stefan_isaacs_100

Ten reasons to like US high yield today

Global growth concerns, fears of a less accommodative Fed, and limited high yield market liquidity coupled with complacent and crowded investor positioning has served to reprice the US high yield market over the past few months. Following on from the worst quarterly performance in Q3 2014 for some three years, the US high yield market arguably now offers a significantly more attractive entry point. Whilst acknowledging that the market has moved faster over the past few days than I was able to write this blog, here are ten reasons why US high yield could be considered a buy at these levels:

  1. Spreads have moved back to levels not witnessed since October 2013. In June this year, spreads had only been tighter for around 17% of the time (since our data began in the mid-1990s). The recent correction left this number peaking at around 40%.
    US high yield spreads have moved back to 2013 levels
  2. The yield on the BofA Merrill Lynch US High Yield Index recently reached 6.4%, having traded as low as 4.85% in June, and is currently around 6%, a level likely to appeal to institutional buyers.
  3. Whilst the absolute level of yields may look low by historic standards, valuations relative to cash and government bonds still look compelling.
    US high yield looks attractive versus cash
  4. Given the relatively high level of income the asset class generates, and a benign outlook for defaults, the asset class can suffer considerable spread widening before underperforming cash and government bonds. Assuming a 2% default rate and no change in government bond yields,  high yield spreads would need to widen by approximately 100bps from current levels to underperform a similar duration US Treasury bond. This would see spreads back at levels not witnessed since 2012.
  5. Other fixed income assets have significantly outperformed high yield so far this year. According to BofA Merrill Lynch indices, US Treasuries have returned 5.5% and investment grade corporates have returned 7.7% year-to-date, while US  high yield has gained 4.5%. As the chart below shows, BB rated bonds (the highest rated category of the high yield market) have cheapened up considerably vs BBB corporates.
    US BB rated credit has cheapened up versus BBBs
  6. Technicals are in a much better place than they were a few months ago, with the asset class having witnessed some $21 billion of outflows in 2014 (according to BofA Merrill Lynch). New issue supply has slowly abated and the market is becoming more discerning about taking risk.
  7. US high yield company fundamentals, although having worsened slightly over the past couple of years, still look in reasonable shape, with leverage and interest cover both at 3.9x at an index level.
  8. The backdrop for defaults remains benign. Re-financing risk is one of the major obstacles for leveraged companies, but this risk appears limited over the next couple of years as many companies have taken advantage of abundant liquidity to term out their debt, as illustrated in the chart below.
    Refinancing does not pose a near-term threat
  9. When the Fed eventually raises rates, it is likely to err on the side of caution and tighten policy slowly. The carry trade is unlikely to come to an abrupt end in the near future.
  10. Tighter policy is likely to be accompanied by an improving economic backdrop. Whilst the corporate profit share of GDP is already relatively high, it is likely that this would be sustainable in a stronger economy.
richard_woolnough_100

US Jobless claims as a percentage of the labour force is now at multi-decade lows

I blogged last year about the state of the US labour market and given the recent release of September’s initial jobless claims data, this seems like a good time to revisit these ideas.

US Initial Jobless Claims is an unemployment indicator which tracks the number of people who have filed jobless claims for the first time, representing the flow of people receiving unemployment benefits.  The September headline figure of 288,000 is strikingly low and is the lowest reported month end figure since January 2006. Still, this understates the current strength of the labour market as when adjusting to take into account the working population, jobless claims as a percentage of the US labour force is now at multi-decade historical lows.

Initial jobless claims as % of working age population

Initial Jobless claims data has been taken on a monthly basis whereas the OECD US working age population data is annual. Therefore what is particularly important to note is that the latter figure for 2014 is not yet available and so the 2013 data has been extrapolated and kept stale since year end. As a result, the graph is more conservative than reality since 2014 population growth to date has not been incorporated. If it were, the fall in this indicator would be even more pronounced.

Traditionally monetary policy has worked with the Fed tightening as the economy picks up steam and jobless claims fall. What is remarkable today is that the Fed hasn’t even begun to tighten interest rates. In the past, the Fed would have already ended the tightening cycle by the time jobless claims fell to the levels we see today.

Unemployment and Fed Policy

Time and again the Fed has stressed that rate decisions will be data dependent and on Tuesday and Wednesday next week the FOMC are due to decide on whether or not it ends its QE program. Given the above, it seems that the US economy is continuing its healthy response to the stimulus provided and momentum in the US labour force is gathering pace in a positive direction. With more people working and fewer claiming unemployment benefits, the downward trajectory of this indicator – as well as other labour market indicators – surely helps to paint a positive macro picture. However, the risk-off wobble in markets last week has left many questioning whether the volatility experienced will have any bearing on the QE decision. Considering however that the trigger was the underperformance of US Retails Sales data, it can perhaps be argued that this is a typically volatile number in itself and the data release therefore triggered an overreaction in bond markets (exacerbated by capitulations, technical trading level breaches etc).

If the FOMC is in agreement that the market response was overdone, one should expect their decision to be based on the fundamentals and the picture of an overall improving economy. If true to their rhetoric, markets should expect to see an end to asset purchases, right on schedule.

Wolfgang Bauer

Drifting apart: The decoupling of USD and EUR credit spreads

The decoupling of European and U.S. yields has been one of the key bond market themes in 2014 and therefore a much-discussed topic in our blog and elsewhere. Over the past two and a half months, however, a second type of transatlantic decoupling has emerged, this time with regards to credit spreads.

Let’s first have a look at the relative year-to-date (YTD) performance of USD and EUR investment grade (IG) credit. Both data series in the chart below were rebased, i.e., set to a common starting value of 100. With some minor exceptions, spread levels of both indices have been tending downwards fairly consistently over the year until late July. From this point onwards, a decoupling has been taking place. Whereas EUR IG asset swap (ASW) spreads have further tightened, USD IG ASW spreads have significantly widened.

EUR vs. USD IG Credit Spreads

Considering the divergent economic momentum over the past months, this development seems at first glance somewhat counterintuitive. The economic recovery in the U.S has been notable with 2.6% real GDP growth (Q2 2014, yoy) and a remarkable decline in unemployment rate from 10% (Oct. 2009) to 5.9% (Sep. 2014). In contrast, the Eurozone’s economy has been fairly stagnant with an anaemic real GDP growth of 0.7% (Q2 2014, yoy) and a persistently high unemployment rate of 11.5% (Aug. 2014). Against this backdrop, one might expect that U.S. corporations are in a much better position in terms of growth and profitability prospects than their European competitors, and should therefore be in general less risky bond issuers. Investors should in turn demand higher risk premiums for EUR IG credit. Therefore, USD spreads should have tightened relative to EUR spreads. So why is it exactly the other way round? Why have EUR IG spreads outperformed USD IG spreads over the past two and a half months?

First of all, from a methodological point of view, one could argue that European bond issuers suffering severely from the economic malaise have probably been downgraded into high yield territory by now, and thus cannot adversely affect IG index credit spreads. Apart from this technical side note, three reasons come to mind:

  1. Different central bank policies, adjusted in response to the deepening economic divergence between the U.S and the Eurozone, and their effects on refinancing costs must be taken into consideration. The Federal Reserve is about to exit Quantitative Easing (QE) and is widely expected to hike rates next year, whereas the European Central Bank (ECB) is currently in the process expanding its balance sheet and will most likely keep interest rates close to the zero bound for the foreseeable future. Going forward, U.S. companies might face higher refinancing costs relative to their European peers. To put it the other way round, an increasingly accommodative ECB is likely to keep refinancing for EUR issuers easy and thus keep corporate default rates at ultra-low levels. Therefore, EUR IG credit spreads are permanently suppressed.
  2. Central bank intervention has a strong effect on liquidity in corporate bond markets, too. When a central bank engages into QE, which the ECB is currently doing one way or another, investors are to a certain degree crowded out of (nearly) risk-free assets and forced into riskier assets, such as corporate bonds. More investors rushing into corporate bond markets increase trading activity and thus liquidity there. Therefore, the illiquidity premium embedded in credit spreads should drop. In contrast, if a central bank, like the Fed now, winds down QE, corporate bond liquidity is expected to fall and thus higher illiquidity premiums trigger credit spread widening.
  3. Another argument addresses supply side effects. According to Morgan Stanley Research, global EUR IG bond net issuance has been significantly lower than global USD IG net issuance since August (EUR 21.8 bn vs. USD 135.7 bn, respectively). On a YTD basis, EUR IG credit has in fact been in net redemption territory (maturities exceeding new issuance!) of EUR 2.3 bn, compared to a strong USD IG net issuance of USD 490.3 bn. Hence, EUR IG credit has been in short supply, effectively adding a scarcity premium to EUR bond prices, which in turn has caused spread compression.

Now let’s add some more granularity by decomposing the overall index credit spread levels into individual sector spreads. The chart below shows YTD ranges of ASW spreads for USD IG corporate bond sectors (ML Level 3). All bars are subdivided into four sections, which we refer to in the following as quartiles, each of which containing 25% of the YTD spread readings. Dots and diamonds mark current sector spreads (14 Oct.) and spread levels at the start of the decoupling (24 Jul.), respectively.

Sector Breakdown of USD IG Credit

It is striking that over the past two and a half months all USD IG sector spreads have widened. In the vast majority of cases, spread levels have risen from 1st quartile values near the bottom end of the YTD ranges right into 3rd or even 4th quartile positions. The spread widening has been particularly pronounced for sectors which have recently experienced an elevated level of event risk in the form of actual or rumoured M&A activity (namely healthcare, energy and telecommunications). This leads to another important point: It becomes more and more clear that the U.S. economy has entered a new phase of the business cycle, whereas Europe is still well behind the curve. American companies are increasingly taking on balance sheet risk, for example in the form of M&A, to pursue growth opportunities. Consequently, fixed income investors demand a spread premium for USD IG credit to be adequately compensated for this additional risk exposure.

In terms of EUR IG credit, the picture is more nuanced. Credit spreads of certain sectors have widened (e.g., retail, leisure and insurance) while others have tightened (e.g., healthcare, financial services and telecommunications). This pattern, or rather the absence of a clear pattern, suggests that there are sector-specific factors overlaying the more general reasons listed above. Let’s focus on financials, for example. Banking and financial services credit spreads have substantially tightened and are currently deep in the first quartile of their YTD ranges. This is in very good agreement with a supportive ECB and reduced refinancing costs, which are a particularly important concern for financial bond issuers. In contrast, the already high insurance credit spread has widened into the 4th quartile. One explanation for this contrarian behaviour would be that lingering uncertainties around the approaching implementation of the Solvency II Directive, which selectively affect the European insurance companies, simply eclipse favourable central bank policies and supply side dynamics.

Sector Breakdown of EUR IG Credit

So what are the implications of spread decoupling on the relative attractiveness of USD vs. EUR IG credit? Well, the situation resembles the old Treasuries vs. Bunds debate; it ultimately comes down to the question whether one considers the current decoupling trend sustainable or not. If one genuinely believes that the divergence in terms of economic recovery, central bank policy and credit supply continues to progress, the case in favour of EUR IG credit could easily be made. The prospect of further EUR IG spread tightening, and hence capital appreciation, would outweigh lower spread and yield levels. We have in general preferred USD IG credit for quite a while now, precisely because of the higher average spreads compared to EUR IG credit, even when taking the cross-currency basis into account. Although the decoupling has certainly not worked in our favour in recent times, it has simultaneously strengthened the relative value argument. We are now obtaining an even bigger spread pick-up when investing in USD vs. EUR IG bonds than two and a half months ago. The currently low absolute level of EUR IG spreads makes the upside potential appear rather limited going forward. Finally, the global nature of corporate bond markets is likely to prevent an ever-increasing decoupling. If EUR IG spreads continue to fall relative to USD IG spreads, companies worldwide would try to minimise their borrowing costs by issuing EUR instead of USD denominated bonds. This trend would reverse current supply side imbalances and thus counteract the decoupling.

matt_russell_100

It’s the taking part that counts: why Europe’s labour market might be stronger than we’d thought

We saw further evidence of the strengthening US labour market on Friday. In September, 248,000 new jobs were added and the unemployment rate fell below 6% for the first time in six years. Headline unemployment rates in Europe, by contrast, have been more dismal, with the latest numbers coming in at 11.5% across the Eurozone for August.

Less encouraging for the US was the participation rate falling to its lowest level since 1978. The participation rate measures the number of people either employed or actively looking for work as a share of the working-age population. One really has to look at both the unemployment and the participation rates together as they give a fuller feel of what’s going on. Take this, admittedly, extreme example: an economy could look like it has full employment (zero unemployment), but if its participation rate is zero, no one is actually working.

The falling US participation rate has been widely discussed as it is one of the measures that Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, has consistently pointed to when answering questions on the strength of the US economy. It may be happening for a whole host of reasons, including discouraged workers giving up their job search, some opting for early retirement, or others choosing to stay in – or return to – some form of education. Participation rates in Europe however have had less airtime, so I am grateful to Erik Nielsen of Unicredit for highlighting the situation there.

So, in Europe, while unemployment numbers make for pretty sober reading, the participation rate itself has been on a generally upward trajectory. This is true for both core and peripheral Europe (see chart), so it’s not just a case of German data masking lacklustre numbers elsewhere. Again, the reasons for this are diverse, but may include a greater proportion of women joining the labour force in recent years, and an increase in the pension age in some countries.

Slide1

To assess the true situation in various countries and the relative progress each has made, we have held their participation rates constant at their 2000 levels and plotted how the subsequent unemployment data would have looked if the number of people in the workforce had remained at the same levels as at the turn of the century.

As the charts below show, the results are illuminating. Headline unemployment in Italy was running at 12.5% at the end of 2013 (the latest reading available), but once the 2000 participation rate is applied this falls to 8.7%, a fall of some 3.8 percentage points. The same is true for Spain, where the difference is a mighty 13.3%. In the US (where we have more recent data) , in sharp contrast, the current headline level of 5.9% unemployment actually rises to 12.5% when the 2000 participation rate is applied.

Slide2

Slide3

Slide4

I was rather surprised to see the extent of this divergence and that the US is actually in a worse position relative to where it was in 1999 than peripheral Europe. I remain unconvinced as to whether the Eurozone is entering a period of stronger growth or whether its economy will actually come to resemble that of Japan. But these charts definitely move me closer towards the former.

Ana_Gil_100

Are wages at the tipping point in the US labour market?

Five years into the US recovery, the labour market is quickly returning to full health. Hiring activity is picking up, employers have added a robust 1.3 million jobs over the past 6 months and the unemployment rate is rapidly approaching a level that could prompt the Fed to start thinking about raising interest rates.  All labour market indicators seem to have improved except for the one that workers should care most about: wages.

Indeed wage inflation has been the key missing piece of the recovery puzzle, and the lack of it appears somehow contradictory in the context of a rapidly improving economy. A valid reason could be that wages are widely known to be a pro-cyclical lagging indicator. An alternative, as Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen recently pointed out, is that wages didn’t quite adjust enough during the deep recession and will only rise once employers catch up for the “overpayments”.

As the US economic recovery marches on and corporates continue strengthening, the labour market could soon see wage growth begin to accelerate. Economic history has always been a great place to search for clues to future economic performance with the added benefit of hindsight. A look into 30 years’ worth of US labour market data reveals an interesting relationship between headline unemployment and wages, measured by hourly earnings of all employees on private nonfarm payrolls. As is shown in the chart below, wages seem to have historically accelerated whenever the US unemployment rate has touched, or come close to, a 6% level. History may not repeat itself, but it could well rhyme.

Wages seem to have historically accelerated as the unemployment rate has approached a 6% level

With unemployment sinking to 6.1% and nominal wages heading upwards, the US economy could be approaching full employment faster than the Fed may think. What unemployment rate is consistent with full employment is a subject very much open to debate. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) estimates the current non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment(NAIRU i.e. the level unemployment can fall to without causing capacity problems and demand pull inflation) to be at around 5.4% with concerns around labour underutilisation, but rising wages would suggest it is higher.

A further sign of emerging wage pressure can be found in the forward-looking National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) compensation plans index, which is best known for anticipating wage increases to small businesses over the next 12 months. This index seems particularly relevant given SMEs (i.e. those with fewer than 500 employees) are the true backbone of the American economy– responsible for creating two out of three net new jobs. The chart below shows the NFIB index has been gaining momentum over the past year and is now at levels last seen prior to the recession.

Uptrend in companies planning to raise compensation

The most recent Job Openings and Labour Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report conducted by the Labour Department shows job vacancies have risen back to pre-crisis levels as a high percentage of employers are having trouble finding skilled workers. To attract the needed candidates, employers are having to raise compensation. Interestingly, comparing the NFIB index with lagged earnings data reveals a strong correlation over time. With the number of firms expecting to raise compensation on a strong upward trend, wages are likely to follow through.

As the labour market continues to tighten, it will not be surprising to see further wage growth build up. Most wage measures (including the widely followed Employment Cost Index and Unit labour costs) are on a clear uptrend today which is likely to continue unless economic growth slows or we were to see a sudden leap in productivity. Back in 1994, when the Fed had just started a series of aggressive rate hikes, US wage growth was only 2.4% YoY. Today, wage growth is 2.5%. Yet, Fed speakers have argued some slack remains in the labour market, hence the need to maintain a very patient policy stance – but could the prospect of rising wages in an economy rapidly approaching full employment be the tipping point that prompts the Fed to change rhetoric?

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Video – Some thoughts on U.S. credit from our American research trip

A few of the M&G bond team recently visited New York and Chicago on a research trip. We put together a short video to share some of our thoughts regarding US credit markets. A particular focus is the U.S. high yield market where we highlight some sector themes. We also consider the potential impact on U.S. credit spreads when the Fed starts to raise interest rates.


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matt_russell_100

The power of duration: a contemporary example

In last year’s Panoramic: The Power of Duration, I used the experience of the US bond market in 1994 to examine the impact that duration can have in a time of sharply rising yields. By way of a quick refresher: in 1994, an improving economy spurred the Fed to increase interest rates multiple times, leading to a period that came to be known as the great bond massacre.

I frequently use this example to demonstrate the importance of managing interest rate risk in fixed income markets today. In an investment grade corporate bond fund with no currency positions, yield movements (and hence the fund’s duration) will overshadow moves in credit spreads. In other words you can be the best stock picker in the world but if you get your duration call wrong, all that good work will be undone.

We now have a contemporary example of the effects of higher yields on different fixed income asset classes. In May last year Ben Bernanke, then Chairman of the Fed, gave a speech in which he mentioned that the Bank’s Board of Governors may begin to think about reducing the level of assets it was purchasing each month through its QE programme. From this point until the end of 2013, 10 year US Treasuries and 10 year gilts both sold off by around 100bps.

US UK and German 10 year yields

How did this 1% rise in yields affect fixed income investments? Well, as the chart below shows, it really depended on the inherent duration of each asset class. Using indices as a proxy for the various asset classes, we can see that those with higher durations (represented by the orange bars) performed poorly relative to their short duration corporate counterparts, which actually delivered a positive return (represented by the green bars).

The importance of duration

While this is true for both the US dollar and sterling markets, longer dated European indices didn’t perform as poorly over the period. There’s a simple reason for this – bunds have been decoupling from gilts and Treasuries, due to the increasing likelihood that the eurozone may be looking at its own form of monetary stimulus in the months to come.  As a result, the yield on the 10-year bund rose by only 0.5% in the second half of 2013.

Whatever your view on if, when, and how sharply monetary policy will be tightened, fixed income investors should always be mindful of their exposure to duration at both a bond and fund level.

Wolfgang Bauer

Seeking relative value in USD, EUR and GBP corporate bonds

In terms of investment grade credit, it has been a common theme for global fixed income investors to think of EUR denominated credit as relatively expensive versus USD credit. Conversely, many see GBP corporate bonds as relatively cheap. But can it really be as simple and clear-cut as this? To answer this question, I have compared monthly asset swap (ASW) spreads of IG credit, issued in these three currencies, both on an absolute spread and a relative spread differential (EUR vs. USD and GBP vs. USD) basis.

At first, I looked at the three BoAML corporate master indices for publicly issued IG debt, denominated in USD, EUR and GBP. As shown below, until the onset of the financial crisis in the middle of 2007, USD IG credit was trading at spread levels of around 50 bps, which is almost exactly in line with GBP and on average only 15 bps wider than EUR IG credit. During the financial crisis, USD spreads widened more dramatically than EUR and GBP spreads. At peak levels in November 2008, when USD spreads reached 485 bps, EUR and GBP credit spreads were significantly tighter (by 215 bps and 123 bps, respectively). Subsequently, GBP IG spreads surpassed USD spreads again in May 2009 and have been wider ever since.

Slide1

In contrast, EUR IG credit spreads have been consistently tighter than USD spreads. Even at the height of the Eurozone crisis in late 2011, the EUR vs. USD credit spread differential was negative, if only marginally. Over the past three years, USD IG credit has been trading on average at a spread level of 166 bps, i.e., nearly 30 bps wider than EUR IG credit (137 bps average spread) and c. 50 bps tighter than GBP IG credit (215 bps average spread). Hence, when only looking at an IG corporate master index level, it is justified to say that subsequent to the financial crisis EUR credit has been looking relatively expensive and GBP credit relatively cheap compared to USD credit.

Taking only headline master index spreads into consideration is an overly simplistic approach. A direct comparison between the USD, EUR and GBP corporate master indices is distorted by two main factors: index duration and credit rating composition. As shown below, there are substantial differences in terms of effective index duration between the three master indices. Over the past ten years, the effective duration of the USD master index has been on average 6.2, whereas the EUR and the GBP indices exhibited values of 4.4 and 7.3, respectively. Currently, index duration differentials account for -2.1 (EUR vs. USD) and 1.4 (GBP vs. USD).

Slide2

These significant deviations in duration, and thus sensitivity of bond prices towards changes in interest rate, render a like-for-like index comparison problematic. The same applies to differences in credit rating composition. Take, for example, the rating structures of the USD and the EUR master indices in March 2010. Whereas the USD index hardly contained any AAA (below 1%) and only c. 18% AA rated bonds, the EUR index comprised nearly 6% AAA and c. 26% AA bonds. In contrast, the ratio of BBB bonds was significantly higher in the USD index (almost 40%) than in the EUR index (c. 22%). The credit quality on that date was distinctly higher for the EUR index than for the USD index, and directly comparing both indices would therefore be a bit like comparing apples to… well, not necessarily oranges but maybe overripe apples, for lack of a more imaginative metaphor.

Duration and credit rating biases can be removed from the analysis – or at least materially reduced – by using bond indices with narrow maturity and credit rating bands. As an example, I plotted relative spread differentials (i.e., EUR vs. USD and GBP vs. USD) for the past 10 years, based on the respective BoAML 5-10 year BBB corporate indices. To add another layer of complexity, this time I did not use headline corporate index level spreads but differentiated between financials and industrials instead. As only relative spread differences are shown, positive values indicate relatively cheap credit versus USD credit and, conversely, negative values signal relatively expensive credit.

Slide3

Until October 2010, the graphs follow a very similar path, EUR and GBP credit spreads trade fairly in line with USD spreads up to the financial crisis, when USD spreads widen more strongly than both EUR and GBP spreads, pushing spread differentials temporarily into deeply negative territory (below -220 bps in the case of financials). Then things got more interesting as spread differentials seem to decouple to a certain extent from October 2010 onwards. At this level of granularity it becomes clear that it is an inaccurate generalisation to refer to EUR credit as expensive and GBP credit as cheap versus USD credit.

In terms of 5-10 year BBB credit, EUR financials have in fact been trading consistently wider than USD financials, although the spread difference has been falling considerably from its peak Eurozone crisis level of 201 bps in November 2011 to currently only 10 bps. EUR industrials have been looking more expensive than USD industrials since early 2007 (c. 35 bps tighter on average over the past 3 years). The trajectory of GBP financials spread differentials has been broadly following the EUR financials’ humped pattern since late 2010, rising steeply to a maximum value of 259 bps in May 2012 and subsequently falling to current values at around 115 bps. GBP industrials have been looking moderately cheap compared to USD industrials since late 2010 (c. 37 bps wider on average over the past 3 years), but the spread differential has recently vanished. Hence, regarding 5-10 year BBB credit, currently only GBP financials are looking cheap and EUR industrials expensive versus the respective USD credit categories, whereas GBP industrials and EUR financials are trading in-line with USD credit.

To sum things up, when comparing USD, EUR and GBP IG credit, headline spreads are merely broad-brush indicators. To get a greater understanding of true relative value, it is worth analysing more granular data subsets to understand the underlying dynamics and the evolution of relative credit spread differences.

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jim_leaviss_100

US Treasuries – are we nearly there yet? Maybe we are.

Before we get all beared up about tapering, it’s worth seeing how far we’ve come already, and what the end game should be. The sell-off in US Treasury bonds has already been severe. 10 year yields have risen from a low of 1.4% in July 2012 to nearly 3% today. Most street strategists have yields rising further in 2014, with the consensus 10 year forecast at 3.37% for a year’s time.

But as well as looking at the spot yield, we should see what the yield curve implies for future yields. The chart below shows the 10 year 10 year forward rate – in other words the expected 10 year UST yield in a decade’s time backed out mathematically by looking at long dated UST yields today. You can see that the implied 10 year yield is now over 4%, at 4.13%.

The other thing I have put on the chart is a shaded band representing the range of expectations within the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) for the longer run Federal Funds rate. You can find this range of expectations here on the third slide of the charts from yesterday’s FOMC minutes. Four members think that that the long run Fed Funds rate is as low as 3.5%, and two think it is as high as 4.25%. The median expectation is 4%.

The bond market expects 10 year USTs to yield 4.13% in a decade’s time

Now the 10 year bond yield is effectively the compounded sum of all short rates out to 10 years, plus or minus the term premium (which we will discuss in a minute). If the FOMC members are correct that 4% is the long run interest rate, then if the term premium is zero, the 10 year forward rate at 4.13% has already overshot where it needs to be, and we should be closing out our short duration positions in the US bond markets.

The term premium is important though (this blog from Simon Taylor is good at explaining what it is, and showing some estimates). The term premium is compensation for the uncertainty about the short rate forecast. Historically it has been positive, as you might expect, reflecting future inflation or downgrade risks. In recent years though it has been negligible, even negative – perhaps due to a non-price sensitive buyer in the market (the Fed through QE), but also perhaps due to deflation rather than inflation risk? It is likely however that the term premium rises at a turning points in rates – and also that if inflation ever made a sustained comeback, with central banks refusing to fight it, like in the pre-Volker years, the risk premium would rise strongly. We also know that markets tend to overshoot in both directions. Nevertheless, whilst it’s too soon to say that we’ve seen the highest yields of this cycle, as a value investor you could say that yields are moving towards fair value.

anthony_doyle_100

A Fed taper is on the table

The FOMC took markets and economists by surprise in September this year when the committee members decided to hold off from tapering and maintain its bond-buying programme at $85bn per month. Three months down the road and the consensus for the December meeting outcome is that the Fed will not reduce the pace of MBS or treasury purchases. Consensus has been wrong before; will it be wrong again tomorrow? We think it will be a closer call than many expect.

In our opinion, there are several good reasons for the Fed to taper very slowly. Firstly, inflation is a non-issue, below target and close to lows not seen for decades. Secondly, the 30 year mortgage rate has risen from 3.5% in May to around 4.5% today, impacting US housing affordability and already tightening policy for the Fed. Thirdly, there is continued concern that 2014 may bring a return of the political brinkmanship that characterised late September, with the US Treasury signalling that the debt limit will have to be raised by February or early March to avoid default. Ultimately, the Fed is nowhere near hiking the FOMC funds rate.

There is no doubt after the September decision that tapering is truly data dependent and in this sense, macro matters. Fortunately, Ben Bernanke has told us what economic variables he and the FOMC will be looking at a press conference in June. The Fed wants to see a broad based improvement in three economic variables – employment, growth and inflation – before reducing the scale of bond buying.

The table below shows that the data has improved across the board. Annualised GDP is stronger, the unemployment rate is lower and the CPI is only 1.2%. Other key leading economic indicators like the ISM and consumer confidence are higher while markets are in a remarkably similar place to where they were three months ago with the 10 year yield at 2.86%.

US macroeconomic indicators chart

After the surprise of September’s announcement, we believe that every FOMC meeting from here on out is “live” – that is, there is a good chance that the Fed may act to reduce its bond-buying programme in some way until it reaches balance sheet neutrality. A reduction in bond purchases is not a tightening of policy, we view it as a positive sign that policymakers believe that the US economy is finally healing after the destruction of the financial crisis. As I wrote in September, interest rate policy is set to remain very accommodative for a long time, even after balance sheet neutrality has been achieved.

Given the positive developments in the US economy over the past three months, the December FOMC announcement could announce a) a small reduction in bond buying and b) an adjustment of the unemployment rate threshold or a lower bound on inflation. Whatever the case, quantitative easing is getting closer to making its swansong.

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