Are We Heading Towards a Recession?

The stock market is considered one of several leading economic indicators. Since 1949 markets have turned lower on average seven months prior to recessions, with a median pullback of about 9%.  However, this includes a wide range of numbers and in six out of the last nine recessions stocks were actually positive for the preceding twelve month period. Recently, investors’ recession fears have jumped in light of increased market volatility. While these concerns are understandable, we prefer to take a broader view when gauging the health of the U.S. economy. Doing so suggests more factors are working in favor of the current expansion than against it, and we could have more room to run.

As of March 1st, the United States entered its 105th month of economic expansion – the third longest on record. If gross domestic product (GDP) remains positive through May, the current expansion will become the second longest in U.S. history. While subpar growth has helped extend the length of this economic cycle, it’s important to acknowledge that we are likely in the later innings of the expansion that started in 2009.

Despite its unusual length, our economy has several factors working in its favor. These include strong corporate earnings growth, a healthy consumer, and improving business spending. Corporate earnings have improved significantly following a decline in 2015 that was tied to lower oil prices and an appreciating U.S. dollar. Likewise, the recently passed tax law — which reduced the U.S. corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% — should provide a significant boost to corporate spending in the months and years ahead. In fact, we’ve already seen a pick-up in capital expenditures from businesses as they’ve been able to return more cash held abroad at lower tax levels.

Although business spending has been notably weak for most of this economic cycle, the consumer has been a major contributor to GDP growth since 2009 and remains healthy. Strong jobs growth and recent gains in wage growth should continue to support household spending. While markets are concerned that the recent gains in wage growth suggest inflation may be heating up, it’s important to remember that for the last nine years investors were more worried about deflation. We would suggest the recent increases in wage growth reflect a healthy development, one that indicates a return to more normal conditions.

To that point, U.S. inflation has been persistently below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target since the Financial Crisis.  With the recent uptick in wage growth, the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index (PCE) – what the Fed uses to track inflation – is now up only 1.7% on a year-over-year basis.  Contrary to investor concerns, this would not suggest an over-heating price environment but a return to healthy inflation levels. Gradually rising inflation will also allow the Federal Reserve Open Markets Committee (FOMC) to continue to normalize interest rates, which have been at unusually low levels. Higher yields will help support millions of retirees on fixed incomes, stabilize many pension funds, and most importantly give the FOMC wiggle room to lower rates when the next downturn occurs.

As the FOMC continues to raise rates this year, investors and economists will be closely monitoring the yield curve. The yield curve is a line that plots the interest rates of bonds with the same credit ratings but different maturities. During economic expansions, the yield curve is usually upward sloping as bonds with longer maturities typically have higher yields. However, since 1901 there have been seventeen inverted yield curves (when the yields on shorter maturity bonds exceed those on longer maturity bonds) that have persisted four months or longer, all of which have been followed by a recession. Thus, an inverted yield curve that stays inverted for at least four months has never produced a “false positive” recession reading. This stands in contrast with the stock market, which as the late Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson once said, “has accurately predicted 9 of the last 5 recessions”.

Towards the end of 2017 the yield curve began to flatten. This caused some investors to worry it would invert, indicating a recession was around the corner. Starting in late January stock market volatility and bond yields jumped, amplifying investors’ recession fears. Ironically, the stock market turbulence and higher interest rates helped push the yield curve higher. Although the recent market swings and decline in bond prices (resulting from higher yields) were unpleasant, they are helping to avoid an inverted yield curve – one of our most reliable recession predictors.

In short, we see more positives than negatives regarding the economy. At the same time, it’s evident that we are in the later innings of the current expansion and risks such as high corporate debt levels, rising interest rates, and above-average asset valuations could trigger the next recession. Accurately predicting when that will happen, however, is a difficult job for even the most astute economists and investors. Fortunately when looking at the prior nine recessions since 1957, stocks have declined just 1.5% on average and market returns one-, three-, and five-years following past recessions have been significantly positive. Granted, the stock market during any individual recession may be significantly negative, but in four out of the last nine recessions, stocks actually rose. These statistics support our belief in long-term investing and using market pullbacks as opportunities to add to positions at lower prices.

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What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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