Jim Kochan: I expect the Fed to start raising the fed funds rate at the mid-September FOMC meeting. They have waited until the economy, and particularly the labor market, was sufficiently healthy that small increases in short term rates would not have a negative impact on growth. Those preconditions are now in place. Inflation remains below the target range, but is moving in that direction. Lower commodity prices have not resulted in deflation, as some had feared. Therefore, what Fed officials call the “normalization of monetary policy” can now begin. That phrase implies that a near-zero setting for the funds rate is abnormal—appropriate when the economy was extremely weak but not indefinitely. The longer they keep the rate near zero, the greater the risk that they might need to raise it more rapidly in the future. That, in turn, could drive bond yields sharply higher—something they want to avoid. They believe (or hope) that a gradual increase in short-term rates need not push bond yields sharply higher. Indeed, if the bond markets were to react “adversely” to the first rate increase, they would probably pause before approving another increase. The Fed does not want bond yields to increase sharply because they do not want mortgage rates to increase sharply. They are counting on an improving housing sector to contribute to stronger GDP growth in 2015-16.
e-fundresearch.com: In light of an environment of potentially rising yields: Which areas of fixed income should investors focus on?
Jim Kochan: The best bonds to own when short-term rates are rising are those that offer the best interest income. The compounding of that interest income can keep total returns positive even if there are moderate declines in bond prices. In my view, the high yield corporate bond market currently offers sufficient yield to produce positive returns as short term rates increase slowly. Yields in that market increased substantially in 2014 and have stayed near the 2014 peaks in 2015. I would recommend a conservative, highly diversified portfolio strategy—one that has a very limited allocation to the CCC and weaker credit segment. Those weakest credits have been performing poorly thus far this year, and might continue to do so in the future. Many of the weakest credits are in the energy sector and that is the sector that could experience defaults next year.
e-fundresearch.com: What major changes should be watched in stock and bond markets going forward? Do you expect the Chinese equity market correction to have a major impact on global markets?
Jim Kochan: Two developments that will impact the global stock and bond markets are the pace of economic growth around the world and the unwinding of speculative excesses in China. Near-zero GDP growth in Europe and a significant slowing in Asia are keeping commodity prices and bond yields low in most areas of the globe. We expect growth in Europe to gradually improve in the quarters ahead and growth in Asia to stabilize. If instead global growth were to slow further, the eventual cyclical rise in bond yields would be delayed—even in the U.S. Stock markets would be expected to struggle in that environment because corporate earnings would falter. China is extremely important in this regard, as the slowdown in that economy has been a major reason for slower growth in most of Asia and the consequent weakness in commodity prices. The selloff in Chinese stocks need not spread to Europe or the U.S. because it impacts a small segment of the Chinese population. A collapse in real estate prices would have a much greater impact on the global markets because it would very likely mean a further slowing in economic activity in China.
e-fundresearch.com: What are your personal lessons learned from year-to-date market developments and how optimistic is your view into the future?
Jim Kochan: Two lessons relearned this year are that economic growth remains weak when credit growth is weak and that bond yields do not increase sharply in this type of economic environment. Investors in fixed income should be seeking income rather than safety. Despite the lowest interest rates in modern times, borrowing by households and business in the U.S. has been relatively anemic since the end of the recession—about one-half the pace seen in previous economic expansions. In Europe, that borrowing has been essentially zero. This explains why, despite a massive injection of reserves by central banks, money supply growth has been unusually moderate. When credit is unavailable, economies do not grow. Most of Europe is a perfect example currently. In the U.S., mortgage debt has been declining for the past six years and the housing sector recovery has been the weakest ever. Only in the past few quarters have we seen a modest increase in the pace of private-sector borrowing in the U.S. That is another reason why the Fed can now consider a gradual increase in the fed funds rate.
Even if the Fed were to start raising the fed funds rate, we will still be in a low-yield global bond market environment. The cyclical pressures that typically drive bond yields upward are not in place now—rapid growth, rising inflation, bottlenecks, asset bubbles, aggressive Fed tightening. This economic cycle has been and still is unique in the post-war period. Growth in the U.S. has been one-half the average of previous expansions, and in the rest of the developed world, growth is even weaker. We can watch global commodity prices to see whether this low inflation, low yield environment is changing. Until we see substantial changes in the global economy, investors should not be expecting big declines in bond prices. They should be investing for income in markets such as high yield corporates and the A/BBB segments of the investment grade corporate market and compounding that interest income. That strategy should, in my view, continue to produce much better total returns than staying with “safe” cash equivalents.
e-fundresearch.com: Thank You!