. We had a stock market bubble, and we had a residential real estate bubble. To say the Fed caused those recessions implies that these bubbles would have kept on going had the Fed just stayed away (or stopped tightening sooner). That is a big assumption – all bubbles eventually come to an end, and when they do you have a recession. The tightening may have been the catalyst to initiate the recession, that is a question of “when,” not “if.” We were going to have a recession given we had a bubble in place already. And the Fed might have been guilty of causing the bubble in the first place, but that is a separate question.

Of course, all bets are off when it comes to this yield curve versus the past. The size of the Fed’s balance sheet relative to the economy is vastly different this time around. Pre-Great Recession, the Fed had about $800 billion worth of assets. Now it is about $4.4 trillion. To draw comparisons, you would have to estimate where the 10 year would have been without Operation Twist, QE1, QE2, and QE3. Punch line, the yield curve may in fact invert if the Fed continues to tighten and inflation remains under control. The signal-to-noise ratio of the yield curve is extremely low, so take it with a grain of salt.