It’s Our Turn - Total Return Market Outlook
Seizing on the success the equity market had in forcing Federal Reserve (“Fed”) chairman Powell’s hand in January 2019, the bond market decided to take its own swing at dictating Fed policy. Treasuries rallied sharply – although without the requisite widening of corporate or mortgage spreads – signaling that this move was not your generic flight to quality. Instead, it seemed to engineer a self-gratifying outcome – lower rates with the Fed on hold (and perhaps leaning toward an ease). When the dust settled on the first quarter, Treasuries built on their substantial fourth quarter rally and saw rates fall 20-27 basis points (bps) across the yield curve, led by the 5-year point (a signature of this type of rally). With the 5-year yield at 2.24%, it is a full 26 bps below the high end of the range of the federal funds rate. All maturities out to 10-year are now below 2.50%, and while the traditional metric of the 2-year/10-year yield spread never inverted, it is safe to broadly assert that both the Treasury and swap curves have exhibited inversion. Remarkably, the Treasury market’s own barometer of growth – the Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) market – exhibited a recovery of its own, with 10-year breakeven yields rising 16 bps to 1.87%. This was not a repeat of the fourth quarter.
Corporate credit fared particularly well as participants began to leg back into risk assets after the dislocation of the markets at the end of 2018. Credit spreads started 2019 at 153 bps (above Treasuries), peaked in the first week of the year at 157 bps but have steadily compressed to 119 bps by the end of the quarter. The fear of impending doom in the BBB space also faded as investors reached for yield with the Baa sector outperforming higher quality groups. The Baa cohort tightened 39 bps outperforming its higher rated peers (A tightened 29 bps, Aa 23 bps and Aaa 13 bps). New issuance of corporate credit also began the year at an anemic pace but gained momentum with volumes of issuance matching the first quarter of last year of $320 billion. Overall, the corporate sector performed extremely well resulting in an excess return versus duration-matched Treasuries of 2.66%, which was its best quarter since 2012. And not to be totally ignored, mortgages also outperformed duration-matched Treasuries by 27 bps.
Looking forward, we are loath to invest in the belly of the yield curve – specifically maturities between 3-7 years. We believe the rally in this part of the curve is completely overdone. However, we believe the support from global central banks and a reemergence of growth will be supportive for credit, and we will likely maintain an overweight to spread product and TIPS in the short-intermediate term. We believe the second and third quarters will be a period of consolidation in the rates markets, but that economies globally will begin to respond to the incremental central bank stimulus (in particular by the ECB and China). Security selection will become more and more important as spreads tighten and offer less margin for error. As we have pointed out previously, we expect significant differentiation between winners and losers – especially in lower-rated corporates. Mortgages remain somewhat attractive versus Treasuries despite a substantial uptick in the Mortgage Bankers Association Refinance Index in March; we believe any refinance event will be relatively contained and limited to high quality borrowers that originated loans in the last 12-24 months (at higher rates).
In the portfolio, we took advantage of the volatility late last year and added long credit and TIPS exposure. While we reduced these holdings a bit during the first quarter as both asset classes posted solid returns to add mortgage-backed security exposure, we expect to maintain a substantial position in both corporate bonds and TIPS (in lieu of nominal Treasuries). We also maintain our non-consensus view that the next Fed rate move will be a hike, although probably not until 2020 – and as a result, expect to be reasonably defensive in our duration exposure. Specifically, we are satisfied with earning attractive yields at the very front-end of the yield curve, coupled with some exposure in the long-end of the curve (10+ years), particularly in corporates where spreads still have some room to tighten. We favor taking spread duration risk over interest rate duration at these levels of rates and spreads.
As always, we thank you for your support and welcome any questions or comments you might have.
Eddy Vataru, John Sheehan, Daniel Oh