U.S. Treasuries are offering a lesson in supply and demand.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury auctioned $258 billion in bonds. Treasury auctions are the way the United States government finances its debt. The Treasury sells short-, intermediate-, and long-term IOUs, known as bills, notes, and bonds. When investors and governments purchase bonds, they agree to lend money to the United States. In return, the United States agrees to pay an amount of interest over a certain period of time. At the end of that time, the government is expected to repay the money borrowed.
The price and interest paid on U.S. government debt is determined by supply and demand. When there are few bonds and a lot of demand, prices rise and interest rates fall. When there are a lot of bonds and little demand, prices fall and interest rates rise.
Last week, Barron’s reported, “The law of supply and demand meant that the glut of new Treasuries temporarily drove down prices and pushed up yields. The 10-year Treasury climbed during the week – brushing 2.95 percent – but ultimately lost half a basis point, ending at 2.87 percent. (A basis point is a hundredth of a percentage point.)”
The Treasury increased its debt issuance to fund tax reform and the two-year federal budget. Reuters reported, “…tax reform is expected to add as much as $1.5 trillion to the federal debt load, while the budget agreement would increase government spending by almost $300 billion over the next two years.”
A surplus of Treasury bonds, in tandem with decreased demand as the Federal Reserve reduces the holdings it accumulated during quantitative easing (an unconventional monetary policy in which a central bank purchases government securities in order to lower interest rates, increase the money supply, and stimulate the economy), could push Treasury rates higher. In addition, MarketWatch reported the Federal Reserve appears to be committed to gradually increasing the Fed funds rate to avoid an overheating economy and keep inflation down.
Higher interest rates may be coming.
As New York Fashion Week ended, inflation strutted its stuff.
Ever since the Federal Reserve began raising the Fed funds rate in 2015, analysts have been anticipating higher inflation. The fact that price increases remained relatively small was a perplexing mystery. Then, last week, inflation increased faster than expected.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the Consumer Price Index (CPI), one measure of inflation, rose 0.5 percent in January. As you might expect, the cost of some items rose faster than others. For example, energy costs rose by 3.0 percent, while the cost of food was up 0.2 percent. In total, during the last 12 months, the all-items index rose 2.1 percent. When food and energy are excluded, the increase was 1.8 percent.
Barron’s reported, “Leaving aside the month-to-month squiggles, the real story is that inflation is closing in on the Fed’s 2 percent target…And even if January’s rise in the CPI was overstated, a real cyclical uptrend is under way…Deflation in the prices of consumer goods we like to buy is ending; the rate of increase in the cost of things we have to buy either is rising, as for food and energy, or remains high, as for services or rent.”
Higher prices are one side of the inflation coin; the other side is higher interest rates. Inflation is one of the data points the Federal Reserve considers when determining how well the economy is performing. Rising inflation signals a robust economy. That may encourage the Fed to raise rates more aggressively during 2018 to prevent the economy from overheating. The possibility of more concerted Fed tightening helped bump U.S. treasury rates higher last week.
Higher interest rates could become a boon for income-oriented investors. For years, persistently low rates have caused some investors to accept higher risk than they might have otherwise. As interest rates move higher, there may be opportunities to reduce portfolio risk and still generate attractive levels of income.
Despite inflation-inspired volatility mid-week, stock markets around the world moved higher. In the United States, major indices once again moved into positive territory for 2018.
Back to reality...
After months of eerie calm, stock market volatility has returned. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) – a measure of how turbulent investors expect stock markets to be during the next 30 days – appeared to fall asleep in November 2016. For more than a year, a level of serenity that is rarely associated with stock markets prevailed and U.S. share prices moved steadily higher.
It appears that time is behind us. Barron’s wrote:
“With February’s swift stock market correction, volatility has arrived and will probably stay awhile. The downturn last week ended a streak of 404 trading days without a 5 percent drop in stock prices from the previous high – the longest such streak in market history.
The last correction came in February 2016, when stocks dropped 15 percent. Investors then fretted that Chinese economic growth might be slowing, which turned out to be a false alarm. Long term, the latest nose dive might yet become just a bull speed bump, but there’s already been plenty of pain.”
So, is this a speed bump or is it the beginning of a bear market? A bear market, generally, is a decline of 20 percent or more, and it is normally accompanied by a recession, which is a significant decline in economic activity.
In general, financial firms and publications do not anticipate a recession in 2018, but forecasting recessions can be challenging.
No matter what happens, the key is keeping your head. At times like these, emotion grabs investors by the throat, and it can be difficult to recall markets and economies tend to move in cycles. Historically, bull markets lead to bear markets, which lead to bull markets. Likewise, economic expansions are followed by contractions (recessions), which are followed by expansions.
U.S. stock markets rallied on Friday, but the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, Dow Jones Industrial Index, and NASDAQ all finished the week more than 5 percent lower.
It was not a good week for stocks. Last week, stock markets around the world lost value. In the United States, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500), Dow Jones Industrial Index (Dow), and NASDAQ all finished lower.
Some pundits have been drawing comparisons between the performance of the Dow last Friday and Black Monday, the memorable day in 1987 when the index shed 508 points in a single day. They may be barking up the wrong tree.
Yes, the Dow lost more than 600 points on Friday. That was about 2.5 percent of its value. On Black Monday a lesser drop equated to a 22 percent loss for the Dow. In addition, Black Monday was widely attributed to program trading gone awry. The culprit behind last Friday’s fall is likely to be bonds, according to Barron’s.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury announced it would begin selling more short-term government bonds to fund the rising budget deficit. That sparked concerns about the impact of a bigger bond supply on interest rates. When bond supply exceeds demand, interest rates typically go up to attract investors. The United States already has ample bond supply since the Federal Reserve curtailed its bond buying program. Financial Times reported:
“Equity investing involves a delicate balance of three things: earnings, interest rates and valuation. Over the past decade, low long-term bond yields have played a crucial role in helping elevate equity valuations… ‘You have to consistently show economic and earnings growth to justify these valuations at higher rates,’ says Nicholas Colas, co-founder at DataTrek. ‘People forget how closely tied economic and profit growth is to rising rates – it is a horse race and profit growth has to win – even if just by a little.’”
News about employment and wage gains added fuel to the fire of investor worries. In January, the United States experienced its strongest wage growth since 2009. While that’s good news for workers, it may cause the Fed to raise rates more aggressively in an effort to keep inflation manageable.