Morning Report: Why we aren’t headed for a recession

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2874 24.5
Oil (WTI) 54.62 -0.14
10 year government bond yield 1.55%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 3.78%

 

Stocks are higher on no real news this morning. There is a risk-on feel to the tape after a tumultuous week. Bonds and MBS are down.

 

Housing starts disappointed (again!) coming in at 1.19 million, lower than the 1.26MM street estimate. This is down 4% on a MOM basis, and up about 0.6% on a YOY basis. On the bright side, building permits surprised to the upside, coming in at 1.34 million versus the 1.27 million street estimate. Still, new home construction remains depressed due to labor shortages and lack of buildable lots.

 

Despite these issues, homebuilders remain optimistic. The NAHB / Wells Fargo Builder Sentiment Index rose in August to 66. Current sales conditions improved, while expectations for the next six months moderated. “While 30-year mortgage rates have dropped from 4.1 percent down to 3.6 percent during the past four months, we have not seen an equivalent higher pace of building activity because the rate declines occurred due to economic uncertainty stemming largely from growing trade concerns,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. “Although affordability headwinds remain a challenge, demand is good and growing at lower price points and for smaller homes.” Interesting about the tariff issue – building materials prices are down quite substantially. If tariffs were really that big of a deal, you would expect to see shortages and increases. We aren’t.

 

Given all the chatter about the yield curve and a possible recession, it is worthwhile to step back and take a look at the facts on the ground. The business press is awash with stories about the yield curve and how it is possibly signalling a recession. Quick explanation: the yield curve shows interest rates along the spread of maturities, and short term rates are usually lower than long term rates. However, we are flirting with a situation where long term rates are lower than short term rates. That is a yield curve inversion, and historically a yield curve inversion has been a decent (but not perfect) predictor of an imminent recession. The reason for this is that it implies that businesses are taking less risk, which means they must see something wrong in the economy.

 

The problem with the inverted yield curve model is that it gives off a lot of false positives – an old market saw is that an inverted yield curve has predicted “15 of the last 10 recessions.” Many times an inverted yield curve is the result of technical issues in the bond markets, which are temporary and don’t really spill through to the overall economy. This current period is probably one of those cases, and the technical issue is central bank behavior. The Fed, ECB, Bank of Japan have been pushing down long term rates in order to stimulate the economy for years, and now we have negative interest rates in much of the world. Negative interest rates in Germany and Japan (two huge bond markets) are pulling down US bond yields as overseas investors sell government debt that pays less than nothing (German Bunds and Japanese Government bonds) to buy government debt that does pay something (US Treasuries).

 

The business press is emphasizing the Trump / tariff / recession angle here because (1) it is a much simpler story to tell, (2) the partisans get to blame it on Trump, and (3) many strategists reluctant to stick their necks out and discuss the implications of negative rates worldwide – this is a completely new phenomenon and quite simply people don’t know.  We have a bubble in sovereign debt that has been engineered by global central banks – and unlike stock and real estate bubbles, we don’t have any historically similar periods to review. We know that bubbles end eventually, but when and how this resolves is anyone’s guess.

 

That said, what is the current economic state of play? Europe is doing its same-old Euro-sclerosis thing, which it has been doing for decades. Germany had a slightly negative GDP quarter and most of the Eurozone is slowing down in sympathy. Japan has been in the throes of a sclerotic economy since the New Kids on the Block ruled the charts. China is also tempering its growth. On the other side of the coin, the US has the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years, initial jobless claims are the lowest since we had a military draft, wages are rising, inflation is under control, and the consumer is increasing spending. This simply is not a recipe for a recession. And to take this a step further, tariff income has been about $60 billion since they have been implemented. In the context of a $21 trillion economy, this is insignificant – about 1/3 of 1%. It is a humorous state of affairs with partisan talking heads accusing Trump of destroying the economy over small-beer tariffs, while Trump accuses partisan journalists of sabotaging the economy with negative stories – as if the press had the power to do that.

 

Here is the big picture: The US economy has been strong enough to withstand a tightening cycle from the Fed, and has had 2.6% GDP growth in the immediate aftermath of a tightening cycle. Inflation is low, and is probably going to go lower as Europe and China begin exporting deflation to the US. Oh, and by the way the Fed is now cutting interest rates, which is the equivalent of giving a can of Red Bull to your kid at 9:00 pm on Halloween night. Don’t buy the recession narrative. None of the required pieces are in place.

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Morning Report: Trump tries to talk down the dollar

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2905 -14.5
Oil (WTI) 54.68 0.64
10 year government bond yield 1.69%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 3.86%

 

Stocks are lower after a bunch of non-US political headlines over the weekend. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

Overseas, currencies and bond yields are focusing on elections in Italy and Argentina, as well as protests in Hong Kong. Protestors shut down the Hong Kong airport over the weekend.

 

The week ahead will have a few important data points, but nothing likely to be market-moving. We will get inflation at the consumer level tomorrow, retail sales / productivity / industrial production on Thursday, and housing starts on Friday. There doesn’t appear to be any Fed-speak this week, so things should be quiet absent overseas political developments. Congress is on vacation until Labor Day, so things should be quiet in DC as well.

 

Building materials prices rose 0.7% (NSA) in July, but are down overall year-over-year. Despite tariffs, softwood lumber prices are down 20% over the past year, while other products like gypsum are down less. Roofing materials (tar / asphalt) were flattish-to-down as well. Rising home costs are due more to labor, land, and regulatory costs than they are due to sticks and bricks.

 

After rising for a decade, average new home sizes are falling as builders pivot away from luxury buyers to first time homebuyers. In 2018, the average size of a single family dwelling was 2,588 square feet, down from 2,631 the year before. Builders had largely decided to relegate the first time homebuyer to the resale market and focused on McMansions and luxury urban apartments during the immediate aftermath of the housing crash. Townhomes are also increasing in popularity, with 69,000 sales last year, the most since 2007. This is the sector growing the fastest.

 

Prepay speeds were released on Friday, and we saw some eye-popping CPRs on the government side: 2018 FHA had a CPR of 30.7%, while VA was almost 50%. People who loaded up the boat on MSRs in 2017 and 2018 have been killed.

 

The Fed is looking at the idea of a countercyclical capital buffer as a way to mitigate the credit cycle. The idea would be to have the banks hold more capital (i.e. lend less) when the economy shows signs of overheating and then allow them to hold less (i.e. lend more) when the economy goes into a down cycle. This would only apply to the Citis and JP Morgans of the world – banks with more than 250 billion in assets. “The idea of putting it in place so you can cut it, that’s something some other jurisdictions have done, and it’s worth considering,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at a late July press conference. It is an interesting idea, although reserves are typically sovereign debt, and this sounds a bit like adding buying pressure to a market that certainly does not need it.

 

Trump tweeted about the dollar, arguing that it should be weaker. Note this is a yuge departure from the strong dollar policy that every other president has supported. “As your President, one would think that I would be thrilled with our very strong dollar,” he tweeted. “I am not! The Fed’s high interest rate level, in comparison to other countries, is keeping the dollar high, making it more difficult for our great manufacturers like Caterpillar, Boeing, John Deere, our car companies, & others, to compete on a level playing field. With substantial Fed Cuts (there is no inflation) and no quantitative tightening, the dollar will make it possible for our companies to win against any competition. We have the greatest companies in the world, there is nobody even close, but unfortunately the same cannot be said about our Federal Reserve. They have called it wrong at every step of the way, and we are still winning. Can you imagine what would happen if they actually called it right?”

 

The strength in the dollar is more due to the relative strength of the US economy versus its trading partners, along with various carry trades. A carry trade is where you borrow money in a low yielding currency like the Japanese yen and invest the proceeds in a high-yielding government bond like the US Treasury. The net effect of a strong dollar is to make our exports more expensive to foreign buyers, make imports cheaper for US consumers and to lower interest rates in the US. The problem is that the ones who benefit from a weaker dollar (exporters) are loud and visible, while the beneficiaries (everyone else) aren’t even aware they are benefiting from it. Note that as the US has pivoted from a manufacturing-based economy to a service / IP based economy, the currency has a smaller and smaller impact on things.

 

Chart US dollar index (1989 – Present):

 

dollar

Morning Report: 10 yield hits a 3 year low.

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2886 -44.5
Oil (WTI) 54.43 -.84
10 year government bond yield 1.77%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 3.91%

 

Stocks are lower this morning on more trade war fears. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

Bond yields worldwide are down this morning, and many traders are watching the yuan / dollar exchange rate. Weakening the yuan is one of the arrows in China’s quiver to combat tariffs. A weaker yuan will make Chinese imports cheaper, which can offset the effect of tariffs. Globally, we see the German Bund with a negative 50 basis point handle, and the Japanese government bond pushing negative 20 basis points. If this continues, I think we are looking at another 25 basis point cut in September.

 

Trump tweeted about the yuan exchange rate this morning and called it “currency manipulation.” This is not an idle term – Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has resisted calling China a currency manipulator, because it is a weighty accusation. Trump also asked if the Fed was “listening.” The Fed is not in the currency business – that is Treasury’s job – but he is putting additional pressure on the Fed to cut rates. If there is a silver lining in all this, it is that it means lower rates and that is good for the mortgage market. It also looks like some of the more expensive real estate markets on the West Coast are re-thinking their zoning laws, which could add some much-needed supply.

 

The week after the jobs report is invariably data-light, and this week is no exception. The biggest reports will be job openings on Tuesday and producer prices on Friday. Since we are no longer in a tightening cycle, the inflation data will not be a market mover. Note that the disappointing construction spending number is pulling down Q3 GDP estimates to the 1.6% – 1.9% range.

 

 

Morning Report: Foreign investment in US real estate falls

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2984 -0.5
Oil (WTI) 57.04 0.24
10 year government bond yield 2.07%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.09%

 

Stocks are flattish after erstwhile market darling Netflix stunk up the joint with lousy earnings. Bonds and MBS are up small.

 

Initial Jobless Claims were flat at around 219k last week.

 

Negotiations continue over spending and the debt ceiling, which will probably be hit in September. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin cited “progress” in negotiations, and there is general agreement on the “top line” which includes spending increases from the previous year. That said, Republicans want some spending cuts elsewhere to offset the increase, and Democrats are against cuts. We’ll see if this goes to the mat (and another shutdown), but in the end, we’ll probably just raise the ceiling again and things will go on their merry way. Remember the last time we had a long shutdown, lenders were unable to get tax transcripts out of the IRS so it is something to keep in mind.

 

The Fed’s Beige Book of economic activity showed that the economy continued to expand at a “modest” pace, with slightly higher sales and flat manufacturing. Employment grew at a modest pace, and appears to be decelerating somewhat, especially as the slack in the labor market gets taken up. The Boston Fed noted that tariffs are having a negative effect, and at least one company is moving some production overseas to escape them. The proposed 5% tariff on Mexican goods was mentioned as a significant shock.

 

Canary in the coal mine for international asset markets, particularly China? International buyers of US residential real estate fell by 36% over the past year, following a 20% decrease in the prior year. China has been dealing with a real estate bubble for years, and prices are way out of whack compared to incomes – you can see just how bad it is here. This may explain some of the emerging weakness at the high end, especially in the big West Coast markets like San Francisco, Vancouver, and Seattle. The first step in any bursting bubble is a “buyer’s strike,” followed by rising inventory, and then finally a market-clearing event. We may be at the first stage right now.

 

Macroeconomically, a downturn in China means several things. First, they are going to try and export their way out of it, which means more trade tensions especially if they go the currency devaluation route. Second, it will mean a global growth slowdown, which will act as an anchor on global interest rates. Don’t worry about inflation, the world is awash in capacity. Finally, it could mean a return to a time like the 1990s, where the US was able to have its cake and eat it too, with fast growth but little to no inflation. I wonder if the Fed sees the same thing (after all central bankers do coordinate policy somewhat) and that is part of the reason why they are planning on easing when there is absolutely zero evidence the US is entering a recession.

Morning Report: Housing starts disappoint

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 3009 0.35
Oil (WTI) 59.54 -0.07
10 year government bond yield 2.09%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.12%

 

Stocks are flat as bank earnings continue to come in. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

Another month, another disappointing housing starts number. Starts fell from an annualized pace of 1.3 million to 1.22 million in June, according to Census. Building permits were a mixed bag, falling to 1.25 million, however May’s numbers were revised upwards. Both starts and permits were below street expectations.

 

Despite the disappointing housing starts number, builder confidence rose one point to 65 in July. Demand remains strong, however labor shortages, few buildable lots and rising construction costs are making it difficult to build at the lower price points, where the demand is particularly acute.

 

Mortgage applications fell 1.1% last week as purchases fell by 3.8% and refis rose 1.5%. Rates increased, with the 30 year fixed rate mortgage rising by 8 basis points to 4.12%.  “Mortgage rates increased across the board, with the 30-year fixed rate mortgage rising to its highest level in a month to 4.12 percent, which is still below this year’s average of 4.45 percent,” said Joel Kan, MBA Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Coming out of the July 4 holiday, applications were lower overall, with purchase activity slipping almost 4 percent. Refinance applications increased, with activity reaching its highest level in a month, driven mainly by FHA refinance applications. Historically, government refinance activity lags slightly in response to rate changes.”

 

Bank of America reported strong earnings this morning. Mortgage origination volume was up 56% YOY to $18.2 billion.  Separately, Quicken announced they originated $32 billion in the second quarter.

 

Second quarter growth in China fell to 6.2%, the lowest level in 27 years. The implications for this will revolve primarily around inflation and Fed policy. The Chinese economy has a real estate bubble of epic proportions, and once that bursts it will have ramifications in the urban high-end market, but it will also be felt in lower inflation numbers. China will probably try and export its way out of the slowdown, although tariffs will make it difficult. That said, a slowdown in emerging Asia and Europe will usher in even lower interest rates.

 

 

Morning Report: Negative yielding corporate debt.

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 3020 5.35
Oil (WTI) 60.39 0.19
10 year government bond yield 2.11%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.13%

 

Stocks are higher as we kick off earnings season. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

The upcoming week will be dominated by bank earnings. The economic data is unlikely to be market-moving, however we will get some real-estate related data with housing starts and homebuilder sentiment. We will also get retail sales, industrial production and capacity utilization.

 

Citigroup reported earnings this morning that beat Street estimates. Mortgage banking revenues were down 2% QOQ and down 9% YOY.

 

Manufacturing activity in New York State rebounded last month, climbing out of negative territory. New Orders were flat, shipments improved, while employment hit the lowest level in 3 years.

 

Europe is used to negative yields on sovereign debt, with the German Bund yielding -29 basis points. In other words, you are paying 105.25 to get back 100 in 10 years, along with some interest. That is strange enough, in of itself, but how about this? Corporate bonds trading with negative yields. Don’t believe it? US jar maker Ball Corp, maker of the mason jar, trades at a yield of -20 basis points and matures in 18 months. Why would any investor buy that? Because the principal hit will be less than deposit rates of -40 basis points or 18 month German paper yielding -70 basis points. It is a fascinating study of the law of unintended consequences. The whole point of negative interest rates is to push investors to get out of safe haven sovereign debt and take some risk – specifically lending money to businesses that need it. The whole point of this exercise is to increase the amount of credit in the system in order to fuel economic growth. However, instead of providing financing to nascent businesses who could be the growth drivers of tomorrow, they are lending money to a company that makes jars (hardly emerging technology) instead.

 

A portfolio manager at Janus Capital explained it as follows: “A bond like Ball Corp’s is “a safe place to hang out,” [Janus Capital Portfolio Manager Tim] Winstone said. “And just because something is negative yielding, that doesn’t mean it can’t get more negative yielding.” In other words, we are in greater fool territory. Fun fact: around 2% of the European junk bond market trades at negative yields. In fact, Winstone says that about 24% of the European investment grade market trades at negative yields. It isn’t entirely irrational – money managers are making a bet on further central bank stimulus and are positioning themselves to reap capital gains on negative yielding paper, which means they could end up making a positive return despite a negative yield headwind.

 

euro corporates

 

John Maynard Keynes once advocated inflation as the “euthanasia of the rentier class.” In reality it may turn out that negative interest rates will do the job. Fascinating times we live in.

Morning Report: Bonds rally on Jerome Powell’s prepared remarks

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2975 -6.5
Oil (WTI) 59.12 1.26
10 year government bond yield 2.05%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.06%

 

Stocks are lower as we await Jerome Powell’s Humphrey-Hawkins testimony. Bonds and MBS are flat.

 

Bonds were initially lower this morning, with the 10-year touching 2.10%. They rallied back after Powell’s prepared remarks were released. Here is the paragraph that probably caused it:

 

In our June meeting statement, we indicated that, in light of increased uncertainties about the economic outlook and muted inflation pressures, we would closely monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook and would act as appropriate to sustain the expansion. Many FOMC participants saw that the case for a somewhat more accommodative monetary policy had strengthened. Since then, based on incoming data and other developments, it appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the U.S. economic outlook. Inflation pressures remain muted.

 

Powell is scheduled to testify at 10:00 am. Note that we will also get the minutes from the June meeting at 2:00 pm today. Given how jittery the bond market is, we could see some volatility.

 

The Fed Funds futures turned slightly more dovish with the July futures predicting roughly a 80% of a 25 basis point cut and a 20% chance of a 50 basis point cut. The most likely outcome by the end of the year is a 75 basis point cut. December Fed Funds futures probabilities:

 

fed funds futures

 

Mortgage applications fell 2.4% last week as purchases rose 2.3% and refis fell 6.5%. The average contract rate on a 30 year fixed rate mortgage fell 3 basis points to 4.04%. There is some seasonal noise from the July 4 holiday baked into the numbers. Separately, the MBA’s Mortgage Credit Availability Index rose by 0.2% in June. Conventional credit expanded, while government credit contracted slightly. Jumbo credit is the easiest it has ever been, at least since the series started in 2011.

 

The House passed legislation yesterday which clarifies which VA loans are eligible to be included in Ginnie Mae Securitizations. They also passed a bill which would lower the mortgage insurance premiums for first-time homebuyers who complete a housing counseling course.