Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Who's afraid of 3%?

The all-important 10-yr Treasury yield rose above 3% today, and that naturally leads to all sorts of questions. Is it good, or is it threatening? Is the Fed too tight? Is inflation about to rise? Is the stock market at risk? I argue here that on balance it's a good thing, and the only ones who need to worry are those that are betting against the US economy.

Chart #1

Three years ago I predicted that we were in the early stages of a bond bear market, and Chart #1 is one validation of that claim: the multi-year downtrend in yields has been broken. To be honest, however, I was a bit early in my prediction. The bear market didn't start until 10-yr Treasury yields hit an all-time closing low of 1.36% in July '16. Today, 10-yr Treasury yields are trading with a 3-handle for the first time in almost seven years (with the exception of one day, Dec. 31, 2013, when yields reached briefly exceeded 3%). 

Chart #2

Chart #2 shows the history of 10-yr Treasury yields going back to 1925. The great bond bull market began when 10-yr yields hit an all-time high of almost 16% in September '81, and it lasted almost 35 years. Perhaps not coincidentally, my career as an economist began in early 1981 when I went to work for Claremont Economics Institute (CEI). That was just before CEI found itself in the limelight, the result of having produced the Reagan Administration's "rosy scenario" forecast that bond yields and inflation were going to plunge as the economy picked up speed. It took a few years before our forecast was vindicated, though none of us at the time would have predicted that bond yields would be falling for the next three and a half decades. What a ride!

Chart #3

Chart #4

As I see it, the first leg of the great bond bull market that has now ended was driven mainly by lower inflation, whereas the second leg was a function of slower real growth, coupled with fears that very slow growth would lead to very low inflation. Chart #3 shows how it took almost 20 years—from the early 1980s through the early 2000s—for 10-yr yields to close the gap between interest rates and inflation; as a result, real (ex-post) yields fell from very high levels to long-term average levels (1%-2%). As Chart #4 shows, the very low real yields of the past 7-8 years have tended to track the very slow real GDP growth of the current economic expansion. And very low real yields combined with low inflation expectations gave us very low nominal yields up until a few years ago.

Chart #5

Since 1997, when TIPS were first introduced, we have enjoyed daily, market-based measures of forward-looking inflation expectations, and that's better than comparing today's interest rates to last year's inflation. Chart #5 shows the history of nominal yields on 10-yr Treasuries, real yields on 10-yr TIPS, and the difference between the two, which is the market's expectation for what the CPI is going to average over the next 10 years. It's worth noting that the real yield on 10-yr TIPS today is just over 0.8%, whereas the ex-post real yield on 10-yr Treasuries (subtracting the year over year change in the core CPI) is also just over 0.8%. If anything, this suggests the market is confident that the future will be similar to the past, and that the Fed is on a sustainable path to raise short-term rates in line with improving economic fundamentals. 

Chart #6

If anyone should fear 10-yr Treasuries breaking through the 3% barrier, it's prospective homebuyers. Since 30-yr mortgage rates tend to trade about 1½ points above the yield on 10-yr Treasuries, the rise in 10-yr Treasury yields has produced a commensurate rise in mortgage rates, as Chart #6 shows. 30-yr fixed, conventional mortgage rates have been 4.5% or less for the past six years, but now they are moving higher. This is certainly bad news for homebuyers, but is it a bad thing for the economy?

Chart #7

To date, rising mortgage rates have yet to put a dent in the demand for new mortgages. In fact, as Chart #7 shows, new issuance of mortgages (for purchases, not refis) has risen significantly in recent years despite rising mortgage rates. This should not be surprising, actually, since it is rising demand for loans and a stronger economy which are bidding up the cost of borrowed money. The higher rates of the past year or two are not bad for growth because they are the natural result of stronger growth. Higher rates are only bad when they rise in real terms as a result of tighter monetary policy, but that's not the case today.

Chart #8

Chart #9

Chart #8 compares 2-yr US yields with 2-yr German yields. As Chart #9 shows, US yields have soared relative to their German counterparts, with the spread (blue line) now exceeding 300 bps. And it's not just nominal yields that have diverged: German real yields on 5-yr inflation-indexed bonds are -1.4%, far lower than today's 0.73% real yield on US 5-yr TIPS. Very low real yields in Europe are symptomatic of very weak growth fundamentals. That can be seen in the fact that the US stock market has vastly outperformed the Eurozone stock market since 2009, as shown in Chart #10.

Chart #10

Traditionally, as Chart #9 also shows, a wider spread between US and German yields has corresponded to a stronger dollar (shown here as a weaker Euro), because higher US rates usually reflect a stronger US economy. But since the beginning of the Trump presidency, this has not been the case: in fact, the dollar has weakened despite stronger US growth and higher US interest rates. It's mighty tempting to conclude that whereas Trump's policies have contributed to a strengthening of US economic fundamentals, global investors have steadfastly refused to join the party, perhaps because they can't stand Trump the man.

Chart #11

In similar fashion, as Chart #11 shows, since the beginning of 2017 gold prices have risen even as real yields have risen (and TIPS prices have fallen), contrary to the relationship that prevailed prior to 2017, when gold prices tended to track TIPS prices. The message here? The dollar seems awfully weak and gold seems awfully strong given strong US economic fundamentals. 

Dollar bears and gold bulls are the ones who really need to fear the advent of higher US interest rates. Arguably, they have misinterpreted rising US rates (and Trump) to mean bad news for the economy, when in fact they are good news. 

I'd wager that Larry Kudlow will be cheering the return of King Dollar before too long, and that would be a very good thing.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reading the yield curve's message

If you haven't already heard that an inverted Treasury yield curve is a good predictor of recessions, then either you haven't been reading this blog for long or you haven't been reading much in the financial press of late. (For background, see some earlier posts of mine on the subject here and here.) The subject has become the focus of attention in recent months because the yield curve has been flattening, which in turn has sparked concerns that the risk of recession is rising. These concerns are misplaced, as I explain below.

Chart #1

The top portion of Chart #1 is the standard way to display the status of the Treasury yield curve. It represents the difference between the two lines on the bottom portion: the difference or "spread" between 10-yr and 2-yr Treasury yields. The spread is effectively a measure of the slope of the yield curve, which indeed is relatively flat compared to where it was several years ago. But it's not flat nor is it inverted; it is still positively-sloped, and that means the market believes the Fed is justified in saying it plans to increase rates modestly over the next year or so. The relative flatness of the yield curve is not saying that the Fed is tightening too much or threatening growth, it's best characterized as the market's way of saying that economic growth expectations are neither exciting nor worrisome. I explain this a bit more below.

Chart #2

Chart #2 is another way of looking at the yield curve—a better way, since it gives us some important additional information. The red line in Chart #2 is similar to the blue line in Chart #1, but the blue line in Chart #2 is the important addition: it shows the real, inflation-adjusted Fed funds rate, which is the overnight rate that the Fed targets. The Fed these days has absolute control over the nominal funds rate, while the rest of the nominal yield curve is essentially a projection of what the market thinks the funds rate will average over time. Any yield curve analysis worth its salt should measure not only the slope of the Treasury curve, but also consider the level of the real Fed funds rate.

The Fed doesn't just target the funds rate. What it really targets—but rarely talks about—is the real funds rate. Borrowing money at 5% when inflation is 1% is one thing, but borrowing money at 5% when inflation is 10% is quite another (the former means borrowing is expensive, the latter means borrowing money is a good way to make money). Real borrowing costs are what truly affect behavior. When money is very expensive—when real borrowing costs are high—people are discouraged from borrowing and spending and are encouraged to save money; eventually, if real rates are forced too high, economic activity suffers. That's been the proximate cause of every one of the recessions in the past 60 years.

One thing that stands out in Chart #2 is that the real funds rate has been negative for the past decade. Doomsayers think this means the Fed has been flooding the world with money, and the sky will soon be falling. Monetarists reason that, since we have seen neither a collapse of the dollar nor soaring inflation over the past decade, this can only mean one thing: the demand for short-term financial assets has been incredibly strong for many years (another way of saying that the market has been very risk averse for most of the past decade), and, moreover, the Fed hasn't artificially depressed interest rates, nor has it flooded the market with money no one wanted. The Fed has kept rates low because the demand for money has been strong. See this post (The Fed is not "printing money") from five years ago for more background.

Chart #2 actually has two messages: 1) an inverted yield curve is a good leading indicator of a recession, and 2) very high real short-term interest rates are also a good leading indicator of a recession. When both those conditions hold, that's when you need to worry about a recession. Today we're not even close to having to worry. Despite the Fed having raised its target funds rate six times in the past 18 months (from 0.25% to today's 1.75%), the real funds rate is still in negative territory (-0.18% as of March 31 by my calculations), because inflation over the past year has been almost 2%. The Fed has raised its target for the real funds rate because the market has grown less risk-averse and economic growth expectations have improved somewhat. The Fed hasn't "tightened" in the sense that it is trying to slow things down. The Fed is just following the market.

Chart #3

Chart #3 is important because it gives us information about the slope of the real, inflation-adjusted yield curve. Real yields are just as important, if not more so, than nominal yields. The blue line, the real funds rate, is ground zero for the real yield curve, while the red line, the real yield on 5-yr TIPS, is the market's estimate for what the real Fed funds rate will average over the next 5 years. Today, the front end of the real yield curve is positively sloped (i.e., the spread between the two lines is positive), and it has actually been steepening since last summer. The message: the market agrees with the Fed that short-term interest rates, in real terms, will need to rise in coming years. Not by a whole lot, but by enough to rule out the notion that the market and/or the Fed are nervous about the health of the economy. The time to worry is when the real yield curve becomes negatively-sloped, as happened before each of the past two recessions (i.e., when the blue line exceeds the red line, because that means the Fed has tightened too much).

Another reason the Fed needs to raise real rates is to boost the attractiveness of the $2 trillion of excess bank reserves held by the banking system. Failing to do so would decrease banks' desire to hold excess reserves, and that in turn would lead to excessive lending, too much money, a weaker dollar, and rising inflation.

Chart #4

Chart #5

Chart #4 uses real and nominal 5-yr yields to give us information about the market's inflation expectations. Despite the Fed having kept real short rates negative for 10 years, inflation expectations today are no different from what they have been in the past. As Chart #5 shows, the CPI ex-energy has been on a 2% growth path for the past 15 years, and inflation expectations today, based on 5-yr TIPS and Treasury yields, are about 2.1%. That is effectively proof that the Fed has not been printing money or distorting markets. In monetarist parlance, the Fed has managed to keep the supply of money pretty much in line with the demand for money, though not completely, because inflation has averaged about 1.6% per year for the past 10 years.

Chart #6

Chart #6 shows that real yields on TIPS also provide us with information about the market's GDP growth expectations. The level of real yields tends to track the level of real growth, and that is not surprising at all. A stronger economy implies higher real returns, and real yields should therefore rise in a faster-growing economy. Conversely, as economic growth weakens, as it did following 2000, real yields should fall. Currently, real yields of about 0.5% on 5-yr TIPS tell us that the market expects the economy is likely to grow about 2-2.5% per year, according to my reading of the bond market tea leaves.

If last year's tax reform results in a significant increase in economic growth, as I expect it will, then the Fed is going to have to guide real yields significantly higher as well. And that of course means significantly higher nominal yields, assuming inflation expectations remain "contained."

But for the time being, today's yield curve holds no threatening messages for the economy, and I think the market intuitively understands this.

What's worrisome today is not the yield curve, but the threat of a possible trade war with China and the ongoing tensions in the Middle East. The volatility that we are seeing is the result of the turbulence one would expect when headwinds (trade war risk, Middle East tensions) collide with tailwinds (last year's tax reform). For now, the market's judgment is that the two opposing forces effectively neutralize each other, with the result that growth is expected to be unimpressive, while inflation is expected to remain in the neighborhood of 2%.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Despite a weak March, jobs growth still improving

The March private sector employment report was a big miss on the downside (102K vs. 188K), but the trend rate of growth in private sector jobs continues to improve. The monthly jobs numbers are notoriously volatile and subject to significant revision after the fact, so one month's number cannot possibly be significant. For years I've focused on the 6- and 12-month rate of growth in private sector jobs, and by those measures conditions in the labor market continue to improve, after hitting a low last September. Here are the relevant charts:

Chart #1

Chart #2

Charts #1 shows the nominal monthly change in private sector jobs, while Chart #2 shows the 6- and 12-month rate of growth of private sector jobs. Big swings such as we have seen in recent months are pretty much the norm, so any attempt to characterize the underlying dynamics of the jobs market must rely on at least several months. Over the last six months, private sector jobs have increased on average by 213K, which translates into a 2.0% annualized rate of growth. Over the past 12 months, private sector jobs have increased on average by 187K, for a 1.8% rate of growth. This represents a significant improvement since the low point in September of last year, when private sector jobs rose at a 1.6% rate over the previous 6 and 12 months. We're making progress, albeit slowly.

Chart #3

Another bright spot is the recent pickup in the year over year growth of the labor force (the number of people of working age who are employed or looking for work). This hit a low of 0.4% last October and now stands at 1%, which is close to its average in recent decades. Background: over the long haul, the labor force tends to grow by about 1% per year, and productivity tends to average about 2%: the combination of the two, 3%, gives you the long-range average rate of growth of the economy. The current recovery, the weakest on record, has seen annualized growth rate in the labor force of just 0.5% and annualized productivity growth of only 1.0%.

Chart #4

Chart #4 shows the size of the labor force, which for many years increased by a little over 1% per year. If that growth trend had persisted, there would have been another 12 million or so either working or looking for work, and the unemployment rate—currently 4.1%—would currently be a lot higher.

Chart #5

The Labor Force Participation Rate has been steady—and quite low—for the past several years, but with a hint of improvement. (This is the labor force—those working and looking for work—divided by the working age population.) This rate is going to have to increase in coming years if the economy is to grow by more than 3%. Which means that a good portion of the 12 million or so that have "dropped out" of the labor force are going to have to decide to get back in the game. There are hints that this improvement has begun, but progress is still slow. What will entice millions of folks to get off the sidelines and back to work? Better-paying jobs. Where will the extra money to pay higher salaries come from? From increased corporate profits, which are baked in the cake thanks to the recent tax reform, and which will increase the nation's capital stock as corporate investment improves. With more capital deployed in the economy, labor will become relatively scarce and thus more valuable—and better-paid.

Chart #6 

Chart #6 is another bright spot, since it shows that there has been zero change in the level of public sector employment since the end of 2007. (Note that the y-axis for both series shows a similar scale increase, namely 20%.) This means the relative size of the public sector workforce has shrunk by almost 10% over the past decade. That is a very good thing, since the private sector is much more productive.