Morning Report: Fed decision day

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2851 -1.25
Eurostoxx index 382.92 2.82
Oil (WTI) 58.48 0.39
10 year government bond yield 2.60%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.27%

 

Stocks are higher this morning as we begin the FOMC meeting. Bonds and MBS are flat.

 

The FOMC decision is set to be announced at 2:00 pm EST. Be careful locking around that time. They aren’t going to raise interest rates, but the focus will be on the dot plot and their interest rate forecast for 2019. There will also be interest in the size of the balance sheet, but it won’t be market moving.

 

The stock market has been rallying on hopes that the Fed will be taking 2019 off. Note that FedEx reported disappointing numbers, which is a canary in the coal mine for the global economy. The stock and bond markets have been sending different signals about the economy, with the stock market rising (signalling strength) and interest rates falling (signalling weakness). Part of this has been due to global growth concerns – especially in Europe and China. Global weakness doesn’t necessarily translate into a recession for the US, but it is a reach to think it won’t affect us at all.

 

Mortgage Applications rose 1.6% last week as purchases rose 0.3% and refis increased 4%. Mortgage rates drifted lower and are at the cheapest in a year.

 

The NAHB / Wells Fargo Housing Market Index was flat at 62 as we kick off the Spring Selling Season. Sales ticked up, but traffic is way down. Overall, the new home sales market is similar to where we left off in fall. We will get a read on existing home sales this Friday. We are seeing some evidence of cooling in housing markets, especially in the Northeast. According to the Redfin competitive numbers, places like Greenwich CT are at 9 on a scale of 1 – 100. Even erstwhile hot markets like San Diego have been cooling. The heat is in the laggard markets, with places like Harrisburg PA and Indianapolis doing very well.

 

greenwich

Indianapolis

 

Morning Report: Job openings, and the Fed.

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2833.5 3
Eurostoxx index 381.78 0.68
Oil (WTI) 48.46 -0.14
10 year government bond yield 2.60%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.27%

 

Stocks are higher this morning on overseas strength. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

The big event this week will be the FOMC meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. No changes are expected in interest rates, and the Street will be focused primarily on the dot plot and whether it is catching up with what the Fed Funds futures are saying. The December 2018 dot plot predicted that the end of 2019 Fed Funds rate would be in the 2.75% – 3% range, in other words two more rate hikes in 2019. A Reuters poll of economists forecasts 1 more hike this year. On the other hand, the markets are predicting a Fed Funds rate in the 2.25% – 2.5% range – in other words no change. To be fair, there has been a major change in market sentiment since December, but one of the two (the experts or the markets) has clearly got it wrong. In December, only 2 out of the 17 forecasts expected the Fed to not hike this year, and nobody was looking for a rate cut. The futures on the other hand are handicapping a 75% chance of no hike and about a 25% chance of a rate cut. This is a massive expectations gap.

 

Other than the FOMC meeting, there isn’t much in the way of important economic data. We will get leading economic indicators on Thursday, and existing home sales on Friday.

 

There were 7.58 million job openings at the end of January, which is close to the record set back in November. The 2018 data series was also revised upward, with about 353,000 additional job openings on average. The quits rate was 2.3%, which is where it has been for most of 2013 after that series was revised. The quits rate describes the number of people who are leaving their current job to get another, so it tends to lead increases in wage growth.

 

job openings

 

The housing industry is driven at least partially by new home construction, and there is a noted labor shortage in that sector. The problem is most acute in skilled trades, like electricians and plumbers, but unskilled supply is still an issue. The job opening rate for construction was 3.9% last month, as opposed to 3.3% a year ago. The quits rate edged up for the sector as well, rising to 2.5%.

 

 

Morning Report: Housing starts disappoint

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2791.5 -5
Eurostoxx index 371.78 -0.4
Oil (WTI) 55.5 0.03
10 year government bond yield 2.66%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.35%

 

Stocks are lower this morning on overseas tensions between India and Pakistan. Bonds and MBS are flat.

 

Jerome Powell heads to Capitol Hill today for his first day of Humphrey-Hawkins testimony. While this events are ostensibly to allow Congress to question the Fed about monetary policy, they are really nothing more than a posturing exercise for politicians to hop on their respective ideological hobby-horses. Expect Democrats to focus like a laser on income inequality, too big to fail banks, and fair lending. Expect Republicans to focus on inflation worries, banking regulation, and the return of the bond vigilantes. The markets will be listening for information on balance sheet reduction and further hikes this year. This probably won’t be market-moving.

 

Housing starts fell to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1.08 million, a double-digit percentage drop on both a month-over-month and annual basis. As a general rule, winter housing starts numbers can be volatile due to the weather, however this is simply an awful number. The street was looking for 1.25 million, which is still a depressed number. Remember, between 1959 and 2002, we averaged 1.5 million housing starts a year. The last time we saw that sort of building was 2006.

 

housing starts

 

The Home Despot reported fourth quarter earnings this morning, and forecasted weaker-than-expected comparable sales. Part of this is a technical aspect of their accounting conventions, but it does speak to weakness in home improvement spending.

 

Economic activity slowed in January, according to the Chicago Fed National Activity Index. Production-related indicators drove the decline. How much of this was temporary due to tariff issues / government shutdown remain to be seen. Employment remained positive.

 

More sellers are cutting prices this winter in order to move their homes, according to Redfin. 21% of home sellers are reporting a price decrease, which is a post-crisis high. “Many sellers listed their homes late last year just as rising prices and mortgage rates were starting to price out their core pool of potential buyers,” said Las Vegas Redfin agent Jennifer Brockman. “Meanwhile, some buyers are starting to think that waiting to purchase a home could pay off, especially as listing inventory continues to rise. In this new market reality, buyers may have negotiating power now that they won’t have in the spring and summer.”

 

redfin price drop

Morning Report: What does 2019 look like if the Fed is out of the way?

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2510 24
Eurostoxx index 337.45 1.25
Oil (WTI) 46.4 1.01
10 year government bond yield 2.73%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.60%

 

Stocks are higher as close the books on 2018. Bonds and MBS are down small.

 

Today should be relatively quiet as we have an early close in the bond market and no economic data to speak of. Economic data has been delayed due to the government shutdown, but so far it looks like BLS is still working so we should get the jobs report on Friday.

 

Pending home sales dropped 0.7% in November, according to NAR. YOY, activity was down 7.7%. Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said the current sales numbers don’t fully take into account other data. “The latest decline in contract signings implies more short-term pullback in the housing sector and does not yet capture the impact of recent favorable conditions of mortgage rates.” The government shutdown is not going to help things going forward, as the inability to get flood insurance will probably affect some 40,000 home sales.

 

People are looking at 2019 and largely assuming that it will be a carbon copy of 2018 with respect to the mortgage business. That is probably a safe bet, however there is one big difference: if you believe the Fed Funds futures are correct, the Fed is out of the way. For example, Freddie Mac anticipates that the 30 year fixed rate mortgage is going to be 5.1% and originations are going to increase slightly to 1.69MM. When that forecast was made (in August of 2018), people were thinking we would probably have two more hikes in 2019. I suspect that the forecasts for 2019 have yet to factor in a Fed that does nothing further.

 

Where will rates go, then? I suspect that unless the data changes markedly, they probably go nowhere. If we see a dramatic drop in GDP (say Q1 GDP drops to 1%) then rates are going lower as the yield curve will probably invert. If we see a dramatic jump in inflation (say Q1 core PCE hits 3%) then the Fed might hike again and we should see higher mortgage rates. However, the most likely bet is that they kind of meander around in the mid 4%s for the year.

 

Where will home prices go? Most forecasts assume that home price appreciation will slow this year, and that is probably a solid bet. Home prices have become largely untethered from incomes again and will probably lack much impetus to move higher unless wages get a strong boost. There is a housing shortage that needs to be addressed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean SFR construction – the needs are at the lower price points, and that means more multi-fam, not necessarily SFR. There is a glut of high priced properties as well.

 

I suspect that even if rates do move lower, there has been enough prepayment burnout to prevent any sort of meaningful refi boom. Volume is going to have to come from additional products (non-QM etc) and new construction. Volume probably won’t be as bad as 2018, but it won’t be better than 2017 either. Margin compression will probably ease up as competition decreases and marginal players exit the business.

Morning Report: The real reason why markets are selling off

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2355.25 13.5
Eurostoxx index 335.24 -1.43
Oil (WTI) 53.35 0.82
10 year government bond yield 2.74%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.60%

 

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

 

Not a lot of news to work with, but most of the business press is fixated on the stock market sell-off and trying to craft a narrative that Trump (or the government shutdown) is behind it. This is nonsense. There is a sea change in the market’s perception that the Fed has overshot, and you can see it the chart below, which shows the expected Fed Funds rate for a year from now.

 

Fed fund futures dec 2019

 

Right now, the central tendency is that there will be no more rate hikes in 2019. But take a close look at the implied probabilities today and compare them to where they were a month ago. At the end of November, the markets figured there was a 23% chance that there would be no further changes, a 37% chance of one more hike, and a 25% chance of two more hikes. Look at the probabilities now: 59% chance the Fed does nothing in 2019, a 17% probability they hike 25 basis points, and a 19% probability the next move is a rate cut. That is a tremendous change in market perception in just under a month, and THAT is what is driving the markets. Not the government shutdown. Not Trump jawboning Powell about interest rates, especially since the markets are saying that Trump is right. Hard for the business press to massage that point.

 

FWIW, the Atlanta Fed is predicting Q4 GDP to come in at 2.7%. If there is a recession coming in 2019, today’s numbers sure are not signalling one.

 

There is concern in the economy that housing is slowing down, but in all honesty, housing never really recovered all that much, at least as far as building is concerned. We still have such a deficit between supply and demand that any fears of another 2008 – style market collapse are misplaced. Bottom line: the US taxpayer has been bearing the credit risk of 90% of all new origination over the past 10 years. The banking system does not have the mortgage credit risk issues it did during the bubble days – the private label mortgage market does not have the footprint it did a decade ago.

 

There is fear of a drop in global demand, and that is what the declines in commodity prices are saying. The Chinese economy is living on borrowed time, as they have a massive real estate bubble that will burst at some point. Europe continues to muddle through, and Japan’s start-stop economy is beginning to hiccup again. Fears of a global economic slowdown are a valid fear, however the punch line from that is ultimately lower global interest rates, which is a plus for the US, not a negative.

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: 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.