US interest rates moved higher on the week and the yield curve steepened. US 10-year yields closed at 1.85%, the highest level since late May. The 10-year was up 11 basis points on the week with two-year yields up three basis points. Stronger economic data and a Federal Reserve (Fed) rate hike coming closer in to view were the primary drivers for the move higher in yields. Most market participants anticipate no change in the policy rate following next week’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting but most do expect a hike at the December meeting. Across either meeting fully 85% of the market expects a rate hike before year end.
Recent US economic data support a rate hike. Today’s third quarter GDP came in stronger than expected at 2.9%. That was the fastest growth rate in two years and up from the 1.4% reported in the second quarter. Growth was helped by an increase in exports and by an increase in inventories. The report showed consumer spending was also solid.
New home sales reported earlier in the week also showed some strength. Sales were up 3.1% versus August to a 593,000 annualized rate. Improving labor markets with both job and wage growth coupled with still very low mortgage rates are helping home sales. In fact recent new home sales are the highest they have been since 2007. The Case-Shiller home price index for August was also released this week and showed an increase of 5.1% versus a year ago with prices supported by stronger wages, low rates and limited housing supply.
So, much like last year, the stage is set for a Fed rate hike in December. The question is will markets face the same kind of melt down we saw last time around? Risk assets did very poorly in the weeks following the last FOMC rate hike. US equities moved down over 10% and US high yield was down over 6%. Indeed oil prices moved sharply lower in January but who expected that a well telegraphed 25 basis points hike in the Fed funds would be responsible for all that volatility?
Risk assets have since recovered that under-performance and then some. After falling more than 10%, US equities are up 4% year-to-date and the excess return for US high yield so far in 2016 is an astonishing 12.9%. 10-year yields at 1.85% are a full 40 basis points lower than they were at the start of the year. Meanwhile, measures of volatility including the MOVE index and the VIX continue to trend lower.
What this means of course is that the reward for risk taking are lower now than they have been in some time. Yield advantages for taking credit risk and duration risk are quite low. At the same time the markets see the Fed moving toward hiking the policy rate and reducing the level of unconventional policy accommodation. We hear increased chatter about the need for additional fiscal policy measures as we approach the limitations of monetary policy measures. We see potential for volatility around elections in the US where both candidates are advocating measures which will increase government spending.
In our view things are different now than they were last December when the Fed hiked with the US economy expanding and oil prices stable. The US dollar has firmed and reported corporate earnings have surprised to the upside supporting equity valuations. We seem to have made it through the historically scary month of October without an issue. But given tight valuations, low implied volatilities, and potentially market moving events on the calendar, we would exercise caution. After all it is Halloween and things should be at least a little scary!Download to read more