Insights

Welcome to the Experiment Economy! The first experiment started some 10 years ago, as the Federal Reserve Board engaged in unprecedented quantitative easing in an effort to prevent a financial system meltdown. Universally considered a success by analysts, now it is time to for the Fed to engage in the second half of its experiment: reversing course. 

 

Since its origination in 1986, the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) has been a standard benchmark for short-term rates. LIBOR is reset daily based on submissions from a collection of contributing banks. These banks submit yields at which they believe they could obtain short-term loans from other banks. The average rate sets the benchmark for floating rate securities and other financial transactions. 

U.S interest rate markets had a topsy-turvy month. At mid-month the 10-year Treasury note yield spiked to 3.10%, before rapidly falling to 2.78% and finishing the month at 2.83%. The shape of the yield curve followed suit, initially steepening before flattening. At month-end, the 2-10 year spread was 43 basis points (bps), nearly unchanged from the prior month. 

Interest rates rose in April, with the 10-year Treasury yield piercing the 3.0% level for the first time since 2014, before closing the month at 2.94%. The slope of the 2- to 10-year portion of the yield curve changed little; the 10- to 30-year curve flattened. Despite the rise in rates, the bond market appeared to shrug off stock market volatility and the trade war rhetoric that dominated the news early in the month.

What a difference a new year makes! Having been lulled into complacency with respect to volatility, financial markets – particularly the domestic equity markets – got a rude awakening in early February. Suddenly, the “short vol” trade came to a screeching halt, and equities entered a period of heightened volatility with a distinctly downward trend. Exacerbated by political developments (principally, fears of a trade war), revaluation of tech stocks, and the challenge of rising interest rates, equities finished the period in a downward swoon.

Interest rate worries and oversized bets on continued market stability led to severe gyrations in the stock market in February. The Treasury market followed suit, with significant intra-day price fluctuations. The yield of the 10-year note finished the month 16 basis points (bps) higher. The yield curve steepened by approximately 8 bps from 2 to 30 years.

Bond markets sold off in dramatic fashion in January. The 10-year Treasury note yield rose 32 basis points (bps). The yield curve steepened modestly through 10 years, but flattened from 10 to 30 years. Equities posted large gains. The financial markets responded to more positive global economic news, strong earnings domestically, and momentum from the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) was signed into law on December 22, 2017. Most provisions of the new law affecting individuals and businesses went into effect on January 1, 2018, including new tax brackets and new standard deductions. One of the most dramatic changes is the approach to corporate taxes. TCJA lowers the corporate income tax rate to 21% and moves the United States from a worldwide to a territorial system of taxation.

The volatility in weather conditions stands in stark contrast to the level of volatility in financial markets. During 2017, the yield on the 10-year maturity U.S. Treasury note rarely ventured out of a 25 basis point band, and ended the year only 8 basis points higher than where it began. Even more notable was the lack of volatility in domestic equity markets, where the VIX inched lower as stock prices surged. 

Against a backdrop of generally positive economic news, enthusiasm over potential tax cuts, a roaring equity market, and an upward move in oil and commodity prices, the Treasury market had yet another month of limited volatility. Ten-year yields fell six basis points (bps) before rising to a 2.43% yield at month-end, just a few bps higher than the October close.