Morning Report: Wages and interest rates

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2851 -35
Oil (WTI) 62.46 0.8
10 year government bond yield 2.43%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.15%

 

Stocks are lower this morning after rhetoric between the US and China hardened over the weekend. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

The rhetoric over trade intensified over the weekend, with both China and the US blaming each other for the impasse. As promised, the US hiked tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods on Friday and blamed China for reneging on its deal. In response, China said it would never surrender, and has raised tariffs on about $60 billion worth of US goods starting on June 1. FWIW, the issue with China is not so much tariff-related, it is intellectual property related.

 

This week is relatively data-light, at least as far as market-moving data is concerned. We will get housing starts and the NAHB Housing Market Index, along with a lot of Fed-speak.

 

Uber priced its IPO on Friday at $45 a share, and the stock ended up opening at $42. It never broke above the IPO price for the entire day. The record for IPOs has been downright awful and they have gone from being an almost sure thing to a greatest fool tournament. Historically, bankers would underprice IPOs by about 10% – 20%, so that investors would get a nice bump on the first day. Of course this means the company left some money on the table, but everyone was generally happy with that arrangement. Today, all the value is extracted in the pre-IPO funding rounds, so by the time it hits the public stock exchanges the companies are fully valued (if not overvalued). I have to imagine the big institutional investors are going to start turning these things down.

 

The share of 43%+ DTI loans going to Fannie and Freddie has almost doubled over the past couple of years from 15% to 30%. This is triggering more debate over the “QM patch” that allows safe harbor for loans with DTIs over 43% as long as they are GSE loans. This provision is slated to expire in 2021, but affordable housing advocates are pushing for it to be extended. Interestingly, the Urban Institute says that while default rates for 45+ DTI loans were higher prior to the crisis, that is no longer the case. Urban Institute has an agenda to push, so counterintuitive findings like that might be the result of some statistical jiggery-pokery and further examination is warranted.

 

Neel Kashkari is making the argument that rates should stay low due to income inequality. This is not necessarily a new argument – Janet Yellen said she was willing to let the labor market “run hot” for a while to wring all of the slack out of the labor market. Historically, the Fed has shied away from political footballs like income inequality, fiscal policy, etc given the fact that the Fed handles banking regulation and the Fed Funds rate – tools that aren’t suited to tackle either issue. In fact, you could make the argument that loose monetary policy increases inequality due to the fact that it pushes up asset prices. Here is another issue: if low rates increase the cost of shelter more than it helps increase wages, it could in fact be a negative for those that rent. Note that he isn’t arguing that the Fed should cut rates, but he is in favor of waiting to see if inflation returns.

 

That said, wage growth has been strong over the past couple of years as the labor market has strengthened. If you compare the yield on the 10 year bond to wage growth, historically they have correlated reasonably well. Over the past couple of years, the 10 year yield has fallen while average hourly earnings have increased. Given that labor’s share of GDP is still around historical lows, wages have to rise further to reach historical averages.

 

wage growth versus interest rates

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Morning Report: Small mortgage origination has fallen

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2867 -17
Oil (WTI) 61.91 -0.21
10 year government bond yield 2.45%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.17%

 

Stocks are lower as the trade-driven sell off continues. Bonds and MBS are up. Note Jerome Powell will be speaking around lunch time. Also, the long-awaited Uber IPO will price after the bell.

 

Inflation at the wholesale level increased 0.2% MOM and 2.2% YOY in April according to the Producer Price Index. Ex-food and energy, they rose 0.1% / 2.4%. We will get the consumer price index tomorrow.

 

Initial Jobless Claims came in at 228k last week.

 

FHFA Chairman Mark Calabria said that Fannie and Freddie may be released from conservatorship even if Congress doesn’t accomplish housing reform. He also signalled that Congress would have an “entire Congress” – i.e. at least 2 years to hash out a solution. Calabria has not said that he would end the “net worth sweep” which sends all of the GSE profits to Treasury, which has created capital shortages for the GSEs.

 

Fewer and fewer mortgages are being made in the lower price tiers, which is having an impact on entry-level borrowers.  The article blames lender focus on the jumbo space, but that probably isn’t really the driver. They look at the number of low balance mortgages (10k – 90k) being originated today versus 10 years ago. It turns out that the number of small loans is definitely lower. I think there are a few factors going on here: First, 2009 was the beginning of the big wash-out in real estate prices and the number of homes in that price range was a lot higher in 2009 than it is today. In other words, home price appreciation is the biggest driver. Second, compliance costs are simply much higher, and as the MBA has demonstrated, costs to originate have been rising relentlessly. FWIW, there is demand for low balance mortgages – the prepay speeds are much lower so investors are willing to pay up for them – but that probably doesn’t offset higher costs. Finally, it is hard to get loan officers excited about an 80k mortgage when they are only making 75 basis points on it to begin with. Given that an 80k mortgage requires as much effort as a 800k mortgage, it makes sense for loan officers to focus on larger loan balances.

 

small loans

Morning Report: The Fed maintains rates

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2928 4
Eurostoxx index 390.26 -0.72
Oil (WTI) 62.94 -0.66
10 year government bond yield 2.53%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.23%

 

Stocks are up this morning after the Fed maintained rates. Bonds and MBS are down.

 

As expected, the Fed maintained the Fed Funds rate at current levels, although they did tweak the rate on overnight reserves. During the press conference, Jerome Powell pushed back against the idea that the Fed’s next move will be a cut. Rates initially fell down the 2.46% level, but overnight retraced that move and we are back at levels we saw before the meeting. The Fed was surprised by the strength in both the job market and the overall economy and the fact that inflation remains lower than they would like to see.

 

At the press conference, a number of journalists asked about the market’s forecast for another rate cut. Powell stressed that the Committee’s view is that the current level of interest rates is “appropriate” and that core inflation was running close to the Fed’s target of 2% for most of 2018. The Fed Funds futures trimmed their estimates for a 2019 rate cut, from a 2/3 chance to more 50/50.  MBS spreads are slightly wider (meaning mortgage rates are a touch higher relative to the 10 year than they were yesterday).

 

Fed fund futures dec 2019

 

Construction spending fell 0.9% MOM and 0.8% YOY in March, according to the Census Bureau. Residential construction drove the decrease, falling 1.8% MOM and 8.4% YOY. Ex-residential construction, spending was solid, but we could see a downward revision in Q1 GDP estimates due to the resi numbers.

 

Productivity rose 3.6% in the first quarter as unit labor costs fell 0.9%. Q4’s productivity number was revised upward to 1.3%. Not sure what drove the decrease in unit labor costs – wages have been rising – but the problems with measuring productivity in this economy have been noted before. Regardless, the drop in labor costs and higher output mean inflation should remain below the Fed’s 2% target.

 

Initial jobless claims rose to 230k last week.

 

Lumber prices have been falling after spiking at record levels last year. Given that this is the time of year we should see more demand, this is surprising. The driver has been weather and continued weakness in homebuilding. Lower commodity prices should increase the margins for homebuilders and hopefully incent more homebuilding. Note that the S&P homebuilder ETF is up 25% this year.

 

What would happen to mortgage rates if we release Fannie and Freddie from conservatorship? Currently, Fannie and Freddie debt is treated as sovereign debt by investors, in other words, they believe the government will stand behind the debt if the GSEs run into trouble. This lowers their cost of funds, which gets passed on to borrowers in lower mortgage rates. If Fannie and Freddie are released from conservatorship, and the government no longer backs their debt, it will increase mortgage rates overall (their debt will definitely NOT be AAA), and will probably impact their ability to do perform the affordable housing part of their mandate. It is important to remember the reason why Fannie and Freddie were privatized in the first place – it was done in the 1970s to paper over the debt being issued to fund the Vietnam war. In a way, the government was using off-balance sheet financing, similar to the special purpose vehicles banks were using in the mid 00s. If there is more than 20% outside ownership in the subsidiary, then the parent is no longer required to consolidate the subsidiary’s debt on its balance sheet. In other words, they don’t have to claim that debt on their books, even if they are guaranteeing it. This accounting sleight of hand lowered the US debt numbers in the 1970s and it was hoped that this would help fight rising inflation (obviously that did not work). It may turn out that there would not be a bid for new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock without a government credit wrapper, which means that hopes for a fully privatized Fannie and Freddie might turn out to be impossible to achieve.

Morning Report: Ginnie is increasing scrutiny of non-bank lenders

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2642 0
Eurostoxx index 357.3 2.93
Oil (WTI) 52.35 0.36
10 year government bond yield 2.73%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.62%

 

Stocks are flat as we begin the FOMC meeting. Bonds and MBS are up small.

 

Despite the end of the shutdown, we will have to wait for economic data. Two big reports this week – GDP and personal incomes – have been delayed.

 

Economic activity picked up in December, according to the Chicago Fed National Activity Index. Production-related indicators and employment drove the increase. Note that the CFNAI is a meta-index of a number of announced economic indices, and the government shutdown has decreased the amount of data going into the index. We’ll see the same effect next month as well, so the index won’t be as accurate as it usually is. Regardless, the CFNAI is an amalgamation of previously released data, so it doesn’t move markets.

 

Ex-Fed Head Narayana Kochlerakota thinks the Fed should consider easing at the next meeting. His argument is that the Fed has been falling short in maintaining inflation at its 2% target and that notwithstanding the latest unemployment data we are still not at full employment. He is looking at the percentage of prime age people (age 25-54) who are currently employed. We are just south of 80%, and were closer to 82% during the late 90s. Given that the number of prime age people in the US is roughly 100MM, then we have about 2 million more jobs to create in order to get to back to where we want to be. Interestingly, he not only advocates maintaining the current balance sheet, he thinks it should increase about 4% a year to grow in lockstep with the economy.

 

employment population ratio

 

Guess what has been one of the best performing assets so far this year (almost tripled in under a month). If you guessed the GSEs, you would be correct. The market is betting that shareholders won’t get wiped out when / if housing reform happens this year. Check out this chart of Fannie Mae:

 

fnma chart

 

Ginnie Mae is stepping up oversight of its partners, particularly non-bank lenders, telling some that they must improve some financial metrics before they will be granted more commitment authority, which is the ability to securitize FHA and VA loans. The government is concerned that non-bank lenders have replaced a lot of the traditional banks in servicing government loans. Indeed, they have – nonbanks now service 61% of government loans, up from 34% at the end of 2014. FHA was largely a backwater of the mortgage market pre-crisis, however post crisis, it has picked up the load that subprime left. Servicers for government loans have a lot more liquidity demands than servicers for GSE loans – and in a downturn the advances liability could take out undercapitalized mortgage bankers. VA lenders can face what is called no-bid risk, which can be a disaster for many servicers without a line of credit to cover advances and loan buyouts.

Morning Report: Jerome Powell stresses flexibility

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2587.75 -6.75
Eurostoxx index 348.54 -0.31
Oil (WTI) 52.94 0.34
10 year government bond yield 2.72%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.48%

 

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

 

Initial Jobless Claims fell to 216,000 last week.

 

Jerome Powell stressed that the Fed has the flexibility to be patient in raising rates and will react to new data as appropriate. “Especially with inflation low and under control, we have the ability to be patient and watch patiently and carefully as we … figure out which of these two narratives [slowdown or inflation] is going to be the story of 2019,” Powell said at the Economic Club of Washington. Separately, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said that the Fed had “reached the end of the road” in this tightening cycle.

 

The Fed Funds futures have retraced some of their December move and are now forecasting that the Fed will do nothing in 2019. In November, they were forecasting another hike in 2019, and then swung to forecasting a cut in December. They are now more or less agreeing with James Bullard that this tightening cycle is in the books.

 

fed funds futures

 

Bonds largely ignored the Fed Speak and stocks were more focused on punishing the mall based retailers and department stores, many of which had a difficult holiday shopping season.

 

Fannie Mae reported another drop in delinquencies, as the SDQ percent fell to .76% of their portfolio from .79% a month ago and 1.12% a year ago. The DQ rate for loans originated during the bubble years is 4.5%. The DQ rate for loans originated since is .33%.

 

It is looking more and more likely that Trump will declare a national emergency to allocate funds to the wall and to re-open the government. It will then be up to the courts to decide if such a move is legal, which opens up a new can of worms as the executive branch continues its decades-long path of power consolidation.

Morning Report: October was hard on MBS investors

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2728 4
Eurostoxx index 364.84 0.76
Oil (WTI) 62.92 -0.35
10 year government bond yield 3.21%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.96%

 

Stocks are higher this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are down small.

 

The highlight of this week will be the FOMC meeting on Wednesday and Thursday. Typically they fall on Tuesday and Wednesday, but I guess they moved it for election day this year. No changes in monetary policy are expected and the Fed Funds futures market is assigning a 93% probability of no change in rates. Aside from the FOMC meeting, the only other market moving news will be PPI on Friday. Whatever happens Tuesday is probably not going to be market-moving. Best bet: Ds narrowly take the House, Rs retain the Senate, gridlock rules Washington.

 

October was a rough month for MBS investors, the kind folks who set our rate sheets. MBS underperformed Treasuries by 37 basis points, the worst since immediately after the election. Yes, the Fed is reducing the size of its MBS holdings, but that isn’t what makes MBS outperform and underperform. Volatility in the Treasury markets can be great for bond investors, but is is toxic for MBS investors.  You can see we October was a period of high volatility in the bond market (shown below with a “VIX” for Treasuries). Volatility causes losses losses for MBS investors and makes them less likely to “bid up” securities, which translates into a phenomenon where rates don’t improve as much as you would think when rates fall, and negative reprices happen frequently.  The Fed’s reduction of its balance sheet has been going on for years, and it isn’t all of a sudden going to manifest itself in rates.

TYVIX

 

Fannie and Freddie reported strong numbers and paid about $6.6 billion to Treasury between them. Fannie Mae has paid in total about $172 billion to Treasury since the bailout.

 

Jerome Powell thinks the current period of low inflation and low unemployment could last “indefinitely.” Historically, inflation usually increased as unemployment fell (which was measured by the Phillips Curve). He thinks that relationship has broken down over time. He notes that the last two booms were not ended by goods and services inflation, they were ended by burst asset bubbles. Since we don’t seem to have any asset bubbles brewing at the moment, this set of affairs could last a while. I wonder how much of the historical unemployment / inflation was due to union contracts which included explicit inflation cost of living increases. Regardless, he is correct that we don’t have anything resembling a stock market bubble or real estate bubble, and changes in inventory management have probably done a lot to get rid of the historical cause of recessions, which is an inventory glut.

 

Isn’t this a perfect encapsulation of the cognitive dissonance in the business press right now? They don’t like the guy in office, so they constantly feel like the economy is awful (Consumer confidence is definitely a partisan phenomenon). Classic example of why you always have to take consumer confidence numbers (and the business press) with a grain of salt….

Cognitive DIssonance

 

Morning Report: Housing starts jump

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2908.75 -3
Eurostoxx index 378.74 0
Oil (WTI) 69.94 0.09
10 year government bond yield 3.05%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.78%

Stocks are higher this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are down.

Mortgage applications increased last week despite a big uptick in rates. The overall index rose 1.6%, driven by a 4% increase in refis and a 0.3% increase in purchases. FWIW, I wonder if there is some sort of strange adjustment related to the Labor Day holiday going on. Rates hit a 7 year high, with the conforming 30 year fixed hitting 4.88%.  ARMs increased to 6.5% of all activity.

Housing starts rose to an annualized pace of 1.28 million in August, which is up over 9% on a MOM and YOY basis. Permits disappointed however, falling just under 6% on a MOM and YOY basis. Multi-fam (which is notoriously volatile) drove the decline in permits and the increase in starts. Single family permits were up about 6%. Geographically, the action was in the West and South, while the Northeast and Midwest were flat / barely up.

Housing starts will probably take a step back in the next few months as construction workers will be occupied rebuilding North Carolina.  Labor remains an issue for new home construction, but the tariff-driven spike in lumber prices is over, and futures are trading at 18 month lows.

lumber

Fannie Mae thinks growth has peaked for this cycle and that the second quarter’s torrid growth rate of 4.2% was artificially boosted by inventory build ahead of tariffs. This had the effect of borrowing growth from future quarters. In all fairness, they are probably correct – a 4.2% growth rate is so far above historical trend that it is almost by definition unsustainable. Housing continues to punch below its weight as affordability issues weigh on sentiment. Note that the number of people saying it is a good time to buy a house has hit the lowest level since the survey began 8 years ago. Blame rising rates and home price appreciation outstripping income growth.  FWIW, they are somewhat bearish on consumer spending going into the 4th quarter, which seems to defy a lot of data we are getting about retailer activity.

Insured losses form Hurricane Florence will be in the $1.7 to $4.6 billion range.