Does the yield curve warn of a recession?

There has been talk in recent months about the narrowing yield curve and how this warns of a coming recession, normally accompanied by a graph of the 10-year/2-year Treasury spread which fell to 0.22% at the end of August 2018.

Yield Differential 10Year minus 2Year

I have always used the 10-year minus the 3-month Treasury spread to indicate the slope of the yield curve but, although this shows a higher spread of 0.71%, both warn that the yield curve is flattening.

Yield Differential 10Year minus 3Month

Is this cause for alarm?

First of all, what is the yield curve? It is the plot of yields on Treasuries against their maturities. Long maturity bonds normally have higher yields than short-term bills, to compensate for the increased risk (primarily of interest rate changes). If you tie your money up for longer, you expect a higher return. That is a rising yield curve.

A steep yield curve is a major source of profit to banks as their funding is mostly short-term while they charge long-term rates to borrowers, pocketing the interest spread.

The Fed sometimes intervenes in the market, however, restricting the flow of money to the economy, to curb inflation. Short-term rates then rise faster than long-term rates and the yield curve may invert — referred to as a negative yield curve.

At present we are witnessing a flattening yield curve, as short-term rates rise close to long-term rates.

A recent paper from Michael D. Bauer and Thomas M. Mertens at the San Francisco Fed concludes that a narrow yield differential has zero predictive ability of future recessions:

In light of the evidence on its predictive power for recessions, the recent evolution of the yield curve suggests that recession risk might be rising. Still, the flattening yield curve provides no sign of an impending recession. First, the evidence suggests that recession predictions based on the yield curve require an inversion (Bauer and Mertens 2018); no matter which term spread is used to measure its shape, the yield curve is not yet inverted. Second, the most reliable summary measure of the shape of the yield curve, the ten-year–three-month spread, is nearly 1 percentage point away from an inversion.

I was pleased to see that Bauer and Mehrtens find the 10-year/3-month Treasury spread more reliable than other spreads in predicting a recession within 12 months, with 89% predictive accuracy. They also refer to another study that came to a similar conclusion:

Engstrom and Sharpe found that their short-term spread statistically dominated the 10y–2y spread, and our findings are consistent with this result.

But both studies conclude that a negative yield curve (when the yield differential is below zero) is a reliable predictor of recessions. And Bauer and Mehrtens observe that, while the 10 year/2 year spread is less accurate, it is still a reliable predictor.

Are we just 22 basis points away from a recession warning? Let’s weigh up the evidence.

First, a negative yield curve is a reliable predictor of recessions. In the last 60 years, every time the 10-year/3-month spread has crossed below zero, a recession has followed within 12 months. There is one arguable exception. In 1966 the yield differential crossed below zero, the S&P 500 fell 22% and the NBER declared a recession, but they (the NBER) later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

Yield Differential 10Year minus 3Month

Second, while there is strong correlation between the yield curve and recessions, the exact relationship is unclear.

The most convincing explanation is that bank interest margins are squeezed when the yield curve inverts. When it is no longer profitable for banks to borrow short and lend long, they restrict the flow of new credit. Credit is the lifeblood of the economy and activity slows.

That was clearly the case in the lead up to the 2008 crash, but why are net interest margins of major US banks now widening?

Bank Net Interest Margins

The flow of credit also slowed markedly before the 1990/1991 recession but did not ahead of the last two recessions.

Bank Net Interest Margins

And growth in the broad money supply — zero maturity money (MZM) plus time deposits — accelerated ahead of the Dotcom crash and 2008 banking crisis.

Broad Money Supply: MZM plus Time Deposits

Third, consider the Wicksell spread. Swedish economist Knut Wicksell argued in his 1898 work Interest and Prices that the economy expands when return on capital is higher than the cost of capital, with new investment funded by credit, and it contracts when the expected return on capital is below the cost of capital.

I was first introduced to Wicksell by Neils Jensen, who uses the Baa corporate bond yield as a proxy for the cost of capital and nominal GDP growth for the return on capital. Neils argues that the economy is near equilibrium when the Wicksell spread is about 2.0% — when return on capital is 2.0% higher than the cost of capital.

Wicksell Spread: Nominal GDP Growth compared to Baa Corporate Bond Yield

The above graph shows that 1960 to 1980 was clearly expansionary, with nominal GDP growth exceeding the cost of capital (Baa corporate bond yield). But the last almost four decades were the opposite, with the cost of capital mostly higher than the return on capital. Only recently has this reversed, suggesting a new expansionary phase.

One could argue that low-grade investment bond yields are a poor proxy for the cost of capital, with rising access to equity markets in recent decades. Also that nominal GDP growth rate is a poor proxy for return on capital. If we take the S&P 500, the traditional method of calculating cost of equity is the current dividend yield (1.8%) plus the dividend growth rate (8.0%), giving a 9.8% cost of capital. If we take the current S&P 500 earnings yield of 4.0% (the inverse of the P/E ratio) plus the earnings growth rate of 15.1% as the return on capital (19.1%), it far exceeds the cost of capital. You can understand why growth is soaring.

New capital formation is starting to recover.

New Capital Formation

Fourth, Fed actions over the last decade have distorted the yield curve. More than $3.5 trillion of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) were purchased as part of the Fed’s quantitative easing (QE) strategy, to drive down long-term interest rates. In 2011 to 2012, the Fed also implemented Operation Twist — buying longer-term Treasuries while simultaneously selling shorter-dated issues it already held — to further bring down long-term interest rates. Long-term rates are still affected by this.

In addition, Fed efforts to shrink their balance sheet may further distort the yield curve. The Fed has indicated that it will not sell Treasuries that it holds but will not reinvest the full amount received from investments that mature. If we consider that short-term Treasuries are far more likely to mature, the result could be that the maturity profile of the Fed’s Treasury portfolio is getting longer — a further extension of Operation Twist by stealth.

Conclusion

A flat yield curve does not warn of a coming recession. A negative yield curve does. Both the 10-year/2-year and 10-year/3-month Treasury spreads are reliable predictors of a recession within 12 months, but the 10-year/3-month spread is more accurate.

The correlation between the yield curve and recessions is strong but the actual relationship between the two is more obscure. Links between the yield curve, bank net interest margins, bank credit growth and broad money supply growth are more tenuous, with lower correlation.

Also, return on capital is rising while cost of capital remains low, fueling strong capital formation. The economy is starting to grow.

Fed actions, through QE, Operation Twist, and even possibly steps to unwind its balance sheet, have suppressed long-term interest rates and distorted the yield curve. While the yield curve is still an important indicator, we should be careful of taking its signals at face value without corroborating evidence.

Lastly, we also need to consider the psychological impact. If the market believes that a negative yield curve is followed by a recession, it most likely will be. Beliefs lead to actions, and actions influence outcomes.

Treat yield curve signals with a great deal of respect, and be very wary of how the market reacts, but don’t mindlessly follow its signals without corroboration. The economy may well be entering a new growth spurt, with all its inherent dangers — and rewards.

I contend that financial markets never reflect the underlying reality accurately; they always distort it in some way or another and the distortions find expression in market prices. Those distortions can, occasionally, find ways to affect the fundamentals that market prices are supposed to reflect.

~ George Soros

S&P 500 volatility falls

The Philadelphia Fed Leading Index at 1.42 for June 2018 maintains a healthy margin above the 1% level that would warn of a potential slow-down.

Philadelphia Fed Leading Index

The picture reinforces a steeply-climbing Freight Transportation Index, indicating strong economic activity.

Freight Transportation Index

Concerns that the economy may over-heat, spiking inflation, are not reflected in strong growth in average hourly earnings. The Fed has done a good job of containing money supply growth, with growth in the broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) closely tracking nominal GDP.

Nominal GDP and Money Supply Growth

Credit and money supply expansion at faster rates than nominal GDP have in the past flagged an overheating economy and higher inflation, leading to a recession when the Fed attempts to curb inflation.

We are in stage 3 of a bull market but there are few signs that the economy will slow or earnings will fall.

The S&P 500 respected its new support level at 2800, confirming an advance to 3000. Declining Twiggs Volatility (21-day) signals that market risk is low and we can expect business as usual.

S&P 500

The NASDAQ 100 continues to warn of a correction, with bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow. This is secondary in nature, because of the indicator’s position relative to the zero line, but could test support at 7000.

Nasdaq 100

CPI rises but US stocks rally

June consumer price index (CPI) jumped to 2.8% but forward estimates of inflation, represented by the 5-Year breakeven rate (5-year Treasury yield minus TIPS) remain subdued at 2.06%.

CPI and 5-Year Breakeven

Core CPI (excluding food and energy) is at 2.2% while average hourly earnings (total private: production and non-supervisory employees) annual growth, representing underlying inflationary pressure, is higher at 2.7%.

Core CPI and Average Hourly Earnings: Production and Nonsupervisory

Credit and broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) growth remain steady, tracking nominal GDP growth at around 5.0%. A spike in credit growth often precedes a similar spike in broad money supply by several quarters.

Credit and Broad Money Supply Growth

And a surge in broad money supply growth, ahead of nominal GDP, flagged rising inflationary pressures ahead of the last two recessions, prompting the Fed to step on the brakes.

Nominal GDP and Broad Money Supply Growth

Overall, the inflation outlook appears subdued, with little urgency to hike interest rates at present.

The market is also getting more comfortable with the idea of trade tariffs. The S&P 500 is testing resistance at 2800. Breakout is likely and would suggest a primary advance to 3000.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 followed through above 7300, confirming the primary advance, with a target of 7700.

Nasdaq 100

This is the final stage of a bull market but there is no sign of it ending. I am wary of the impact of a trade war on individual stocks and have reduced exposure to multinationals that make a sizable percentage of their sales in China.

Financial markets are supposed to swing like a pendulum: They may fluctuate wildly in response to exogenous shocks, but eventually they are supposed to come to rest at an equilibrium point…. Instead, as I told Congress, financial markets behaved more like a wrecking ball, swinging from country to country and knocking over the weaker ones. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the international financial system itself constituted the main ingredient in the meltdown process.

~ George Soros on the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the need for greater regulation of global financial markets

Australia: Good news and bad news

First, the good news from the RBA chart pack.

Exports continue to climb, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Business investment remains weak and is likely to impact on long-term growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Business Investment

The decline is particularly steep in the Manufacturing sector and not just in Mining.

Australia: Business Investment by Sector

But government investment in infrastructure has cushioned the blow.

Australia: Public Sector Investment

Profits in the non-financial sector remain low, apart from mining which has benefited from strong export demand.

Australia: Non-Financial Sector Profits

Job vacancies are rising which should be good news for wage rates. But this also means higher inflation and, down the line, higher interest rates.

Australia: Job Vacancies

The housing and financial sector is our Achilles heel, with household debt climbing a wall of worry.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

House prices are shrinking despite record low interest rates.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money and credit growth are slowing, warning of a contraction.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Bank profits remain strong.

Australia: Bank Profits

But capital ratios are low, with the bulk of profits distributed to shareholders as dividends. The ratios below are calculated on risk-weighted assets. Raw leverage ratios are a lot weaker.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

One of the primary accelerants of the housing bubble and household debt has been $900 billion of offshore borrowings by domestic banks. The chickens are coming home to roost, with bank funding costs rising as the Fed hikes interest rates. In the last four months the 90-day bank bill swap rate (BBSW) jumped 34.5 basis points.

The banks face a tough choice: pass on higher interest rates to mortgage borrowers or accept narrower margins and a profit squeeze. With an estimated 30 percent of households already suffering from mortgage stress, any interest rate hikes will impact on both housing prices and delinquency rates.

I continue to avoid exposure to banks, particularly hybrids where many investors do not understand the risks.

I also remain cautious on mining because of a potential slow-down in China, with declining growth in investment and in retail sales.

China: Activity

Zombie banks or zombie economies?

The last three decades was the era of zombie banks, with financial crises threatening the very survival of our financial system. Major banks close to the edge of the precipice, first in Japan but followed by the USA and Europe, were only rescued by drastic action by central banks. The flood of easy money kept the zombie banks afloat but every action has unintended consequences, especially when you are the Fed, BOJ or ECB.

Fed Balance Sheet and Funds Rate Target

Now that the Fed is attempting to unwind its swollen $4.4 trillion balance sheet — see The Big Shrink Commences — and normalize interest rates, Stephen Bartholomeusz at The Age highlights some of the unforeseen consequences:

US rate hikes are already sending threatening ripples through other economies as capital flows towards the US and the US dollar strengthens.

Argentina has sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Turkey, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, India and Pakistan have all been forced to raise their rates to defend their currencies.

US monetary policy and its rate structure is setting it apart from most of the rest of the developed world in a fashion that will impose pressure on economies that may be more fragile than they might previously have been regarded in an ultra-low global rates environment.

…..A consequence of the policies pursued by the Fed, the ECB and the Bank of Japan since 2008 has been a significant increase in global debt – at government, corporate and household levels – as ultra-low rates and torrents of liquidity ignited a global borrowing binge.

There was a particular appetite in developing economies for US dollar-denominated debt, which became abundant and cheap as US investors were incentivised and enabled by the Fed to take on more risk in return for higher returns.

The US rate rises, combined with a stronger US dollar, are now putting a squeeze on emerging market economies.

If the ECB were to also start unwinding its stimulus, economies and banking systems within the weaker southern regions of the eurozone would come under intense pressure, along with more debt-laden companies.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that after a decade of unprecedented policy interventions in economies and markets there could be unintended consequences that emerge as those policies are wound back.

The ECB indicated overnight that it will halt bond purchases at the end of 2018 and plans to keep interest rates accommodative “through the summer of 2019 and in any case for as long as necessary…”

ECB unwinding still appears some way off but tighter monetary conditions emanating from the Fed may be sufficient. Developing economies that gorged on low-rate US dollar-denominated debt during the liquidity surge are finding themselves in difficulties as the tide goes out.

Meanwhile in Australia

From Karen Maley at the AFR:

Australian banks are being squeezed by higher borrowing costs as the US Federal Reserve accelerates its interest rate hikes and drains liquidity from global financial markets…..

The woes of the local banks have been exacerbated by an unexpected and savage spike in a key Australian short-term interest rate benchmark – the three-month bank bill swap rate, or BBSW, in the past few weeks.

Analysts estimated that the spreads paid by Australian banks have climbed by close to 40 basis points since the beginning of the year, which has swollen the wholesale borrowing costs of the country’s banks by some $4.4 billion a year.

The ASX 300 Banks Index is headed for a test of primary support at 7000/7200. Breach of 7000 would warn of another decline, with a long-term target of the September 2011 low at 5000.

ASX 300 Banks Index

Aussie banks are being squeezed by higher interest rates on their international borrowing but are unable to pass this on to borrowers for fear of upsetting the local housing market. House prices are already under the pump, especially in the top end of the market.

Zombie banks would be too harsh but Aussie banks are in for a rough time over the next year or two.

12 Charts on the Australian economy

Australian GDP grew at a robust 3.1% for the year ended 31 March 2018 but a look at the broader economy shows little to cheer about.

Wages growth is slowing, with the Wage Price Index falling sharply.

Australia: Wage Price Index Growth

Falling growth in disposable income is holding back consumption (e.g. retail spending) and increasing pressure on savings.

Australia: Consumption and Savings

Housing prices are high despite the recent slow-down, while households remain heavily indebted, with household debt at record levels relative to disposable income.

Australia: Housing Prices and Household Debt

Housing price growth slowed to near zero and we are likely to soon see house prices shrinking.

Australia: Housing Prices

Broad money growth is falling sharply, reflecting tighter financial conditions, while credit growth is also slowing.

Australia: Broad Money and Credit Growth

Mining profits are up, while non-mining corporation profits (excluding banks and the financial sector) have recovered to about 12% of GDP.

Australia: Corporate Profits

But business investment remains weak, which is likely to impact on future growth in both profits and wages.

Australia: Investment

Exports are strong, especially in the Resources sector. Manufacturing is the only flat spot.

Australia: Exports

Iron ore export tonnage continues to grow, while demand for coal has leveled off in recent years.

Australia: Bulk Commodity Exports

Our dependence on China as an export market also continues to grow.

Australia: Exports by Country

Corporate bond spreads — the risk premium over the equivalent Treasury rate charged to non-financial corporate borrowers — remain low, reflecting low financial risk.

Australia: Non-financial Bond Spreads

Bank capital ratios are rising but don’t be fooled by the risk-weighted percentages. Un-weighted Common Equity Tier 1 leverage ratios are closer to 5% for the four major banks. Common Equity excludes bank hybrids which should not be considered as capital. Conversion of hybrids to common equity was avoided in the recent Italian banking crisis, largely because of the threat this action posed to stability of the entire financial system.

Australia: Bank Capital Ratios

Low capital ratios mean that banks are more likely to act as “an accelerant rather than a shock-absorber” in times of crisis (2014 Murray Inquiry). Professor Anat Admati from Stanford University and Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Fed are both campaigning for higher bank capital ratios, at 4 to 5 times existing levels, to ensure stability of the financial system. This is unlikely to succeed, considering the political power of the bank sector, unless the tide goes out again and reveals who is swimming naked.

The housing boom has run its course and consumption is slowing. The banks don’t have much in reserve if the housing market crashes — not yet a major risk but one we should not ignore. Exports are keeping us afloat because we hitched our wagon to China. But that comes at a price as Australians are only just beginning to discover. If Chinese exports fail, Australia will need to spend big on infrastructure. And infrastructure that will generate not just short-term jobs but long-term growth.

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.