The recent spike in Treasury yields could very well be signaling a change in trend direction. We rarely try to pick tops or bottoms in major trending markets. It simply doesn’t pay. However, we’re seeing lots of corroborating evidence that this may signal a shift in the global macroeconomic outlook. Therefore, this is one of the rare times when a pull back within the interest rate sector may not be a buying opportunity. In fact, if this is the beginning of the Great Unwinding we need to focus on all of the evidence to obtain a complete picture view, all the way from the trading screens to the man on the street.
The trading screens always provide the first clues of market direction. It’s important to remember that prices and yields trade inversely to each other. Therefore, when the price of the security rises, the interest rate declines. The opposite is also true. This is why we can talk about all time high prices and record low yields in the same sentence. The 10-year Treasury Note is the global proxy for US interest rates.
The last leg of this rally began in late November of 2007. The employment situation was starting to deteriorate and interest rate adjustment was the primary tool the Federal Reserve used to pump life into a faltering economy – prior to the economic collapse. The Fed lowered rates by a quarter point in four out of the last five months of 2007. They lowered rates eight more times in 2008 and finally committed to a zero rate policy in February of 2010.
The combined inventive efforts at the Fed eventually drove the 10-year rate to an all time low just under 1.5% in the cash market and an all time low on the 10-year futures of 2.3%. This is where it starts to get interesting. The 10-year Note has been trading at a negative real return for over a year. This means the interest generated by the instrument’s yield would not keep pace with inflation’s erosion of principle. The recent sell off has pushed its nominal yield above 2% while inflation is expected to remain a hair under that mark. Thus, bringing our first, “normal” look at a yield curve in ages.
The high water mark set in early May was fueled in part by Japan’s concerted depreciation of the Yen. The markets were well prepared for this. The US has provided massive stimulus over the last five years. Europe has added their share over the last three years through Greece, Spain and now, Cyprus. The logical next step in a globally competitive devaluation race was obviously a form of Quantitative Easing by Japan. Commercial traders here in the US stocked up on 10year Notes, accumulating their largest long position since February of 2008. Their expectation was that we would continue pushing the zero bound interest rate plan.
This may very well be one of the rare times when the commercial traders are just plain wrong. Historically, they’ve been very good at forecasting rate direction. This time the largest trading group may have been faked out as a whole. Two important points bring this home. First of all, their buying did fuel a rally to new highs…by a hair. Secondly, the weekly chart is beginning to show an obvious reversal bar. Will this turn into an, “Everybody out of the pool,” moment? I doubt it. However, I do expect them to continue to offload recent purchases, which will build up resistance on any attempted rallies.
The other primary point to make is the effect of the rise in interest rates on the housing market and its effect on the anemic economic recovery 99% of us have participated in. The national average 30-year mortgage has climbed by nearly 25% over the last few weeks rising from 3.4% to 4.2% according to Bankrate.com. This will have a big impact on the housing market, which had just begun to clear some inventory. This will also affect mortgage refinancing just as the deadline for governmental forgiveness approaches. The result of the spike in interest rates has caused a decline in the broad S&P 500 of nearly 4%. Meanwhile, the homebuilders ETF (XHB) has declined by almost 10%. The homebuilders have been a primary driver of the broad market’s rally since 2012 gaining nearly 100% in two years.
Higher interest rates are the last thing any of the major economies can afford. Half a decade’s worth of rate cuts, Quantitative Easing and Operation Twist, etc. have created a coiled spring of leveraged money hunting for that last bit of yield. The major reversal bar in the 10-year futures coupled with a large, unprofitable, commercial trader’s position could leave them left holding the hot potato. At its worst, this spike in rates steers us towards stagflation. An environment with rising inflation and no growth characterizes this. How far it spills over into the markets is unsure. Please call with any questions as this may well mark the inflexion point of what has been THE dominant trend over the last five years.
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