Cumberland Advisors Market Commentary – The Bond Conundrum and How to Manage

The past couple of weeks have been breathtaking for bond investors and observers of the bond market. The yield on the 30-year Treasury bond is now at a record low – it dipped under 2% this week – and the 10-year Treasury is not far off its record low of 1.36% set in July 2016 – the yield now sits at 1.53%. With a little more than two weeks gone in August, we have seen the 10-year drop 47 basis points and the 30-year 53 basis points. This is more movement in two weeks than we sometimes see in six months.

 

There are many crosscurrents here. Most pundits are using the inversion of the yield curve as a forecast of a slowdown. But as we have noted in other pieces, economic slowdowns are far from synchronous with inversions. Growth continued for a year and a half after the yield curve inverted in 2006.

Looking at recent economic data, it’s pretty hard to find the slowdown:

– Retail sales advanced 0.7% month-over-month in July, versus an expectation of 0.3%.

– The Empire Manufacturing Index (New York survey of business conditions) advanced 4.8% versus an expectation of 2.0%.

– Core CPI is 2.2 % over the trailing 12-month level – right where it was at the end of December when the 10-year bond yield stood at 2.685% and the 30-year bond yield was 3.01%.

– The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones are still up double digits this year – even after this week’s turmoil.

– Second-quarter non-farm productivity is at 2.3% vs. a 1.4% expectation.

This does not look like an economy that is rolling over. Nor is it.

This is a bond market that has been buffeted by a number of factors that are not US-related.

Europe is mired in negative interest rates. The wisdom of having negative interest is strongly debated. One thing that is pretty clear to us is that negative rates have not helped the European banking system, and negative rates here do not help US banks, either – witness how poorly financials have done since the Federal Reserve changed its tune towards the end of last year.

The slowdown in China has pushed the yuan lower, and China’s growth rate has dropped. This has contributed to the rush into Treasuries. But we think there may be more playing out here, and it is symbolized by the protests in Hong Kong in recent weeks. Coming on top of the slowdown in Mainland China, the protests may herald the beginning of new freedom movements that the Chinese government will struggle to contend with.

How to manage bond assets
We continue to manage Cumberland total-return bond assets in a barbell method, accenting both shorter-term securities for liquidity and longer-term bonds to lock in yields, with what have been non-Treasury securities in the taxable world and longer tax-free bonds in munis. Indeed, with the fast rush down in Treasury yields, longer-dated munis, though at historical lows, offer value when you can get 3% higher grade in a world where long Treasuries are at 2%. We will take our chances with 160% yield ratios, knowing that defensiveness is built into the cheapness. The front end of the muni curve is VERY expensive relative to Treasuries, so even with a barbell and very low nominal yields, it’s been prudent to have exposure to the longer end of the market.The barbell strategy works less well when the Fed is at the end of a hiking cycle. We don’t believe the Fed is done yet: This is a pause in the Fed’s addressing the US economy. For all the change in talk from the Fed’s being on autopilot to now being data-dependent, the Fed has raised the fed funds target by 25 basis points in December and lowered it by 25 basis points last meeting; so from a fed funds target standpoint we are where we were last fall.

 

Equity markets are decently higher, and our economy continues to improve, yet the bond market has seen yields come down dramatically, in a manner that doesn’t square with US data but is more sympathetic towards the slower growth in Europe and China.

The trade war and concerns about slow growth notwithstanding, the US economy continues to do well. Our thoughts are that this race to the bottom in yields will slowly give way to a recognition that the US economy is on firm ground; the force of higher wages will push inflation higher; and the Fed will resume – albeit slowly – addressing the US economy. This is why Chairman Powell gave the markets a rate cut of only 25 bps last meeting though the markets were clamoring for 50.

Bond market yields here are high versus those in Europe, and that will keep a lid on things for a while. But the rush down has been overdone, in our opinion. My colleague David Kotok often likes to quote Herbert Stein, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Stein’s commonsense “law” was that “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” We feel that’s true with long bond yields. The ride down in yields has helped portfolios. But backups can hurt, which is why we continue to get more defensive at the margin. The barbell is still in place.

John R. Mousseau, CFA
President, Chief Executive Officer & Director of Fixed Income
Email | Bio


Links to other websites or electronic media controlled or offered by Third-Parties (non-affiliates of Cumberland Advisors) are provided only as a reference and courtesy to our users. Cumberland Advisors has no control over such websites, does not recommend or endorse any opinions, ideas, products, information, or content of such sites, and makes no warranties as to the accuracy, completeness, reliability or suitability of their content. Cumberland Advisors hereby disclaims liability for any information, materials, products or services posted or offered at any of the Third-Party websites. The Third-Party may have a privacy and/or security policy different from that of Cumberland Advisors. Therefore, please refer to the specific privacy and security policies of the Third-Party when accessing their websites.

Sign up for our FREE Cumberland Market Commentaries

Cumberland Advisors Market Commentaries offer insights and analysis on upcoming, important economic issues that potentially impact global financial markets. Our team shares their thinking on global economic developments, market news and other factors that often influence investment opportunities and strategies.




Total Return Taxable Fixed Income: 4Q 2018 Review

CA-Dan-Himelberger

After a poor start to the quarter, the Treasury market rebounded nicely over the month of December, providing positive performance across the Treasury curve as the equity market suffered from negative sentiment pertaining to geopolitical risk and concerns over the Fed’s path towards raising short-term interest rates. Political bickering over building “the wall” and threats of a government shutdown intensified the negativity, leaving equity investors bearish and running for safe-haven assets such as gold and Treasury securities.

The bearish outlook in the equity market created a nice opportunity in the fixed-income space, as a “flight to quality” sent yields across the Treasury curve lower. After the high on the 30-year Treasury, at 3.455%, on November 2, the yield dropped 49.5 basis points to 2.96% on December 20. The 30-year yield has since settled in around 3.04%. The drop in yield was even more pronounced for the 10-year Treasury, which dropped 51.8 basis points, from 3.238% to 2.72%, and has settled in around 2.78% currently. This December rally in the Treasury market has added a nice boost to the performance of the long end of our barbell strategy and is a testament as to why we continue to manage portfolios using this approach. Below is a graph of the Treasury actives curve, showing monthly dates within the fourth quarter of 2018.

Source: Bloomberg

Not all taxable fixed-income asset classes benefited from the flight to quality. One that suffered during the fourth quarter was the corporate bond market (both investment-grade and high-yield). Corporate bonds tend to be more correlated than other taxable fixed-income sectors to the equity market, and as negative sentiment grew, spreads widened, causing underperformance versus the other sectors. The Bloomberg Barclays US AGG Corporate OAS Index widened 45 basis points from +105 to +150. Allocating only a small portion of our assets to the corporate space helped our taxable fixed-income strategy, as taxable municipal spreads did not suffer widening to the extent that the corporate space did. The lower historical default rate and higher overall credit quality of the municipal space helped limit the spread widening in comparison with corporate issues.

At the December 19th FOMC meeting, the Fed raised the fed funds target rate 25 basis points to a target range of 2.25–2.50%. This marks the ninth hike in the cycle and puts the fed funds rate at the highest level since October 2008. The Summary of Economic Projections seen in the Fed’s “dot plot” provided a dovish surprise as the baseline for rate hikes in 2019 dropped from 3-1 in September to 2-1. The post-meeting statement continued to point out “strong” growth and job gains, with the inflation projection unchanged at near 2%. The upper-bound drop in rate hikes from three to two is in line with our projection for 2019. There is the risk that an inverted yield curve could threaten economic growth, and the Fed will need to be cautious and data-dependent in its approach to raising short-term interest rates in order to avoid putting too much pressure on the market.

As for Cumberland’s Taxable Total Return portfolios, we will continue to implement our barbell strategy and look to take advantage of opportunities on the long end of the yield curve when they are available. We are still in a rising-interest-rate environment, but we no longer expect the Fed to hike rates at the pace that it did in 2018. While we continue to navigate this rate environment, the story remains the same. Our goal is to remain defensive in our approach to investing while making our investment decisions conservatively and extending durations to pick up additional yield as opportunities in the market become available.

Daniel Himelberger
Portfolio Manager & Fixed Income Analyst
Email | Bio

Links to other websites or electronic media controlled or offered by Third-Parties (non-affiliates of Cumberland Advisors) are provided only as a reference and courtesy to our users. Cumberland Advisors has no control over such websites, does not recommend or endorse any opinions, ideas, products, information, or content of such sites, and makes no warranties as to the accuracy, completeness, reliability or suitability of their content. Cumberland Advisors hereby disclaims liability for any information, materials, products or services posted or offered at any of the Third-Party websites. The Third-Party may have a privacy and/or security policy different from that of Cumberland Advisors. Therefore, please refer to the specific privacy and security policies of the Third-Party when accessing their websites.

Sign up for our FREE Cumberland Market Commentaries

Cumberland Advisors Market Commentaries offer insights and analysis on upcoming, important economic issues that potentially impact global financial markets. Our team shares their thinking on global economic developments, market news and other factors that often influence investment opportunities and strategies.




The Tale of Two Ratios: Shorter and Longer

In a year when we have seen commentators talking about the relative flatness of yield curves, we have a conundrum when we look at the US Treasury yield curve and the US muni yield curve (shown here as the Bloomberg AA general obligation yield curve).

Market Commentary - John Mousseau

Curve 1 below is from the beginning of 2017. Curve 2 is from September 2017. Curve 3 is from September of this year.

Curve 1
Source: Bloomberg

Curve 1, at the beginning of 2017, shows a very cheap muni yield curve across the board. Muni yields were at or above Treasury levels at EVERY POINT ON THE YIELD CURVE. This reflected the entire uncertainty surrounding the presidential election. There were questions as to whether we would see a tax bill and how munis would be treated, fear of a big infrastructure bill (and uncertainty over how that would affect munis), what the president would do regarding a new Fed chair, and whether Fed policy would change. All in all, it was an extraordinarily cheap moment for muni bonds. The long end was particularly cheap, as the market had undergone a selloff in the wake of the Trump election, with extreme bond-fund selling.

Curve 2
Source: Bloomberg

Curve 2 is from September of 2017. What happened? Short-term muni yields dropped. The trend really started in the first quarter when then-Chair Janet Yellen made it clear that the Fed would continue on its path of raising short-term interest rates gradually (read: not at every meeting) but would need to keep raising rates to reflect an improving economy. Thus the shorter end of the market essentially began to go lower in yield to reflect the tax structure, and the ratio moves were dramatic for paper inside of five years. Longer munis continued to exhibit cheapness of yield relative to Treasuries. We believe this was related to market knowledge that there would be a change in the tax code coming with the tax bill and to the uncertainty as to how municipal bonds would be treated under that bill. The expectation was that municipal advance refundings (which allowed municipalities to defease older, higher-coupon bonds in advance of their call dates) would be eliminated. Bond markets also expected that private-activity bonds – issued by charter schools, private universities, state housing agencies, and airports among others – would be prohibited. In the end the tax bill eliminated advance refundings but allowed private-activity bonds. The cheapness in the long end of the muni market was due to the expectation that SUPPLY would bulge at year end to beat the tax code changes, and indeed that is what happened.

Curve 3
Source: Bloomberg

Curve 3 is from this September. Two observations jump out. The long end remains absurdly cheap. One factor is some erosion of the buying base. Banks have been smaller buyers of munis because of the lower corporate rate; and individual demand for long munis has been good, but bond funds have not recouped the outflow of funds that they saw in the wake of the 2016 election. The more dramatic move has been the continued drop in ratios inside of 10 years – in some cases to lower than the break-even rate if we assume an average marginal tax rate of 25%.

One of our thoughts is that investors are expecting a possible change in the makeup of Congress this fall and possibly a change in the White House in 2020 and a potential revision of the tax code again. The current individual rates expire in 2025. Therefore, investors are turning over muni portfolios faster and paying more for short-dated securities. They would therefore have money back faster if there if a tax law change in the wake of a switched Congressional majority.

However, we believe the longer end of the bond market remains an extremely good value. A 4% tax-free yield is the taxable equivalent of 6.35% if an investor is in the 37% top tax rate bracket. For states with high income taxes that are no longer deductible, a 4% in-state bond yield is worth even more. At the top state tax rate, a 4% New Jersey tax-free bond is worth 8.97% taxable equivalent; a 4% New York bond is worth 8.82% taxable equivalent; and a California 4% tax-free yield is worth 8.04% taxable equivalent. This is for AA or higher-rated securities. To position the 4% in-state bond correctly credit-wise, it compares to high-grade corporate and long, taxable municipal bonds at the 4.0–4.5% level or a BB junk bond long yield index of 6.5% (source: Bloomberg).  In general, the muni yield curve drifted up 20 basis points during the quarter, across from 2 years out to 30. This is in sympathy with the treasury yield curve, which also experienced slightly higher yield movements across the board.

Curve 3 also is a way to understand Cumberland’s current barbell approach to tax-free bond portfolio management. We want shorter-term securities turning over faster as the Fed raises short-term rates, but we want the longer end locked in because we believe the current cheap yield ratios will eventually go to 100% or below. This happened during the Fed’s hike cycle of 2004–2006, when long muni/Treasury yield ratios fell from 103% to 85%. Our approach should give long munis a great deal of defensive value if overall interest rates rise. It is this defensive quality that causes us to include some longer tax-free bonds in the management of taxable bond portfolios of clients such as pensions, foundations, and charitable trusts. The total-return characteristics of owning a tax-free bond at these levels is very compelling when the expectation is for lower yield ratios over time. Certainly it will take some time for the strategy to work out, as longer Treasury yields are somewhat anchored to the general low level of longer bond yields in the Eurozone countries.

As the Federal Reserve continues to raise short-term interest rates (and we believe they will continue to do so to get the fed funds rate decently above the level of core CPI [currently 2.2%]), we will eventually move some of the shorter end of the barbell out somewhat longer, some of the longer end (where most bonds are callable) to more noncallable structures, and some bonds to the “belly” of the yield curve (where we don’t want to be now but will certainly want to be if we get to a point where the economy slows).

John R. Mousseau, CFA
President and Chief Executive Officer, Director of Fixed Income
Email | Bio


Links to other websites or electronic media controlled or offered by Third-Parties (non-affiliates of Cumberland Advisors) are provided only as a reference and courtesy to our users. Cumberland Advisors has no control over such websites, does not recommend or endorse any opinions, ideas, products, information, or content of such sites, and makes no warranties as to the accuracy, completeness, reliability or suitability of their content. Cumberland Advisors hereby disclaims liability for any information, materials, products or services posted or offered at any of the Third-Party websites. The Third-Party may have a privacy and/or security policy different from that of Cumberland Advisors. Therefore, please refer to the specific privacy and security policies of the Third-Party when accessing their websites.

Sign up for our FREE Cumberland Market Commentaries

Cumberland Advisors Market Commentaries offer insights and analysis on upcoming, important economic issues that potentially impact global financial markets. Our team shares their thinking on global economic developments, market news and other factors that often influence investment opportunities and strategies.