Leading Index gives early warning

One of the better composite indicators in the US, the Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed, points to a slow-down in the US economy. A dip below 1.0% is often early, as in July 2000 and May 2006, but serves as a reliable warning of an economic slow-down.

Leading Index for the United States

The Leading Index predicts the six-month growth rate of the Philadelphia Fed Coincident Index. In addition to the Coincident Index, it includes variables that lead the economy: housing permits (1 to 4 units), initial unemployment insurance claims, delivery times from the ISM manufacturing survey, and the interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the 3-month Treasury bill.

The Coincident Index combines four indicators: nonfarm payroll employment, the unemployment rate, average hours worked in manufacturing and wages and salaries.

Coincident Index for the United States

The Leading Index signal does seem early. Low corporate bond spreads and VIX near record lows continue to indicate low market risk, typical of a bull market.

Corporate Bond Spreads and VIX

Monetary policy remains accomodative, with money stock growing at close to 5% p.a. (MZM = cash in circulation, travelers checks, money market funds and deposits with zero maturity).

MZM and Yield Differential

The yield curve has flattened, with the spread between 10-year and 3-month Treasuries falling to 1.0% on the above graph. That is what one would expect when the Fed hikes interest rates in a low inflation environment: short-term rates will rise faster than long-term rates. But a negative yield curve, where short-term rates are higher than long-term rates, is a reliable predictor of recessions in the US economy. Each time the yield differential on the above graph crossed below zero in the last 50 years, a recession has followed within 12 months.

Underlying inflation remains low, with average hourly earnings growth below 2.5% p.a., and the Fed should be careful about single-mindedly raising interest rates without considering the yield curve.

Annual Growth in Average Hourly Earnings

The bull market continues but investors need to keep a weather eye on interest rates and the yield curve.

VIX hits record low

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) made a new low of 9.30 indicating record low levels of stock volatility. High levels of stock buybacks and large ETF fund inflows may both have contributed, but this is only the third time in its 27-year history that index has broken below 10%. The first was in late 1993. The second, in late 2006, was followed a year later by a massive market snap-back. This time is no different. Volatility is unlikely to remain at such low levels and eventually we will see a market down-turn, accompanied by high volatility, but there is no crystal ball that can tell us whether this will be in one year or five.

CBOE Volatility Index (VIX)

Corporate bond spreads are also falling, with the spread between lowest investment grade Baa (10-year) and equivalent Treasury yields at their lowest point since 2008.

Corporate Bond Spreads

Source: St Louis Fed & Moody’s

The yield curve is flattening but remains comfortably above a flat or negative yield curve when
the yield differential (10-year minus 3-month yields) falls below zero. A negative yield curve is a reliable warning of recession within 12 months.

Yield Differential

Source: St Louis Fed

The Freight Transportation Services Index displays a steady increase in economic activity.

Freight Transportation Services Index

Source: St Louis Fed & US Bureau of the Census

And the S&P 500 continues its advance towards 2500.

S&P 500

Target 2400 + ( 2400 – 2300 )

Sell in May and run away?

Markets fell sharply today. But before we look at the charts, let’s examine three fundamental measures of market stress.

A yield differential near zero indicates bank margins are being squeezed. Lending normally slows, leading to a recession. But the current yield differential of 1.45%, calculated by subtracting the yield on 3-month T-bills from the yield on 10-year Treasuries, is reasonably healthy.

Yield Differential

The yield spread between the lowest investment grade corporate bonds (Baa) and 10-year Treasuries is a useful measure of market risk. The risk premium widens in times of uncertainty. Since 2016 the Baa spread has fallen by more than one percent, to 2.25%, indicating low market risk.

10-Year Corporate Bond Spreads

The above indications are supported by the St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index which is at a record low of -1.451 since its commencement in 1994.

St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index

The St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index measures the degree of financial stress in the markets and is constructed from 18 weekly data series: seven interest rate series, six yield spreads and five other indicators. Each of these variables captures some aspect of financial stress. Accordingly, as the level of financial stress in the economy changes, the data series are likely to move together.

The average value of the index, which begins in late 1993, is designed to be zero. Thus, zero is viewed as representing normal financial market conditions. Values below zero suggest below-average financial market stress, while values above zero suggest above-average financial market stress.

Real GDP growth dipped to 1.9% for the first quarter 2017, compared to 2.0% for Q4 2016. While growth is modest, hours worked by nonfarm employees improved to 1.55% in April 2017 from a low of 1.03% in February, suggesting that growth is likely to continue.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

There is little sign of stress in financial markets other than the latest Trump turmoil.

Bond spreads bullish for US, less so Australia

Yield Curve

The yield curve is one of the best predictors of US economic recessions. Every time the yield curve has turned negative in the last fifty years, a recession has followed.

First of all, what is a yield curve? It is the plot of yields on bonds, normally Treasuries, against their maturities. Long maturity bonds are expected to 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 would expect a higher return. Hence a rising yield curve.

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

When the Fed steps into the market, however, restricting the flow of money into the economy, then short-term rates rise faster than long-term rates and the yield curve can invert (referred to as a negative yield curve).

Bank interest margins are squeezed — it is no longer profitable to borrow short and lend long — and they restrict the flow of new credit.

Credit is the lifeblood of the economy and activity slows.

The chart below compares US recessions to the yield differential: the difference between 10-year Treasury yields and the yield on 3-month T-bills. The yield differential falls below zero when 3-month T-bills yield more than 10-year T-notes.

Yield Differential: 10-year Treasury yields minus 3-month T-bills

You can see that every time the yield differential dips below zero it is followed by a gray bar indicating a recession. There is one exception: the phantom recession of 1966 when the S&P 500 fell 22%. This was originally certified as a recession by the NBER but they later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

You can also see that the yield differential is declining at present but, at 2.0%, it is a long way from a flat or negative yield curve. This supports my argument last week that current Fed rate hikes are more about normalizing interest rates than about monetary tightening.

That could change in the future but at present the bull market still appears to have plenty in the tank.

Corporate Bond Spreads

Corporate bond spreads — the yield difference between high-grade corporate bonds and the risk-free Treasury rate — are another useful indicator of the state of the economy.

Wide bond spreads indicate increased risk of corporate default. Investors are concerned about the state of the economy and demand a higher premium for taking credit risk.

Narrow spreads suggest that credit premiums are low and confidence in the economy is good.

If we examine the chart below, bond spreads are declining, indicating confidence in the US economy, with even the lowest investment grade BBB dipping below 150 basis points (or 1.50%). This is synonymous with a bull market.

US Bond Spreads

Australian corporate bond spreads are higher than the US, with BBB still at 200 bps. They have also declined over the last year but seem to be trending upward from their 2013 low. This is not conclusive as the current trough is not yet complete, but a higher low would warn that credit risk is rising.

Australian Bond Spreads

Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

~ Warren Buffett

Flattening yield curve & low bank interest margins

The Yield Differential, calculated by subtracting 3-month from 10-year Treasury Yields, is trending lower. This warns that the yield curve is flattening but we are still above the danger area below 1.0 percent.

Yield Differential: 10-Year minus 3-Month Yields

A flat yield curve squeezes bank interest margins and often precedes a credit contraction.

Large US Banks: Net Interest Margins

But there is little sign of slowing credit growth so far.

US Bank Loans & Leases: Annual Growth

The St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index (STLFSI) continues to indicate low market stress.

St Louis Fed Financial Stress Index

The STLFSI measures the degree of financial stress in the markets and is constructed from 18 weekly data series: seven interest rate series, six yield spreads and five other indicators. Each of these variables captures some aspect of financial stress. Accordingly, as the level of financial stress in the economy changes, the data series are likely to move together.

US banks face squeeze

Rising short-term interest rates (represented by 3-month Treasury yields on the chart below) caused negative yield differentials in 2006/2007 which led me to warn of an economic down-turn. Yield differentials are calculated by subtracting short-term (3-month) yields from long-term (10-year) yields. Banks borrow mostly at short-term rates and lend at long-term rates, generating a profitable interest margin. But when the yield differential turns negative, bank interest margins are squeezed, forcing them to contract lending. A lending contraction shrinks consumption + investment and sends the economy into a tail-spin.

Ten-Year Treasury Yield and Differential with Three-Month Yields

Negative yield differentials (or yield curves) are normally caused by rising short-term rates as in 2006/2007, but now we are witnessing the opposite phenomenon. Short-term rates are near zero, but falling long-term rates are starting to squeeze the yield differential from the opposite end. The situation is not yet desperate but a further decline in long-term yields would shrink bank interest margins. Fed initiation of QE3, purchasing additional long-term Treasuries, is likely to drive long-term rates lower and exacerbate the problem. The resulting contraction in bank lending would cause another economic down-turn.