Jan 092019
 

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By G. Steven Bray

Last Friday’s jobs report was strong. How strong? Well, the number of jobs created was the most for a Dec in 20 years. Average hourly earnings growth remained above 3% for the third consecutive month, and average hours worked also ticked higher. Revisions to previous months also were positive.

It would seem that the report would confirm market fear that the Federal Reserve will continue its rate-hiking campaign unabated. As we discussed last week, markets fear the Fed will choke off economic growth with rate hikes.

However, a couple other economic headliners also attended the party. First was last week’s ISM manufacturing report, which measures the strength of the manufacturing sector. It showed the greatest one month decline since the Great Recession. While the report’s index still shows good sector growth, the report is a leading indicator of economic activity. The jobs report, on the other hand, is a lagging indicator. So, even though the job market is very healthy, the ISM report could portend a coming economic slowdown.

The second headliner was a speech by Fed head Powell. Apparently, he wrote the speech before he saw the jobs report because it was very dovish. Basically, Powell said the Fed will be sensitive to market signals in setting its future rate policy. Well, the stock market loved this and went on a tear. Bond markets, which sank after the jobs report, sank further as investors sold bonds to buy equities. (Selling bonds raises interest rates.)

The question for rates is which version of reality is the correct one: a strong economy inviting further Fed tightening or a slowing economy leading to Fed restraint? Which version markets believe is likely to dictate whether we can hold the rate gains made over the holidays.

So far this week, markets seem to be leaning towards the slowing economy with a hedge. They’ve given up about a quarter of the rate gains and have leveled off waiting for further inspiration. That inspiration may come from this Friday’s inflation report. An elevated reading will likely send rates higher again, but a tame reading – in the 2% range – probably wouldn’t elicit any response.

I see one wildcard that could push rates either way – the China trade talks. I still think positive progress could make markets overlook the ISM reports and lay bets on a stronger economy again.

Jan 032019
 

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By G. Steven Bray

The Christmas rate rally so far has extended into the new year. Mortgage rates are the lowest they’ve been since last spring. Let’s try to understand why so that we might predict if the lower rates will last – or might get even better.

The Christmas rate rally so far has extended into the new year. Mortgage rates are the lowest they’ve been since last spring. Let’s try to understand why so that we might predict if the lower rates will last – or might get even better.

The recent rally has coincided with a swoon in the stock market, and most pundits agree that the two markets are connected at this time. Money is moving out of stocks and into bonds. So, the source of these movements should be able to explain both markets.

The movement seemed to start over a month ago based on general concerns about the strength of the global economy. It gained momentum after the Dec Federal Reserve meeting at which the Fed raised short term rates for the fourth time in 2018. Markets expected that rate hike, but apparently they were expecting the Fed to acknowledge more forcefully rising risks to the global economy. The main concern is the Fed will miss market signals and hike rates too high too fast and choke the economy. The momentum accelerated this week with the release of US and Chinese economic data showing both economies may be slowing.

Okay, so let’s dig a little deeper and try to predict the future of rates. The movement seems predicated on a slowing economy, or dare I say, a pending recession. So far, US economic data shows slowing growth, but the data still is decidedly positive. About the only negative signals so far come from the housing market, which never fully recovered from the Great Recession and is suffering from a severe inventory shortage.

That said, business and consumer confidence are off their recent highs, and the stock market swoon could further erode confidence. A continuing government shutdown could exacerbate this situation. Remember that confidence reflects expectations, and expectations influence actions. If consumers and businesses start to have doubts about the direction of the economy, weakness could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the global stage, it seems clear that growth is slowing, but it’s unclear how much of this slowing reflects the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China. Should the countries resolve the dispute in the next few months, it could buoy market sentiment and put a quick end to our rally.

Rate update: Rate rally ran out of steam

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Dec 112018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

The jobs report last week didn’t disappoint, but it didn’t excite either. Sure, the headline number of jobs created missed expectation, but the miss wasn’t huge by historical standards. Wage growth continued, albeit at a moderate pace. All in all the report did little to help bond markets decide whether the economy is slowing. Markets reacted as they’re wont to do in these situations – by shifting into sideways mode.

So, we keep looking for that source of market inspiration. Next up on Wed is the Consumer Price Index, the granddaddy of inflation reports. Since stoking inflation fears this summer, the report in recent months has suggested that inflation has waned once again. But like last week’s read on wage inflation, any uptick in consumer inflation could quickly erase the rate gains we’ve made since Thanksgiving.

If that report doesn’t give markets inspiration, next week’s Federal Reserve meeting might. Most analysts expect the Fed to raise short term interest rates for a fourth time this year, so doing that is unlikely to affect longer term rates like mortgage rates. Any effect is already baked in.

However, it’s what the Fed says after the meeting that probably will carry the most weight. Recent speeches by Fed governors have indicated the governors sense some risks to continued economic growth. If they translate those feelings into the post-meeting communication, rates could enter rally mode again. That said, I think a more likely outcome is an equivocal statement that leaves rate drifting through the end of the year absent something unexpected.

Rate update: Rising wages could thwart our rate rally

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Dec 052018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

It’s another jobs report week, and this could be an important one for mortgage rates. Rates have been trending down slowly for the last couple weeks aided by low oil prices and concerns about the sustainability of economic growth. It’s the latter that should be of more interest to those wanting lower interest rates.

While US economic data remains strong, market sentiment has become more equivocal. Several factors have contributed to this turn.

– The Federal Reserve has hiked short term interest rates three times this year and seems likely to hike again in a couple weeks. Markets worry that higher rates are going to choke off growth by making it harder for consumers and businesses to afford debt. An indication of their concern is the Treasury yield curve, the yield difference between short and long term Treasury bonds. The difference is as small as it’s been since the last recession and could go negative soon. A negative, or inverted yield curve has been an accurate indicator of recessions for the last half century.

– Even though the US economy appears strong, other economies have softened, and the World Bank continues to lower its estimates for global growth. Brexit and the Italian budget crisis add further uncertainty to the mix. A global slowdown should increase the appetite for US debt and reduce inflationary pressures, both of which help interest rates.

– Finally, some investors are simply worried the current economic expansion has gone on too long, and they don’t want to get caught on the wrong side of trading when it ends.

The wildcard this week is the jobs report on Friday. Watch the wage component of the report. Wage growth has moderated slightly since it jumped earlier this year. If that moderation continues, markets are likely to consider it a validation of the recent decline in rates. If the report shows elevated wage pressures, our recent holiday from higher rates could come to an end very quickly.

Rate update: Wages vs oil prices

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Nov 282018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

After a rather quiet Thanksgiving week, bond markets that determine interest rates begin the Christmas countdown, well, quietly. Mortgage rates remain near the bottom of their recent range. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for something, but what could that be?

I think they’re staring at two events looming on the horizon. First up is next week’s jobs report. Recent reports have shown the economy is humming, and wages are rising. It’s the wage component of the report that may garner the most attention. Rising wages usually translate into inflation, and inflation is the enemy of low interest rates.

The second event is the Federal Reserve’s Dec meeting at which it’s expected to raise short term rates another quarter point. It may be counter-intuitive, but that could be a good thing for lower mortgage rates. Talk is growing louder that the Fed is hiking rates too quickly, and not just from the President. Remember that bond traders determine rates, and traders are people. If traders think Fed rate hikes are going to stifle the economy, they may push rates down in acticipation of a weaker economy regardless of what they’re spending on Christmas.

I’ll give you one other data point to watch. Oil prices have been on a tear recently – lower. The price of oil factors into the cost of so many goods that its collapse has taken some of the wind out of the sails of inflation hawks. I suspect rates will have a hard time rising much as long as oil prices remain down.

Rate update: Giving thanks for lower rates

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Nov 192018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

Starting this holiday week, we find mortgage rates still hanging out in the same range they’ve held since the first part of Oct, albeit at the lower end of that range thanks to “flight to safety” market action last week. And it’s that action that possibly could deliver an early Christmas present of lower rates in the upcoming weeks.

First, let’s get through this week. Holiday weeks like this tend to produce limited overall rate movement because few traders are tuned in. In the odd case that remaining traders push rates higher or lower, the market probably will self-correct next week absent some unexpected headline. My conclusion is if you aren’t risk averse, odds are you’ll see similar rates next week given the current market sentiment.

Looking out a little further, we have the most positive outlook for lower rates that we’ve had since summer. While the US economy still looks incredibly strong, global conditions aren’t quite as rosy. Economists are starting to sound alarm bells about slowing global growth. On top of that, recent headlines about Brexit, the Italian budget drama, and emerging market difficulties are like wind gusts embedded in an increasing headwind.

Traders mostly had been ignoring these negative factor given the prospects for rising US inflation, increased government borrowing, and the Federal Reserve’s apparent rate hike plan, all of which support higher rates. However, last week’s inflation report showed inflation remains tame. Friday, the Fed’s Vice Chair acknowledged the potential effects of slowing global growth on the US economy, which made traders question the rate hike plan.

Overall, I think momentum favors slightly lower rates, but if you’re going to float your rate, be cautious. The US economy is still a powerhouse, and I’m not convinced yet we’ve seen the highest rates of this cycle.

Rate update: Good reason for rising rates

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Nov 052018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

A strong jobs report last Fri shot rates back up to their recent highs. Not only was the number of jobs created greater than expected, wage growth was at its highest since before the recession. Both stoked concerns about inflation, bad news for interest rates.

This week could be an interesting one for rates. First, this week’s Treasury auctions will debut newly increased auction amounts. It will be interesting to see if the current higher rates will be able to attract enough buyers or if even higher rates are needed to clear the auctions.

Later in the week, we have a Federal Reserve meeting. However, the chairman won’t have a post-meeting press conference, and no one expects the Fed to change its stance regarding interest rates at this meeting.

The wildcard this week is the election. It’s very likely markets have priced in the most likely outcome: Democrats take over the House and Republicans increase their numbers a little in the Senate. If we wake up Wed with different results, you can expect market volatility. Common wisdom suggests a bad night for Republicans could be good for lower rates as it would jeopardize the current trajectory of the economy.

If you’re floating your interest rate, I suggest caution. Rates are currently at the higher end of their recent range. Most pundits believe that if we break above that range, rates will move higher quickly.

A funny thing happened on the way to higher interest rates

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Oct 292018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

A funny thing happened on the way to higher interest rates.

The sell-off in the equities market last week put a pause on rising interest rates as all of that cash from stock sales needed somewhere to go, and some of it found its way into the bond market. The pause was a welcome respite, but it still leaves mortgage rates near 7-year highs. But with all the turmoil in equities, the question is why aren’t rate doing better?

Market sentiment of late seems to have focused on two things: continued strength in the US economy and continued monetary tightening from the Federal Reserve. Both support higher interest rates, and with rising inflation metrics this summer, most investors were betting rates would move even higher.

But this week, the punch wore off, and investors realized higher rates might dampen US economic growth. At least, that’s what the talking heads said. Personally, I’m not convinced it was just higher rates that caused the market turmoil. Investors have been piling on the side of higher rates for months now, and with the relaxation of global uncertainties last month, I think investors grew complacent about the risks to the global economy. But the world is still a scary place. Some of those uncertainties have reared their heads again, which balanced the scales – at least momentarily.

This coming week is a big one for US economic data. Strong data could stoke rates higher again. The inflation scare from this summer has subsided a bit, but I suspect all eyes will be on this Friday’s jobs report, especially the wage component. Unless we get a big surprise earlier in the week, I’m betting markets will keep rates in a narrow range waiting for Friday.

Rate update: Rates simply ran out of crises

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Sep 182018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

We were hoping last week’s inflation report would keep a lid on interest rates. Unfortunately, that lid didn’t hold, and we’re looking at the highest mortgage rates in about 5 years. Granted, rates still are historically low, but for some folks “rates in the 4’s” are now in the rear-view mirror.

So, what’s going on? We’re looking at a variety of factors.

– Even though last week’s inflation report was tame, inflation still is elevated compared to last year and supports the idea of additional Fed rate hikes.

– The Fed will again reduce its bond buying on Oct 1st as part of its efforts to shrink its balance sheet.

– Economic activity and consumer confidence have reached short-term highs, and a healthy economy tends to put pressure on rates.

– Wages finally seem to be rising, and rising wages typically filter through to higher consumer inflation and higher economic growth.

– Government borrowing to fund deficit spending means a greater supply of bonds as the Fed is tapering its demand.

Against this backdrop, we’ve had a series of mini-crises this year that kept investors on edge. Trade fears probably have been the most pervasive, but even the fear of with a trade war seems to be dissipating. The apocalyptic predictions didn’t pan out, and investors seem to be viewing the posturing as negotiating tactics rather than a real threat to the global economy.

Other threats still exist, and I think those will keeps rates from rising too much too fast. However, for now, if rates take a temporary dip, it probably makes sense to lock.

Rate update: Inflation rears its ugly head

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Sep 122018
 

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By G. Steven Bray

With summer behind us, things could get more interesting for interest rates. That may result in more volatility than we saw during the summer, but the same forces that were at work then remain relevant now.

Inflation remains enemy number one of those who want low interest rates. We’ve talked the last few months about how consumer inflation seems to be inching higher, but wage inflation has remained mostly contained. Well, that changed with last week’s jobs report. Average hourly earnings broke through an important ceiling, and rates quickly responded by moving higher. More importantly, total wages, which factors in hours worked, are up 5.1% in the past year. That provides a lot of extra juice for the economy.

Interestingly, earnings for workers in the bottom 10% based on income saw earnings grow 3.9% whereas the top 10% saw only 1.2% growth. That’s positive for the economy because lower income workers are more likely to spend their extra earnings.

Now, the question is will these extra earnings translate into extra consumer demand leading to higher consumer prices. We may get an answer this Thurs through the release of the Consumer Price Index. As we’ve discussed before, the CPI is the granddaddy of inflation measures. The core rate has been rising slowly all year and currently exceeds 2%, the Fed’s supposed target rate. It’s a good bet if Thursday’s reading shows another rise, it will give markets a jolt.

Markets also may be watching the European Central Bank meeting this week. European economic growth has been positive, but not all that and a bag of chips. Rumors are the ECB may downgrade its future growth estimates. That may result in some flight-to-safety bond buying, which could help keep US rates contained.