Morning Report: Tough times in mortgage banking

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2840 0.75
Eurostoxx index 388.33 -0.84
Oil (WTI) 69.29 0.8
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.95%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.58%

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

The week after the jobs report is invariably data-light and this week is no exception. We will get inflation data on Thursday and Friday and JOLTS data tomorrow and that is about it.

Everyone knows that 2018 has been an awful year for mortgage banking. How bad is it? Check out the graph below courtesy of Garrett Macauley:

mortgage banking profitability

The one thing that jumped out at me (aside from the -8 basis points this year) is how little the industry made during the bubble years. Is it as simple as saying the mortgage business lives and dies on the refinance business and even in great purchase markets (like 04-06) mortgage banking is a marginal activity at best?

If you are tired of hearing predictions of an inverted yield curve, check this out. Jamie Dimon thinks the 10 year bond yield should be 4% right now, and is saying that 5% is a possibility. “I think rates should be 4 percent today,” Dimon said from the gala, according to Bloomberg News. “You better be prepared to deal with rates 5 percent or higher – it’s a higher probability than most people think.” While it is impossible to rule that forecast out, take a look at the chart below: Interest rate cycles are long and during periods of low inflation they just don’t move around all that dramatically.  It took rates 20 years (1946 – 1966) to go from 2% to 5%. What was inflation in 1966? 5%. With the core CPI sitting at 2%, a 5 handle on inflation seems pretty unlikely. Not saying it is impossible – lots of differences between the mid 20th century and today – but….

100 years of interest rates

Chinese buying has been supporting prices in some big West Coast markets, and it is drying up. While trade war concerns are probably playing a role, we are seeing declines in other global real estate markets, like London and Vancouver. This is a signal that the issue is probably internal to China, which has a real estate bubble of its own. The government has issued regulations limiting the purchase of foreign property, and seems worried about the currency. If the Chinese real estate bubble bursts, expect to see more selling in West Coast markets because that will be the only way for Chinese investors to raise cash.

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.

Morning Report: New Home Sales jump

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2745 -14.5
Eurostoxx index 379.79 -5.22
Oil (WTI) 69.07 0.49
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.89%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.57%

Stocks are lower this morning on continued trade tensions. Bonds and MBS are up

Economic activity decelerated in May, according to the Chicago Fed National Activity Index. Production-related indicators were a drag on the index (probably an effect of trade issues) while employment-related indicators had a positive impact once again. This index is a meta-index of 85 different sub-indices, and while it is backward-looking and generally not market moving, it provides a good global snapshot of the economy.

The trade war is beginning to have some real economic effects as the CFNAI indicated. While it is primarily limited to steel, many companies that use it as an input are raising prices, which is going to have a few negative effects on the economy – first firms that use steel and cannot pass on price increases are probably going to lay off workers, while the inflationary pressures from increased prices will keep the Fed raising interest rates. Retaliatory tariffs from our partners are causing US exporters to shift production overseas. Note that lumber tariffs are increasing the price of home construction, which is another drag on the economy.

Given the recessionary potential of trade wars the shape of the yield curve is going to become a bigger talking point for the business press and will be watched closely by the Fed. The shape of the yield curve essentially means the difference between short term rates and long term rates. The most common description is the 2s-10s spread, which is about 34 basis points at the moment. When the yield curve is strongly upward sloping (in other words, the 10 year yield is a lot higher than the 2 year yield) it generally means one of two things: either (a) the market is worried about inflation, and is therefore requiring a high interest rate to entice people to invest in Treasuries long term, or (b) the economy is so strong that investors prefer to put their money in more risky assets and therefore Treasuries have to offer a higher rate to get people interested. For the most part, the US yield curve has been in the second camp.

As the Fed has been raising the Fed Funds rate, the yield on shorter-term paper (like the 2 year) has been going up faster than the rate on the 10 year. Historically, the yield curve has flattened during tightening cycles, so this is nothing to be alarmed about. If the yield curve inverts, then that has historically been associated with the Fed overdoing it and it is taken as a recessionary signal. In the current environment, the flattening of the yield curve looks more like typical curve behavior during a tightening cycle, and not a signal of a recession. Don’t forget the yield curve has been highly influenced by central bank behavior. The Fed could drive up long-term rates by hinting at the possibility of selling some of its portfolio. Bottom line, the business press will be talking about the curve more and more, especially if the trade war begins to snowball and we start seeing a combination of rising input costs with a slowing out output.

New Home sales increased 6.7% MOM and 14.1% YOY to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 689,000. This is the highest print since November last year. Interestingly, sales rose in the South, but fell everywhere else. In the West, where the supply shortage is most acute, sales fell by 9% MOM and are flat YOY. Both the median and average sales price fell, which is surprising given the torrid pace of home price appreciation in the home price indices like Case-Shiller and the jump in existing home sales prices according to NAR. It appears that more sales at the lower price points was behind the drop. Luxury sales have been more or less flat for the past year. Eventually tax reform is going to have an effect on the top end of the market, as luxury real estate is simply more expensive due to the changes in mortgage interest and the fact that most of the $1MM+ inventory is in high tax states. We will get more of a read on new homes this week as Lennar and KB both report earnings.

Fears of rising interest rates have clearly had no negative effects on new home sales. Given the acute housing shortage and the fact that rates are still very low historically, this isn’t really a surprise.

new home sales

The Trump Administration announced a plan to reorganize many governmental agencies. The biggest one would merge the Department of Labor and the Department of Education into one agency. On the housing side, USDA loans would be moved from USDA to HUD, which is where they probably belonged in the first place. VA loans will remain under the VA however. Community Development Block Grants would move to Commerce from HUD. The document discusses the need to reform the GSEs and lays out broad ideas, but nothing concrete.

Morning Report: Don’t fret the flattening yield curve

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2701.75 -8
Eurostoxx index 381.94 0.11
Oil (WTI) 69.26 0.79
10 Year Government Bond Yield 2.90%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.44%

Stocks are lower as commodities surge. Bonds and MBS are down.

The US imposed sanctions on Russia’s Rusal, which has sent aluminum prices up 30% and nickel to 3 year highs. This has the potential to spill through to finished products and bump up inflation. As a general rule, commodity push inflation generally isn’t persistent. An old saw in the commodity markets: the cure for high prices is… high prices.

Initial Jobless Claims ticked up to 232,000 last week, still well below historical numbers.

Investors are starting to worry about the inverted yield curve. An inverted yield curve (where short term rates are higher than long term rates) has historically signaled a recession. The spread between the 10 year and the 2 year is around 41 basis points, which is a 10 year low. Is that what the yield curve is telling us now? I would answer this way: the yield curve is so manipulated by central banks at the moment, that the information it is putting out should be taken with a boulder of salt. We are in uncharted territory, where long term rates are no longer set purely by market forces.

Also, take a look at the chart below, where I plotted the last 4 tightening cycles. In the last 2 cycles, the yield curve inverted, by a lot. In late 2000, the yield curve inverted by 100 basis points – that would be like the Fed taking the FF rate up to 4% while the 10 year hovers around here – at 3%. I would note that the mid 90s tightening cycle didn’t cause a recession, and the late 90s and mid 00s tightening cycles didn’t result in recessions immediately – it took years before the economy entered into a recession.

The question is whether the Fed caused these recessions. It is possible, and the Fed was probably the catalyst to burst the late 90s stock market bubble and the mid 00s real estate bubbles. But these were going to burst anyway. It doesn’t really matter what the catalyst is. This time around, we don’t really have a similar bubble – we may have pockets of overvaluation, but we don’t have bubbles that the typical American is invested heavily in. Not like stock or houses. I think the Fed is happy to gradually get off the zero bound and once we are at 3% on the Fed funds rate will be content to stop. I could see the 10 year going absolutely nowhere during that time.

tightening cycles

My take is this: take the shape of the yield curve as a very weak and distorted economic signal – the labor data will tell you what is really going on, and the labor data is signalling expansion, not recession.

Don’t forget that bond rates are set in a global market, and relative value trading between sovereign bonds will play a role. The US 2 year is at a multi-decade premium to the German 2 year, and in theory, that should mean that investors sell Bunds to buy Treasuries. The reason why that isn’t happening? The US dollar, which isn’t buying the Administration’s rhetoric.

Facebook wants to get into the semiconductor business. Really. First Zillow wants to get into the house flipping business and now this. I don’t understand why companies with great business models want to dilute them. Both companies have a competitive moat with a largely recession-proof business model. The semiconductor business is one of the most cutthroat, lousy businesses this side of refineries and airlines. Take a look at QCOM today.

The NAHB remodeling index dipped in March, driven by bad weather in the Northeast and the Midwest. With home affordability slipping due to higher interest rates and home prices, remodeling remains a good substitute for moving up.