Negative Interest Rates: What Color is the Dress?

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by Brad Houle, CFA
Executive Vice President

In Europe there are now more than $4 trillion in bonds that have a negative yield, a number which is about 15 percent of the global bond market. The countries of Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are all unfortunate members of this club for at least part of their respective yield curves. What this means is investors are paying a government such as Germany for the privilege of loaning them money. This is contrary to the concept of compound interest or the time value of money. In the investment profession we do not use the word “guarantee” as it can cause trouble with our chief compliance officer or possibly the SEC. However, with negative yielding bonds you are all but guaranteed to lose money except in the circumstance where the yield on the bond goes more negative. In this instance you can then sell the bond for more than you paid for it earning a small profit. This is a flimsy investment thesis at best.

Bond yields in Europe are negative for fear of falling inflation and the fact that the European Central Bank is purchasing large quantities of sovereign debt in an effort to hopefully stimulate the economy. All of this begs the question: who is buying these bonds with negative interest rates and why? Some bond managers are forced to buy negative yielding bonds due to flows of funds into the mutual funds they manage. For example, if the bond manager is managing an index fund that replicates the debt markets of countries experiencing negative yields and receives cash deposited in the fund, the manager is forced to invest in bonds in markets that are outlined in the prospectus of the fund. In addition, many investors are restricted to investing in very narrow slices of the bond market. Owning sovereign debt is important to banks due to regulatory capital requirements. This means that banks need to own high quality assets as part of their capital in order to makes loans to customers. For instance, it’s likely that a bank in Germany will need to own negative yielding German government bonds as capital.

The long-term implications of negative yields are unknown. This phenomenon has been exceedingly rare in history and has never been this widespread. We have received questions from clients as to the chances of this happening in the United States. Short-term treasury bills did go negative for a time during the financial crisis in 2008; however, we do not believe that we will see negative interest rates in the United States anytime soon. While it is possible, the U.S. has inflation of 1.6 percent, as measured by the Consumer Price Index last month, and the U.S. also has GDP growth of 2.2 percent. These facts would suggest higher interest rates as opposed to negative interest rates.

 Our Takeaways for the Week:

  • Risks of negative interest rates in the United States are low. Our economy is growing as evidenced by consumer spending in the United States. Household consumption grew by 4.2 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2014. Consumer spending, which comprises 70 percent of the economy, has been robust due to a strong labor market and falling gas prices

Disclosures

Take Your Time

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by Ralph Cole, CFA
Executive Vice President of Research

Take Your Time

Greece and Euro Area finance ministers reached a tentative agreement Friday to buy time for Greece to get their financial house in order. The EU has agreed to provide liquidity for up to four additional months if Greece provides a sufficient list of measures they are willing to undertake.1

Greece will have a primary budget surplus in 2015 which means they will have a budget surplus – if you don’t count debt payments. While this may seem unrealistic, it does mean the Greek government could continue to operate if they stop paying their creditors. However, this would not be in the best interest of anyone. Greek bonds would drop in value, as would some of the bonds of other peripheral countries. This situation is known as financial contagion. Greece in and of itself is not a huge economy (it is approximately the size of Indiana), but the world is trying to judge the effectiveness the European Union. Can they hold it together?

We believe that the EU can indeed keep it together in the near-term. In the future, it may be in the best interest of some countries, Greece as one example, to move out of the Eurozone. If a country finds itself politically unable to work within the confines of the European Union, they may want to exit the agreement in order to control their own budgets and currency. The EU would rather have this happen during a time of strength, rather than at a time of ongoing economic stress.

Waiting on a Friend (Fed)

The Federal Reserve board meeting minutes were released Wednesday and markets deemed them to be dovish; meaning that the Fed is afraid of raising rates too soon and choking off a fragile recovery. The surprise to us is that people continue to refer to this as a recovery. Both U.S. GDP and the S&P 500 are at all-time highs and the U.S. passed through recovery territory years ago. While nothing is a foregone conclusion, we believe the Fed will raise rates later this year. There will be a lot of hand wringing over the first Fed rate hike (there always is), but we believe the economy is on very sound footing and can handle higher rates. While it could happen in June, it will most likely happen in the second half of the year. This topic will be discussed ad nauseam throughout the year, but we view tightening as a positive. A rate hike will be a signal to the markets that the financial crisis is officially behind us and extraordinary measures of liquidity are no longer needed.

Takeaways for the Week:

  • The Greek debt story is not over, but they do have more time
  • We expect the Fed to raise rates later this year

1 Source: Bloomberg

Disclosures

S&P: 500 Shades of Profit

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Shawn-00397_cmykby Shawn Narancich, CFA
Executive Vice President of Research

S&P: 500 Shades of Profit

Blue-chip U.S. stocks are again in record territory, reminding investors of the powerful backdrop that near-universal easy money policy has in keeping the capital markets liquid. The start to 2015 shares parallels with the same period last year, when growth worries precipitated by a severe winter domestically and concerns about Fed tapering gave way to a better economy in the second half of the year. This time around, a seemingly intractable conflict in eastern Ukraine, our next installment of the Greek funding drama and fears of the effects of a strong dollar on fourth quarter profits combined to put a chill in markets to begin the year. But once again, stocks have climbed the proverbial wall of worry as fourth quarter profits have come in better than expected, a new truce in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian sponsored rebels was reached, and the new leaders of Greece practice the well-worn art of brinksmanship. The result for fixed income investors is reduced returns as benchmark Treasuries have lost some of their flight-to-safety bid.

Ringing the Cash Register?

With gasoline prices having plunged to the $2.00-per-gallon level, investors could be forgiven for expecting a better retail sales report than that which was delivered for January. Lower gas prices have freed up well over $100 billion of disposable income for the U.S. consumer, so why have retail sales declined for two consecutive months? Clearly, the math of lower fuel prices dampens the headline number, but the expectation is that savings at the pump will be spent elsewhere. Some of the explanation appears to reside in historical data showing that consumers don’t immediately spend windfalls from sources such as tax rebates and savings at the pump and, in deference to the latter, our opinion is that low energy costs will prove to be fleeting. Notwithstanding our skepticism about today’s low price of oil, we would observe that the U.S. consumer is in great shape, benefitting from faster job growth, benign inflation overall and the wealth effect from higher home prices and values of investment portfolios. So despite weakness in the past couple retail sales reports, we believe it’s premature to give up on the U.S. consumer. In fact, we believe consumption expenditures will lead the economy to new record highs in 2015.

Glimmers of Hope in Europe

Despite being disadvantaged by rigid labor laws that prevent free hiring and firing and excessively high tax rates the Continent’s sluggish economy picked up ever so slightly in the final quarter of last year. While a 1.4 percent growth rate is nothing to write home about, it beats recession. It also acknowledges the salving impact of low European interest rates and fuel costs, a dramatically weaker euro that has stimulated export, and tentative labor market reforms in Spain that have begun to have their intended effect. Meanwhile, Germany remains Europe’s economic engine and primary beneficiary of the weaker currency. European investors cheered the economic news and positive developments on the geopolitical front by bidding blue-chip shares there to new 7-year highs.

As the sun begins to set on another earnings season, we feel reasonably good about the results that have been delivered. For the most part, U.S. companies have done a solid job offsetting strong dollar headwinds with continued efficiency gains and additional sales from a relatively healthy U.S. economy.

Our Takeaways from the Week

  •  As another decent earnings season begins to wind down, U.S. stocks are back at record highs
  •  Disappointing retail sales in January are likely to give way to healthier gains ahead

Disclosures

Liquid Courage

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by Jason Norris, CFA
Executive Vice President of Research

Volatility increased this past week in most asset classes with oil being in focus. In the last two weeks, crude oil is up roughly 20 percent, its best two-week move in 17 years. While the demand picture has not changed, we have seen U.S. oil and gas companies announce major employment cuts and capital expenditure reductions for 2015. We believe that there has been some “short covering” in the market which has led to recent strength. Our belief is that by year-end, oil prices will be between to $60-$70/barrel, due to reduced supply in the U.S. In the face of this, we do believe we see some opportunity in energy stocks. While earnings continue to come down, we think we can find value in select names with strong balance sheets.

All Over the Road

As mentioned earlier, the energy complex was not the only asset class exhibiting volatility. In the first five weeks of 2015, the S&P 500 has been either up or down more than 1 percent 11 times, which is 44 percent of the trading days. To put it in perspective, last year the S&P 500 moved this much only 15 percent of the time. The chart below highlights the last five years.

Days the S&P 500 Was Up or Down More Than 1 Percent

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Number of Days 96 50 38 38 11
Percent of total trading days 38% 20% 15% 15% 44%

Source: FactSet

This year is setting up to be similar to 2011, a year that  saw a lot of uncertainty due to surprisingly poor U.S. GDP growth, a U.S. debt downgrade and the European crisis coming to the forefront. All this uncertainty resulted in a flat market for 2011, but it was a rollercoaster ride. We believe the fundamentals of the U.S. economy and the recent actions of the European Central Bank leave the foundation of the global economy a little firmer. We don’t think the volatility mitigates itself; however, we do believe that equity returns will be better than 2011.

Working for the Weekend

Heading into a wet weekend on the west coast, the monthly jobs report this morning was very strong with the U.S. economy adding 257,000 jobs in January. The unemployment rate ticked up to 5.7 percent due to an increase in people looking for jobs, which is a positive for the economy. This is only a small part of the story. Job gains for December and November were revised higher by 147,000. The third leg of the stool of the January jobs report was an uptick in wages. Wages bounced back after a disappointing December, rising 0.5 percent month-over-month. With a strong labor market and unemployment close to the Fed’s target, we believe this wage growth will persist throughout 2015. This further reinforces our view that 2015 will be a good year for “Main Street.”

Our Takeaways for the Week: 

  • Main Street will fare better than Wall Street in 2015
  • Adding to high quality energy names at this time could pay dividends in 2015

Disclosures