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October 2023 Outlook: The roar of rising rates

October 13, 2023

Federal Reserve - Central Banking at sunset.

In bond markets, the late-cycle environment typically concludes because of central banks. Either short-term rates move higher, driven by central banks fighting inflation until the bitter end, or central banks recognize that rates have risen too steeply and too fast, so cuts get priced into short-term rates. To have long-term interest rates lead the charge higher, as has been the case very recently, is highly unusual. Indeed, market pricing for central bank rate moves over the coming year has barely budged. Yet, since the July Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, US 10-year yields have marched relentlessly higher. In September alone, they surged 48 basis points (bps) to 4.6% while 30-year yields rose 50 bps to 4.7%. As of the first week of October, both are now at their highest level since 2007. Many factors are at play, but understanding the reasons behind the moves matters because it influences how much higher rates could still go.

  • The most straightforward explanation for the persistent increase is that at the beginning of the year, many market participants anticipated, and were positioned for, a recession that we now know won’t materialize in 2023. With evidence that the economy can withstand the tightening to date, combined with ongoing high inflation and wage gains, the outcome is fewer expected rate cuts through 2025. Essentially, rates will remain higher for longer. The US Federal Reserve (Fed) has signaled this in its latest Summary of Economic Projections. Thus, the rise has been almost entirely in real interest rates, which reflects a more optimistic growth outlook as long-term inflation expectations have been flat.
  • US Treasury supply is entering into a rough spot. Massive US deficits are expected to persist (see September Outlook). Debt maturities are skewed towards the short end of an inverted yield curve where yields exceed 5%. Interest payments are skyrocketing and new issuance is on the rise.
  • US Treasury demand is also falling, notably through the Fed’s quantitative tightening program, that is allowing $60 billion of bonds each month to no longer be rolled over. This equates to some US$800 billion of bonds being returned to the market. But, more importantly, the enormous and growing twin international trade and fiscal deficits raise concerns over where the US will attract investors from to fund this deficit. While historically, holding the world’s lone reserve currency has alleviated this, a rising number of foreign trade transactions are shifting away from the USD, a byproduct of reversing globalization trends. This suggests that long-term rates must increase to effectively attract savings into the treasury supply.
  • Looking ahead, there is now some reconsideration of the neutral rate of interest (where inflation at 2% is consistent with economic growth), and whether it might surpass the Fed’s current estimate of around 2.5%.

Notably, this is not restricted to the US; yields globally have also been on the upswing. Even in Japan, the 10-year rate, which had held near 0% since 2016, has climbed to 0.79%. Indeed, rates are up universally (see Chart 1), Canada included. However, many of these fundamental factors are less of a problem in Canada, which maintains a large and active pension and insurance sector in need of long-duration assets. Moreover, considering assets in social security programs like the Canada Pension Plan, overall debt levels on a net basis and associated interest costs appear much healthier. The “resilient economy” perspective is less applicable to Canada. While incomes enjoyed the benefits of a prior rise in short-term interest rates, resulting in a surge of inflows to money markets funds and GICs, this latest rally in long-term yields has not shown a similar benefit. Furthermore, a mortgage debt maturity wall looms large from 2025 on, and we believe consumers will cut back spending in anticipation of financial challenges.

Chart 1: Surge higher in global bond yields

Chart 1 shows a time series of an average 10-year bond yield across developed markets (including Canada, Germany, Japan, the UK, France, Italy, the US, and Australia), starting in 2020. The chart shows a surge in the average yield in 2022, followed by a more stable trading range through 2023. More recently, the average yield has broken higher beyond the recent trading range.

Source: Macrobond

What next?

The argument that we are nearing the top of the rate-hiking cycle is predicated on either signs of a looming recession that eventually temper inflation or, alternatively, that the higher rates trigger some type of financial stress. Examples of such strains include the UK pensions issue last fall (refer to the November 2022 Outlook), or the challenges faced by US regional banks this past spring (see April’s Outlook). However, in the absence of clear signs pointing to an imminent recession or financial crisis, the supply and demand dynamics of Treasuries, as described above, have considerable momentum and no easy fixes. Moreover, with the approach of a US Presidential election year, proactive and meaningful fiscal restraint seems improbable. As such, the rise in interest rates is giving way to concern in asset markets. For now, equity markets are not pricing in an economic downturn, as earnings estimates for the next twelve months have held steady after easing through much of this year.

From our lens, equity markets remain vulnerable in the near term. Valuations have been edging lower. But if valuations are broken down into two components, the risk-free 10-year Treasury yield and the equity risk premium (ERP), the message is somewhat concerning. ERP gauges the excess return above the low-risk bond yields that compensates equity investors for assuming additional risk. Typically, ERPs have an inverse relationship with growth, rising when economic activity dips. Yet, thus far this year, amidst market anxieties about decelerating growth, ERPs have been defying all expectations and have fallen to reach their lowest level since 2002 (see Chart 2). This most recent move has been because interest rates are rising faster than price/earnings (P/E) multiples are contracting, implying that the advantage of holding equities today is marginal. In fact, equities are grappling with stiff competition from higher yields since dividend yields are not keeping up (see Chart 3).

Chart 2: Equity risk premium unusually low

Chart 2 shows the US 10-year bond yield vs S&P500 Equity Risk Premium from 1985 to 2020. From 2007 onward, the equity risk premium has exceeded the US 10Y bond yield. More recently, it has declined, and is now below the US 10-year bond yield.

Source: S&P Global, UST, Macrobond

Chart 3: Stiff competition

This chart provides the historical trends in the S&P 500 dividend yield and the US 10-year bond yield over the period spanning from 2008 to 2023. From 2021 the chart captures the rise of the US 10Y yield which has significantly exceeded the S&P 500 dividend yield.

Source: S&P Global, UST, Macrobond

So, as we assess the current phase in the cycle, consumers are faced with headwinds from rising mortgage rates and energy prices, and investors are faced with higher funding rates due to governments’ mighty spending patterns. Meanwhile, equity markets are priced optimistically for a soft landing, and not really rewarding investors for taking risk. Given these prevailing trends, we remain cautious on our outlook for markets.

Capital markets

September proved challenging for markets, a trend becoming par for the course for this month. Both stocks and bonds have fared poorly in the past few Septembers and this year was no different. The US 30-year Treasury yield saw its biggest quarterly increase since the first quarter of 2009, while the Dow Jones Index gave up all of its gains year-to-date. The S&P 500 Index peaked for the year on July 31, and has since retreated by about 7%. Excluding the “magnificent eight” high flying tech stocks (see June’s Outlook), the performance of the S&P 492 closely mirrors the Dow Jones, remaining unchanged year-to-date. Although earnings estimates for the year have held steady, valuation multiples have declined, with the forward P/E ratio falling from 20x to 18x. Leadership has also predictably been shifting with bond proxy sectors such as utilities, telecommunication services and real estate underperforming, but also those with the richest valuations (information technology) struggled through September. In Canada, the S&P/TSX Composite Index fell 3.3% in September, marking its second monthly decrease this year. All sectors, excluding energy, were in the red led down by information technology, and interest rate sensitive areas such as utilities, REITs and telecommunication services. Energy posted a modest gain for the month, and was the best-performing sector, as the price of WTI crude oil rose 28.5% in Q3 to $90.79/bbl, its biggest quarterly rise since Q1 last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With inflation still above central bank targets, and a seeming resurgence in Canada, monetary policymakers maintained a hiking bias. The Fed notably revised its growth forecasts upward and hinted at future rate hikes. Yield curves remain deeply inverted and credit spreads stopped tightening in the month, thanks in part to a surge in corporate bond issuance that counteracted the favourable technical factors supporting credit markets earlier in the year. The FTSE Universe Bond Index fell 2.6% in September, pushing the year-to-date return into negative territory in absolute terms and setting the trajectory for its third straight year of negative performance.

Portfolio strategy

The rise in rates is becoming an important feature for markets to contend with as we head into the final months of the year. The longer interest rates stay high, the greater the likelihood of a “hard landing” coming to pass. This continues to weigh on the outlook for risk assets. Consequently, we have recently increased our underweight to stocks within balanced portfolios, given our view of a challenging period ahead. We have also bought bonds through this backup in yields, and are now at benchmark weight. We continue to overweight cash. Within our Canadian fundamental equity portfolios, we are defensively positioned, with a preference for companies that demonstrate resilience during economic downturns. Our fixed-income portfolios have begun to add duration modestly after holding flat since the end of July. We remain underweight credit in anticipation of a difficult road in the near term. However, should inflation persists at high levels, we are adding some inflation protection. While there is no shortage of news to sift through to understand the factors driving performance across different markets, we believe overarching themes like sustained inflation and high interest rates will dominate. We are preparing for a bumpier ride heading into the final quarter of the year.

CC&L Investment Management Ltd.
October 13th, 2023