Friday, February 15, 2019

Lipstick on a Pig: US Federal Government Debt

In this video podcast, I review the latest developments in the US federal government's budget and I explain why I disagree with the proponents of Modern Monetary Theory who claim that deficits and debt don't matter as long as the government borrows in its own currency and inflation remains subdued.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Bonds: Doing the Unexpected

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Last year, the 10-year US Treasury bond yield peaked at 3.24% on November 8 (Fig. 1). Last year, when the yield first rose above 3.00% on May 14, there was lots of chatter about how it was likely to rise to 4.00% and even 5.00%. Those forecasts were based on the widespread perception that Trump’s tax cuts would boost economic growth, inflation, and the federal deficits. In addition, the Fed had started to taper its balance sheet during October 2017, and was on track to pare its holdings of Treasuries and mortgage-related securities by $50 billion per month (Fig. 2). It was also widely expected that the Fed would hike the federal funds rate four times in 2018, which is what happened, and that the rate-hiking would continue in 2019 into 2020.

Furthermore, the Bond Vigilantes model, which correlates the bond yield with the y/y growth in nominal GDP, was bearish because the latter rose to 5.5% during Q3 (Fig. 3). But instead of moving higher toward 5.50%, the bond yield fell back below 3.00% and was at 2.70% on Tuesday.

What gives? The Dow Vigilantes screamed “no mas” at the Fed during the last three months of 2018, allowing the Bond Vigilantes to take another siesta. The Fed got the message, and the word “gradual” was first replaced with the word “patient” to describe the pace of monetary normalization by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell on January 4. The two-year Treasury yield, which tends to reflect the market’s year-ahead forecast for the federal funds rate, dropped down to that rate (at 2.38%, the midpoint of the 2.25%-2.50% range) on January 3 (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5).

Last year, I surmised that the bond yield might be “tethered” to the near-zero yields for comparable Japanese government bonds in Japan and bunds in Germany (Fig. 6). I also argued that based on my 40 years’ experience in our business, I’ve never found that supply-vs-demand analysis helped much in forecasting bond yields. It’s always been about actual inflation, expected inflation, and how the Fed was likely to respond to both. The most recent bond rally was mostly driven by a drop in the expected inflation rate embodied in the yield spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the comparable TIPS (Fig. 7). The spread dropped 30bps since October 9, 2018 through Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the yield curve remains awfully flat, with the yield spread between the 10-year bond and the federal funds rate at only 36bps (Fig. 8). This suggests that Powell & Co. may pause rate-hiking for as long as the yield curve spread remains this close to zero. If they raise rates, they risk inverting the yield curve. That might stir up the Dow Vigilantes again.

So do federal deficits matter to the bond market? Apparently not. It’s all about inflation. If deficits boost inflation, then they will matter, as I see it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Stocks: Something for Worriers

The S&P 500 is one of the 10 components of the Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI). The LEI stalled during the last three months of 2018—falling 0.3% in October, rising 0.2% in November, then falling again by 0.1% in December. The drop in stock prices accounted for much of that weakness. The rebound in the S&P 500 so far in January is a relief.

However, the selloff late last year and the partial government shutdown early this year depressed the expectations sub-index of the Consumer Optimism Index (COI) during January (Fig. 1). This is the average of the expectations components of the Consumer Sentiment Index (CSI) and the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI). That average is also one of the LEI indicators, and it has fully reversed the jump it took after Trump was elected president.

The good news is that the current conditions component of the COI remains at a cyclical high, edging down only slightly during January. That reflects the continued strength in the labor market. So does the 213,000 increase in ADP payrolls during January.

However, if you are a worrier, then you can certainly worry about the ratio of the current conditions and expectations components of the CCI, which tends to spike higher at the start of recessions, as it did this month (Fig. 2). It also tends to spike after a bear market has started (Fig. 3).

I expect that expectations will rebound along with stock prices, assuming that there isn’t another government shutdown in the offing. I also expect that an amicable resolution in the US-China trade talks will boost stock prices and consumer confidence.

Helping to boost sentiment for both stock investors and consumers is today’s decision by the FOMC to pause rate-hiking. Today’s FOMC statement didn’t include the 12/19 statement’s language that “further gradual increases” in interest rates were warranted. Instead, a more cautious approach was signaled: “In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures, the Committee will be patient as it determines what future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate may be appropriate to support these outcomes.”

In a separate statement released yesterday too, the FOMC also signaled a more flexible approach to QT, i.e., the paring of the Fed’s balance sheet: “The Committee is prepared to adjust any of the details for completing balance sheet normalization in light of economic and financial developments.”

At 2681, the S&P 500 is now up 14.0% from the 12/26 low of last year, and is only another 9.3% gain away from its 9/20 record high of 2930. My year-end target of 3100 is looking more achievable.