Barron’s – Worried About a Bear Market? Bonds Pose More Danger Than Stocks.

Worried About a Bear Market? Bonds Pose More Danger Than Stocks.

Excerpt from Barron’s – Nov. 22, 2019
By Randall W. Forsyth

Cumberland Advisors John Mousseau

Andrew Bary contended that Treasury bonds are now riskier than stocks in this space a few months ago. Moreover, given their low yields, which don’t have much room to fall further, bonds are unlikely to provide as strong a hedge to stock-market declines as in past cycles, argues Adam Levine, investment director for pensions at Aberdeen Standard Investments.

That doesn’t mean there is no place for bonds to hedge a portfolio—only that the bonds used for this purpose should be municipals, which also could provide some protection against higher taxes should Elizabeth Warren become the next president. That’s the view of John R. Mousseau, president, CEO, and director of fixed income at Cumberland Advisors.

In addition to her proposal for the ultrarich to kick in “two cents” in a wealth tax, the Massachusetts senator has called for higher marginal income-tax rates. What the top rate, now 37%, would be depends as much on the makeup of Congress as on who wins the White House. But Mousseau expects that it would be higher than the 39.6% under President Barack Obama. He also notes that there’s already a 3.8% Medicare tax on investment income for families whose yearly modified adjusted gross income exceeds $250,000.

All of which would make the tax-exempt income from munis more valuable, and thus boost these bonds’ prices.

Read the full article with subscription (paywall) at: https://www.barrons.com/articles/worried-about-a-bear-market-bonds-pose-more-danger-than-stocks-51574441732


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G7 Government Bond Yields

A G7 Bond is a government bond issued by a member nation of the Group of Seven consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States or the United Kingdom. Bonds issued by G7 nations are seen as stable, low-risk investments.




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


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4Q2018 Review: Munis Turn It Around

Muni yields rose in the first six weeks of this quarter – mostly in sympathy with US Treasuries (UST). We saw the 10-year and 30-year Treasury bonds rise 20 and 25 basis points respectively. Since early November, AAA muni yields (AAA) have dropped across the board, and the 10-year Treasury yield has fallen a whopping 45 basis points in a matter of seven weeks.

 

The consternation and volatility in the stock market are the main reasons for yields doing a U-turn.

Some of the other themes affecting muni yields we discussed earlier this month:

(*) The housing market slowdown. Price gains have continued to slow for seven months in a row; and a number of Northeastern states and other previously “hot” markets have seen declines, especially at the higher end of the price range. This falloff is due to a combination of higher mortgage rates earlier this fall plus the specter of higher real estate taxes because of the lack of deductibility in the new tax bill.

(*) Concern about the rising level of debt and rising government debt service costs (see our piece “November Bond Market Bounce” from December 4thhttp://www.cumber.com/the-november-bond-market-bounce/).

(*) A general slowdown reflected by the price of oil. See graph below:

West Texas Crude per Barrel

(Source: Bloomberg)

 

The freefall in oil suggests that other prices may also be falling, so the combination of HIGHER yields earlier in November and stable-to-falling core CPI certainly made REAL yields seem much more attractive this fall.Now that yields have fallen, let’s survey the landscape.

37% Taxable Equivalent
(Source: Bloomberg)

The above graph shows the current muni AA curve and the Treasury yield curve. The curves demonstrate why we have used a barbell strategy, particularly on the tax-free side, where longer muni yields are CHEAPER than Treasuries yields. We believe those high yield ratios on the longer-maturity spectrum eventually go back to 100% or under – this outcome would be consistent with other Federal Reserve hiking cycles. For spread purposes we have also included a AA corporate bond yield curve and created a taxable-equivalent muni yield curve using the current top tax rate of 37%. This comparison demonstrates the advantage of munis over Treasuries for any level of taxpayer and the additional advantage of tax-free munis over corporates for high-tax payers, in the five-year tenor and beyond. The much lower default experience of munis versus corporates simply stretches this advantage.

The Federal Reserve last week raised the fed funds target yield range ¼% to 2.25%–2.5%.

The Fed also made mention of two possible increases next year and did so with less flexibility in the language, which helped to spook the equity market after the announcement last Wednesday. Our thoughts are that if core inflation remains where it has been, at 2.0–2.25%, and if there are more Fed hikes next year, the Fed will finally have gotten Fed funds to a positive spread over core inflation – where it has not been for 10 years. That would appear to be a good place for the Fed to pause. And as we get to that pause, we will begin to pick up the pace of moving very-low-duration assets out somewhat further on the yield curve to lock in rates, as shorter to intermediate rates most likely slowly work their way down.

Happy New Year to all our readers!

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.

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Yogi Berra, the Fed’s Balance Sheet, and Liquidity

The story is that the Fed’s quantitative easing program injected large amounts of liquidity into financial markets, causing bond rates to fall and stock prices to accelerate. Consequently, the argument goes that, the shrinking of the Fed’s balance sheet through maturity runoff will cause bond rates to increase and, presumably, stock prices to retreat. But what are the essential mechanics of Federal Reserve asset purchases, and how might they affect liquidity in the market?

Market Commentary - Cumberland Advisors - Yogi Berra, the Fed’s Balance Sheet, and Liquidity - The Fed’s Quantitative Easing Program

When the Federal Reserve began its quantitative easing program, it purchased Treasury obligations in the marketplace through the primary dealer facility and paid for those securities by writing up the reserve accounts of the sellers’ banks, simultaneously increasing the sellers’ bank deposits. Effectively, the Fed created money in the purchase transactions, but as far as the public’s asset position is concerned, the purchases substituted demand liabilities for Treasury obligations. The sellers received deposits; their banks’ reserves increased by the same amount; and the sellers’ Treasury holdings were reduced.

From the perspective of the consolidated government balance, Treasuries were removed from the public; and on-demand Fed liabilities were substituted in their place, bearing a lower interest cost than the Treasuries they replaced. One form of very liquid asset (Treasury securities) was replaced by another (reserve deposits at the Fed, with corresponding deposits held by the public in its bank). The Fed’s purchasing Treasuries bid up bond prices and put downward pressure on interest rates.

One of the main effects of QE was to redistribute the ownership both of Treasuries and of bank reserves and their associated deposits. We can’t quantify or identify the sellers of securities, but we do know that a large portion of the excess reserves associated with those purchases ended up with US affiliates and subsidiaries of foreign banks. Presumably sellers were institutional investors, hedge funds, and money market mutual funds but could also include individuals.

Foreign banks’ share of reserves peaked at about 50% in the fall of 2014 and is presently about 35%. Those excess reserves in US and foreign subsidiaries were potentially available to generate a large increase in bank loans and the money supply. A dollar of excess reserves would support an estimated $20 increase in credit and the money supply if it were converted to required reserves as part of the bank credit creation process. But this obviously didn’t happen. Indeed, the ratio of bank loans and leases to bank reserves in Oct 2008 was 26.0, whereas that same ratio as of October 31, 2018, was only 5.6; so bank credit did not expand nearly to the same degree that bank reserves expanded. Interestingly, despite the series of QE experiments, in September 2014 a dollar of reserves was associated with only 2.9 dollars of bank loans and leases right before the Fed stopped adding to its portfolio in October 2014.

In short, the degree of stimulus, as far as bank lending was concerned, was muted. In fairness, business investment demand for credit was not great. The NFIB (National Federation of Independent Businesses) reported in March 2014 that 53% of its respondents indicated no need for a loan. Only 2% reported that financing was a major problem; and only 30% reported borrowing on a regular basis, a near-record low. One of the reasons was pessimism about investment and expansion prospects. The report stated that “The small business sector remains in maintenance mode, no expansion beyond a few firm starts in response to regional population growth.”

In December 2016 the Fed began a series of 25 bp increases in its target rate for federal funds, and in October of 2017 it began the process of shrinking its balance sheet by letting assets mature and run off naturally. As of December 19, 2018, the Fed’s balance sheet stood at $4.084 trillion, down from its peak of $4.5 trillion on October 14, 2015. Critics have complained that the balance sheet shrinkage process has contributed to a liquidity shortage; but they have not defined exactly what the nature of liquidity problem is, who is or is not constrained, and how that constraint is manifested.

The size of the Fed’s balance sheet is determined by the outstanding reserve balances (both required and excess reserves), the volume of currency in circulation (which is of course the most liquid of assets), the volume of funds in the Treasury’s account with the Fed, the volume of reverse repo transactions outstanding, deposits in foreign official accounts, and of course capital. The only way the Fed’s balance sheet can shrink in size is if outstanding currency declines, bank loans shrink, Treasury or other official balances decline, or assets are allowed to mature, in which case the Fed’s liability to the Treasury declines, offsetting the maturing assets.

Several factors have actually put upward pressure on the size of the Fed’s balance sheet since October 2014, including an increase of $330 billion in Treasury balances, an increase of $314 billion in added currency outstanding, and an increase of $82 million in foreign official and other deposits. This increase was offset by a decline of $1.07 trillion in bank reserves.

How can we explain the drop in reserves if other factors seem to be pointing to an increase in the balance sheet? The source of Treasury balances is tax revenues that are deposited in Treasury tax and loan accounts at commercial banks. When the Treasury transfers funds from those accounts, the reserve accounts at the affected commercial banks are drawn down. So, in fact, the increase in the Fed’s liability to the Treasury is offset by a decrease in the reserves of the tax and loan account banks. Similarly, when bank customers withdraw funds in the form of currency, currency demand increases. That currency is obtained from the Fed in exchange for a reduction in banks’ reserve accounts. So again, rather than actually increasing the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, the composition of its liabilities is changed – currency outstanding is increased, and bank reserves are decreased. Of the $1.07 trillion decline in bank reserves, there was a corresponding increase in Federal Reserve liabilities to the Treasury and the increase in currency outstanding together accounted for $653 billion of the decline. The remainder is largely associated with the runoff and shrinkage of the Fed’s asset holdings.

It is important to note that when the Fed engages in what it calls reverse repo transactions, the securities sold remain on the Fed’s balance sheet. Bank reserves are temporarily reduced, but corresponding liabilities to banks under the account “reverse repurchase agreements” are increased. The composition of Fed liabilities changes but the volume does not. When the repo transaction is reversed, bank reserves go up and “reverse repurchase agreements” are reduced.

The bottom line is that the apparent decline in bank reserves, far in excess of the change in the decline of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, is offset by changes in the other factors absorbing reserve funds, which simply represent a reallocation of the ownership of Federal Reserve liabilities. In the case of the Treasury, it accumulates funds to spend on entitlements, purchases, salaries, etc., which when paid reduce Treasury balances but reappear as an offsetting increase in bank reserves when the funds are deposited with the banking system.

As for the notion that the Fed’s reducing its balance sheet holdings of Treasuries contributes to a so-called liquidity problem, again the mechanics are not clear, especially when we consider what has happened to Treasury debt issuance. To be sure, the Fed’s portfolio of Treasuries fell by $213 billion since the decision to let maturing issues run off, while MBS holdings declined by $132 billion. Treasury debt held by the public increased by $956 billion through the end of the third quarter of 2018 as the Fed’s portfolio began to run off. But the actual net issuance of Treasury debt is even greater than that because the Fed’s portfolio is treated from an accounting perspective as part of the public’s ownership of the debt. Since the Fed’s ownership declined by $213 billion, the Treasury securities owned by the public, not including the Fed, increased by $1.169 trillion. This issuance dwarfs the rundown in the Fed’s portfolio and its potential impacts on securities markets. The decrease in the Fed’s marginal demand for Treasuries is far offset by the increase in supply. That supply, depending upon the maturity structure of the Treasury’s refunding, puts downward pressure on rates across the Treasury curve relative to the impact that the FOMC’s rate increases have had on short-term rates. This issuance pattern probably is the major explanation for the overall upward shift in the yield curve that we have experienced since the Fed began letting its portfolio run off.

In the meanwhile, more liquid assets are now in the marketplace as a result of the increase in currency outstanding and the increased supply of outstanding Treasuries, and banks still have a huge volume of liquid reserves. Note that, like cash and bank reserves, Treasuries satisfy the banking regulatory agencies’ liquidity requirements, so it isn’t clear what the nature of the claimed liquidity problem is or who is experiencing problems.

Liquid assets are supposedly those that can be sold with little or no impact on their price. But we must be mindful that in order for an asset other than cash or deposits at the Fed to be liquid, there must be a buyer on the other side. If there is no buyer, then assets that were thought to be liquid suddenly are not. Indeed, the Fed in essence became the buyer-of-last-resort during the financial crisis. If Yogi Berra were asked to define liquidity, he might have said the following: “Liquidity is what you have when you don’t need it; but when you need it, you don’t have it.”

(1) The following discussion of asset purchases and sales omits much of the institutional detail and mechanics behind the transactions and focuses instead on the key results.

(2) We have noted before that the Treasury pays the Fed interest on its Treasury holdings, and the Fed pays interest on reserves out of those proceeds (as well as covering its other operating costs) and remits the remainder back to the Treasury. The effect is that the Treasury’s financing cost on the Fed’s Treasury portfolio is the cost of interest on reserves and not the interest payments on the Treasuries themselves.

(3) Foreigners and foreign institutions own about 50% of the outstanding debt held by the public.

(4) Author’s estimates

(5) Source: FRED FRB St Louis

(6) See http://www.nfib.com/Portals/0/PDF/sbet/sbet201403.pdf

(7) It is important to note that when the Fed engages in what it calls its reverse repo transactions, the securities sold remain on the Fed’s balance sheet, and bank reserves are temporarily reduced, but liabilities to banks under reverse repos are increased. The composition of Fed liabilities changes, but the volume does not. When the repo transaction is reversed, bank reserves go up.




Report from Leen’s Lodge

We start September with a cash reserve in our US equity ETF portfolios. Some details of our thinking follow.

We wish our readers a Happy Post-Labor Day return to confront the 9-week run-up to the midterms. Other risk items include a possible government shutdown (not likely, in our view) and the effects of the continuing trade war.

The US-EU truce persists. We expect a deal to get done with Canada. The interests of all sides are served if there is not further ratcheting up. Mexico is done but, Trump tweets notwithstanding, it is questionable whether much has been accomplished.

Nothing has been accomplished with China, either. The response in Asia to US moves on trade seems to be entirely opposite to that predicted by Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro. In our view, risk is rising for US interests in Asia.

Opinions on US-China outcomes varied at our 27-person Labor Day gathering at Leen’s Lodge. Forecasts were as varied as the political views of the participants, who ranged from hard-core Trump supporters to Sanders socialists. All discussions were civil.

Some bond folks await the mid-September change in the taxation of corporate payments to defined-benefit pension plans that are underfunded. Most folks at Leen’s believed the Treasury yield curve will steepen after this one-time flattening pressure subsides. We will learn more from the results of the October Treasury auctions.

We benefited from three days of extensive and detailed conversation about central banking, with two former practitioners present. The investment bankers and commercial bankers and deal-analysis folks chimed in. Add a few economists and some money managers, and things got lively.

The headcount of 27 was our largest Labor Day ever at Leen’s Lodge. The weather cooperated; the fish did, too. Leen’s new owners are upgrading the facility and have excellent hospitality skills.

On Monday our friend Chris Whalen of The Institutional Risk Analyst published his usual insightful piece on the economy and markets, but with a difference: This one originated at Leen’s Lodge and grew out of our intensive discussion of the Fed’s manipulation of the yield curve, which led us to the question, Is the United States really an AAA credit? We think you’ll appreciate Chris’s analysis, and we thank him for it. Here’s the link to his commentary: https://www.theinstitutionalriskanalyst.com/single-post/2018/09/03/View-from-the-Lake-Is-the-United-States-a-“AAA”-Credit

We will close with a link to a Bloomberg editorial about the Trump trade war. We remind readers that trade war effects are sequential shocks. They are nonlinear. There are no Z-scores.

Here is the link: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-06-19/trump-s-self-defeating-trade-war-with-china

David R. Kotok
Chairman and Chief Investment Officer
Email | Bio

_____________________________________________________________________

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Russia plans to sell more US debt in response to sanctions

Excerpt from CNN Wire article, Russia plans to sell more US debt in response to sanctions
CNN’s Emma Burrows and Judith Vonberg contributed to this report.

Cumberland-Advisors-David-Kotok-In-The-News

The Russian government might not be done selling off US debt.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told Russian state television network Russia One on Sunday that Russia will continue decreasing holdings of Treasuries in response to sanctions.

Between March and May, Russia’s holdings plummeted by $81 billion, representing 84% of its total US debt holdings.

The most recent round of American sanctions on Russia came in response to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK earlier this year.

…[R]isk is that China or another country weans itself off US debt by slowing its purchases and waiting for existing Treasuries to mature.

“Gradualism could have a long-term impact on the United States. But that would be a patient policy that would not reveal itself easily,” said David Kotok, chairman of Cumberland Advisors.

Continue reading here: www.wtva.com


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.

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