Falling bond yields fail to tame Gold bears

10-Year Treasury yields retreated below 3.0 percent after threatening a bond bear market for the past week.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Breakout above 3.0 percent would complete a large double bottom reversal in the secular down-trend.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Rising bond yields would be expected to weaken demand for gold as the opportunity cost of holding precious metals increases.

The other major influence on gold prices, the Dollar, continues to strengthen. A strong Dollar would weaken the Dollar-price of gold.

The Dollar Index is rallying to test resistance at 95. Penetration of the long-term descending trendline in April suggests that a bottom is forming. Bullish divergence on the Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

Dollar Index

Spot Gold retraced to test the new resistance level at $1300/ounce — the former support level. The declining Trend Index indicates selling pressure and respect of the descending trendline would warn of a test of primary support at $1250/ounce.

Spot Gold

Australian gold stocks fared better, with the All Ordinaries Gold Index finding support at 4950 and the rising Trend Index signaling buying pressure. Respect of the long-term trendline would confirm another primary advance.

All Ordinaries Gold Index

The reason is not hard to find. The Australian Dollar is at a watershed, testing primary support at 75 US cents as the greenback rallies. A Trend Index peak below zero would warn of strong selling pressure. And breach of primary support would signal a decline to 69/70 US cents.

AUDUSD

Offering a potential bull market for Aussie gold stocks.

Low inflation risk keeps yield curve safe

The Fed is advancing interest rates at a measured pace, with the objective of restoring balance in financial markets rather than to curbing inflationary pressures. Only if inflation spikes is the Fed likely to adopt a restrictive stance.

Elliot Clarke from Westpac sums up the FOMC (Fed Open Market Committee) view from their latest minutes:

Beginning with inflation, whereas the market has recently been concerned that inflation may be getting away from the FOMC (given annual CPI inflation at 2.5%yr and persistent strength in the oil price), the Committee is unperturbed.

Instead of the CPI, the FOMC’s benchmark remains PCE inflation, which is currently 2.0%yr on a headline basis and 1.9%yr for core…..

To see upside inflation risks build, a stronger wage inflation pulse is necessary. At present the employment cost index is only reporting “a gradual pickup in wage increases”, and the signal from other wage measures is “less clear”. Two other important considerations for the pass through of wages to activity and thus inflation is that real hourly earnings growth is currently flat and the savings rate near historic lows. The capacity of households to boost consumption and thus inflation is therefore very limited.

Hourly wage rates are growing at a gradual pace.

Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Personal savings are low.

Personal Savings

And credit growth is modest.

Credit Growth

So not much sign of inflationary pressure.

….Turning to financial conditions, as yet there is no concern of them becoming an impediment to growth or policy. The 10yr yield has moved back to the highs of 2013, but the US dollar has only partly retraced its 2017 depreciation. Further, asset markets remain near recent highs.

Equally significant however is the reference to being nearer neutral and a clear desire to keep the yield curve’s positive slope…..

We do not believe that the yield curve will invert in this instance, in part because higher deficits should see the term premium rise. However, the curve will remain comparatively flat versus history, restricting both the timing and the scale of further rate hikes. This is a key justification for both the market’s and our own view of only two further hikes in 2018 and two more in 2019 – a stark contrast to the FOMC’s seven hikes to end-2020.

Yield Differential

A negative yield curve — when 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yields falls below zero — would give a strong recession warning. But the yield curve is only likely to invert if the Fed steps up interest rate increases. With little sign of rising inflationary pressure at present, the prospect seems remote.

No Fed Squeeze in Sight

In January I warned that the Fed’s normalization plan, which will shrink its balance sheet at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion a year thereafter, would cause Treasury yields to rise and the Dollar to weaken.

10-Year Treasury yields are now testing resistance at 3.0 percent. Breakout would signal the end of a decades-long bull market in bonds and start of a bear market as yields rise.

10-Year Treasury yields

The Dollar Index is in a primary down-trend but the recent rally above the descending trendline suggests that a bottom may be forming.

Dollar Index

Commodity prices, which I suggested would climb as the Dollar weakened, are strengthening but remain in an ascending triangle, testing resistance at 90 on the Dow Jones – UBS Commodity Index.

Dow Jones - UBS Commodity Index

Crude, however, is surging and commodities are likely to follow.

WTI Light Crude

Rising commodity prices — especially crude — would lift inflation, raising the threat of tighter Fed monetary policy.

Until now, financial markets have absorbed the Fed shrinking its balance sheet. Primarily because there hasn’t been any contractionary effect at all.

The orange line on the chart below shows Fed assets net of excess reserves of commercial banks on deposit at the Fed. If commercial banks withdraw excess reserves at a faster rate than the Fed shrinks its balance sheet then the net effect is expansionary, with a rising orange line as at present. There are still $2 trillion of excess reserves on deposit at the Fed, so this could go on for years.

Fed Assets Net of Excess Reserves

The Fed funds rate is climbing, but at a measured pace. I doubt that the market will be too concerned by the FFR at 2.0 percent. The threat is if the Fed accelerates rate hikes in response to rising inflation, as in 2004 to 2006.

Fed Funds Rate and MZM Money Stock

Inflationary forces remain subdued, with the average hourly wage rate growing at a modest 2.6 percent a year.

Average Hourly Wage Rate Growth

A spike above 3.0 percent would spur the Fed into action but there is no sign, so far, as rising automation and competition from offshore labor markets ease upward pressure despite low unemployment.

Life left in US stocks

According to market pundits, the latest stock sell-off was fueled by concerns over rising bond yields and slowing growth for Caterpillar (CAT).

From CNBC:

….Caterpillar shares reversed lower during the call, when Chief Financial Officer Brad Halverson said first-quarter adjusted profits per share will be the highest for the year because of increased investment later in 2018.

“We expect the targeted investments for future growth to be higher over the remaining three quarters,” Halverson said. “The outlook assumes that first-quarter adjusted profit per share will be the high-water mark for the year.”

Caterpillar (CAT)

The stock fell 6.2% on Wednesday, ignoring the earnings report:

In the earnings report, the Illinois-based machinery manufacturer raised its 2018 profit outlook by $2 a share over the previous quarter, to a range of $10.25 to $11.25 per share. The rosier guidance exceeds a Reuters analyst survey that expected a range of $8.39 to $10.60 a share. The company cited better-than-expected sales volume as the main driver of its improved full-year guidance.

Since when has “better-than-expected sales volume,” upward earnings revision and increased new investment been a bear signal? The market is unusually jittery at present, focusing on any semblance of bad news and ignoring the good.

Even concern over rising bond yields is nothing new.

10-Year Treasury Yields

10-Year Treasury yields are testing resistance at 3.0%. Breakout would complete a double-bottom reversal, warning of a bear market in bonds as yields rise. But rising long-term rates are not bad news for stocks, especially when off a low base as at present. I would go so far as to say that, over the last 20 years, rising 10-year yields have been bullish for stocks. The chart below compares annual percentage change in 10-year Treasury yields and the Russell 3000 Total Market index.

10-Year Treasury Yields and Russell 3000 Index 12-Month Rate of Change

There is plenty more good news that the market seems to be ignoring.

First quarter 2018 corporate earnings have so far impressed. According to S&P Indices, 117 stocks in the S&P 500 had reported results by the morning of April 24th. Of those, 91 (77.8%) beat, 10 (8.5%) met and 16 (13.7%) missed their estimates. Misses are largely concentrated in Materials ( 3 of 5), Industrials (4 of 26) and Consumer Discretionary sectors (5 of 13).

Freight activity remains strong, signaling a reviving economy.

S&P 500

Wages growth remains tame, with average hourly earnings of production and non-supervisory employees increasing at an annual rate of 2.42%. Growth above 3.0% would warn that underlying inflation is rising and the Fed will be forced to tighten monetary policy. But that does not appear imminent.

S&P 500

Muted wages growth allowed corporate profits (the blue line below) to rebound after a threatened down-turn.

S&P 500

Consumption has recovered. Per capita consumption of non-durable goods is recovering after a flat spot in 2017, consumption of durable goods has been rising since 2016, while services remain strong.

S&P 500

In financial markets, risk premiums on corporate bonds (Baa minus Treasuries) have declined to below 2.0%, suggesting a healthy credit outlook.

S&P 500

Bank credit is recovering after faltering in 2017.

S&P 500

The yield curve is flattening as the Fed gradually raises interest rates. A flat yield curve is not a threat. Only if it inverts, when the yield differential (gray line on the chart below) falls below zero, is the economy at risk of falling into a recession. Growth in the money stock (green MZM line on the chart below) has slowed but remains healthy.

S&P 500

The Fed has committed to shrinking its $4 trillion investment in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) run up by quantitative easing (QE) between 2009 and 2014. So far the decline has had no impact on financial markets as bank excess reserves on deposit at the Fed are declining at a similar rate. The effect is that net assets (Fed Assets minus Excess Reserves) are holding steady at $2.4 trillion.

S&P 500

The Philadelphia Fed’s Leading Index remains healthy at above 1.0 percent.

S&P 500

And our estimate of real GDP is rising (2.14% in March 2018), suggesting that the economy is recovering from its flat spot in 2016/2017.

S&P 500

Valuations are high and investors are jittery but the bull market still appears to have further to run.

“Headwinds have turned into tailwinds”

“While many factors shape the economic outlook, some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds. Fiscal policy has become more stimulative and foreign demand for U.S. exports is on a firmer trajectory.”
~ New Fed Chair Jerome Powell in his first testimony before Congress

Two very important sentences for investors. Expect further rate hikes but at a moderate pace.

Bond yields have climbed in anticipation of higher inflation. Breakout above 3.0 percent would warn of a bond bear market, after the bull market of the last 3 decades, with rising yields.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The five-year breakeven rate (Treasury yield minus the equivalent yield on inflation indexed TIPS) has been climbing since 2016.

Fed Excess Reserves

But core CPI (CPI less Food & Energy) remains subdued.

And average hourly wage rates, reflecting underlying inflationary pressures, continue to grow at a modest 2.5 percent a year.

Private Sector Average Hourly Wage Rate Growth

Real GDP is likely to maintain its similarly modest growth.

Real GDP and Estimates

While the Fed is sitting on a powder keg of more than $2 trillion of commercial bank excess reserves, no one is playing with matches. Yet.

Federal Reserve Bank: Excess Reserves of Depositary Institutions

Those excess reserves on deposit at the Fed have the potential to fuel a massive bubble in stocks or real estate. But investors remain wary after their experience in 2008.

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

~ Samuel Clemens

The Fed and Alice in Wonderland

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland a young Alice experiences a series of bizarre adventures after falling down a rabbit hole. The new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will similarly have to lead global financial markets through a series of bizarre, unprecedented experiences.

Down the Rabbit Hole

In 2008, after the collapse of Lehman Bros, financial markets were in complete disarray and in danger of imploding. The Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, embarked on an unprecedented (and unproven) rescue attempt — now known as quantitative easing or QE for short — injecting more than $3.5 trillion into the financial system through purchase of long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

The Fed aimed to drive long-term interest rates down in the belief that this would encourage private sector borrowing and investment and revive the economy. Their efforts failed. Private sector borrowing did not revive. Most of the money injected ended up, unused by the private sector, as $2.5 trillion of excess commercial bank reserves on deposit at the Fed.

Fed Excess Reserves

Richard Koo pointed out that the private sector will under normal cirumstances respond to lower interest rates with increased borrowing but during a financial crisis, when their balance sheets have been destroyed and their liabilities exceed their assets, their sole focus is to restore their balance sheet, using surplus cash flow to pay down debt. The only way to prevent a collapse is for the government to step in and plug the gap, borrowing surplus capital and investing this in infrastructure.

One Pill Makes you Larger

Fortunately Bernanke got the message.

US and Euro Area Public Debt to GDP

… and spread the word.

Japan Public Debt to GDP

And One Pill Makes you Small

Unfortunately, other central banks also followed the Fed’s earlier lead, injecting vast sums into the financial system through quantitative easing (QE).

ECB and BOJ Total Assets

Driving long-term yields to levels even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to imagine.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Pool of Tears

Then in 2014, another twist in the tale. Long-term yields continued to fall in Europe and Japan, while US rates stabilised as Fed eased off on QE. A large differential appeared between US and European/Japanese rates (observable since 2014 on the above chart), causing a flood of money into the US, in pursuit of higher yields.

….. with an unwanted side-effect. The Dollar strengthened. Capital inflows caused the trade-weighted value of the US Dollar to spike upwards beween 2014 and 2016, damaging US export industries and local manufacturers facing competition from foreign imports.

US Trade-Weighted Dollar Index

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

A jobless recovery in manufacturing and low wage growth in turn led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 promising increased protectionism against global competition.

US Manufacturing Jobs

Then in 2017, to the consternation of many, despite rising interest rates the US Dollar began to fall.

US TW Dollar Index in 2017

Learned analysis followed, ascribing the weakening Dollar to rising commodity prices and a recovery in emerging markets. But something doesn’t quite add up.

International bond investors are a pretty smart bunch. When they look at US bond markets, what do they see? The new Fed Chairman has inherited a massive headache.

Donald Trump is determined to stimulate job growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. This will certainly create jobs. But when you stimulate an economy that is already at full employment you get inflation.

Who Stole the Tarts?

Jerome Powell is sitting on a powder keg. More than $2 trillion of excess reserves that commercial banks can withdraw without notice. Demand for bank credit is expected to rise as result of the Trump stimulus. Commercial banks, not known for their restraint, can make like Donkey Kong with their excess reserves provided by the Bernanke Fed.

Under Janet Yellen the Fed mapped out a program to withdraw excess reserves from the market by selling down Treasuries and MBS at the rate of $100 billion in 2018 and $200 billion each year thereafter. But at that rate it will take 10 years to remove the excess.

Bond markets are worried about what will happen to inflation in the mean time.

Off With His Head

The new Fed Chair has made all the right noises about being hawkish on inflation. But can he walk the talk? Especially with his $2 trillion headache.

….and the Red Queen, easily recognizable from Lewis Carroll’s tale, tweeting “off with his head” if a hawkish Fed threatens to spoil the party.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

….When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low….

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

~ White Rabbit by Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane (1967)

Richard Koo: Surviving in the Intellectually Bankrupt Monetary Policy Environment

Richard C. Koo, Chief Economist, Nomura Research Institute, at the ACATIS Value Konferenz 2016 in Frankfurt

Why QE doesn’t work.

I have the greatest respect for Richard Koo and his unconventional, balance-sheet-recession approach to economics.

It strikes me is that if central banks lower interest rates to stimulate borrowing and borrowing does not rise because borrowers are repaying debt to restore solvency, then it will backfire and hurt GDP. Households reliant on income from investments, especially in financial assets, will experience a significant loss of income from lower interest rates and will reduce their consumption accordingly. Falling consumption will cause a drop in GDP.

Investments in financial assets consist not only of household bank deposits and bonds, but also insurance sector and pension fund investments in financial assets (mainly bonds) which will raise insurance premiums and lower pensions as a result.

How QE reversal will impact on financial markets

The Federal Reserve last year announced plans to shrink its balance sheet which had grown to $4.5 trillion under the quantitative easing (QE) program.

According to its June 2017 Normalization Plan, the Fed will scale back reinvestment at the rate of $10 billion per month and step this up every 3 months by a further $10 billion per month until it reaches a total of $50 billion per month in 2019. That means that $100 billion will be withheld in the first year and $200 billion each year thereafter.

How will this impact on financial markets? Here are a few clues.

First, from the Nikkei Asian Review on January 11:

The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note shot to a 10-month high of 2.59% in London, before retreating later in the day and ending roughly unchanged in New York. Yields rise when bonds are sold.

The selling was sparked by reports that China may halt or slow down its purchases of U.S. Treasury holdings. China has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves — holding $3.1 trillion, about 40% of which is in U.S. government notes, according to Brad Setser, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Chinese officials, as expected, denied the reports. But they would have to be pondering what to do with more than a trillion dollars of US Treasuries during a bond bear market.

Treasury yields are rising, with the 10-year yield breaking through resistance at 2.60%, signaling a primary up-trend.

On the quarterly chart, 10-year yields have broken clear of the long-term trend channel drawn at 2 standard deviations, warning of reversal of the three-decade-long secular trend. But final confirmation will only come from a breakout above 3.0%, completing a large double-bottom.

Withdrawal or a slow-down of US Treasury purchases by foreign buyers (let’s not call them investors – they have other motives) would cause the Dollar to weaken. The Dollar Index recently broke support at 91, signaling another primary decline.

The falling Dollar has created a bull market for gold which is likely to continue while interest rates are low.

US equities are likely to benefit from the falling Dollar. Domestic manufacturers can compete more effectively in both local and export markets, while the weaker Dollar will boost offshore earnings of multinationals.

The S&P 500 is headed for a test of its long-term target at 3000*.

Target: 1500 x 2 = 3000

Emerging market borrowers may also benefit from lower domestic servicing costs on Dollar-denominated loans.

Bridgewater CEO Ray Dalio at Davos:

We are in this Goldilocks period right now. Inflation isn’t a problem. Growth is good, everything is pretty good with a big jolt of stimulation coming from changes in tax laws…

If there is a downside, it is likely to be higher US inflation as employment surges and commodity prices rise. Which would force the Fed to raise interest rates faster than the market expects.