The yield curve (10-year Treasury bond yields over 2-year Treasury yields) has been the most reliable growth indicator, in my opinion:
- A steepening yield curve indicates easy money and rising growth expectations.
- Conversely, a flattening curve suggests that the current monetary stance is getting restrictive and future growth is deteriorating.
- An inverted curve predicts an impending recession. Historically, output contraction occurs 18 months after a curve inversion (see Chart 1).
The yield curve has flattened by 138 bps since the end of 2013—which is a dramatic move—given that the U.S. operates in a very low interest-rate environment. The current shape of the yield curve projects softening growth next year for the U.S. economy, probably to a rate of about 1.0-1.5%. If so, the Fed may be forced to find way to stimulate the economy again, which would be ironic given that investors were just recently fixated upon Fed liftoff in December 2015.
Corporate High Yield Spreads
In the U.S., the corporate high yield market often leads the stock market—and the economy—by anywhere between 4-5 months and one year:
- The high yield market—as defined by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch High Yield Index and its predecessor—peaked in April 1989, while the S&P 500 topped out in the early 1990. The U.S. economy fell into recession by October 1990
- Similarly, the high yield market started to weaken in April 1999, which preceded the meltdown in stock prices which began in April 2000.
- Total returns for the Bank of America Merrill Lynch High Yield Index peaked on May 18, 2007, while the stock market did not reach its final highs until October 12, 2007. The S&P 500 subsequently fell precipitously.
- The high yield market bottomed out in December 2008, which was four months before the stock market reached its final lows on March 6, 2009.
- High yield spreads—as measured by the Bank of America Merrill Lynch High Yield Index versus the 10-Year U.S. Treasury yield—have begun to widen again since July 2014, which I believe has led stock market weakness by about 8-10 months.
The high yield market has experienced some corrective actions since 2009, but the recent price weakness in this market looks more ominous because:
- The downtrend in the high yield market has been sustained for more than one year
- The widening of high yield spreads has occurred at the time when the corporate gearing ratio—which measures corporate sector leverage using metrics like a debt-to-corporate DDP ratio—has skyrocketed, as shown in Chart 2 and Chart 3 below.
Perhaps, the combination of the sharp increase in corporate borrowing, the lack of pricing power, and poor profit growth suggests that the stock market may have bigger trouble down the road and the risk of recession is increasing.
The fluctuations in the equity-to-bond ratio also indicate the ebbs and flows of business cycle conditions. Usually, a rising ratio suggests improving growth expectations, while a falling one indicates an economic slowdown—a 30% decline in the equity-to-bond ratio usually signals a recession.
The recent sharp slump in the equity-to-bond ratio suggests that the U.S. economy is more likely to weaken than strengthen in 2016, although the market has not yet signaled an impending recession (see Chart 4). The message here is similar to the one from the yield curve.
Copper is traditionally sensitive to the global business cycle—and manufacturing cycle in particular. As such, the copper market is nicknamed “Dr. Copper.” Since 2011, the global Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) has been hovering around the boom/bust line of 50, highlighting the subdued nature of the world’s economic recovery. Mirroring this growth backdrop, copper prices have been sliding since 2011.
Currently, Dr. Copper is predicting more weakness in global PMI, as seen in Chart 5 below. On the second order condition (12-month rate of change in copper prices), the copper market does not indicate a quick end to the manufacturing recession, shown in the bottom panel of Chart 5.
This ratio can be used to approximate economic growth versus risk aversion/monetary reflation: a rising oil-to-gold ratio suggests strengthening growth and falling risk aversion as well as a declining need for monetary reflation. By the same token, a falling ratio suggests weakening growth expectations and/or increasing risk aversion and therefore, the increasing need for monetary reflation.
Chart 6 below plots the oil-to-gold ratio with the Institute of Supply Management (ISM) index for the U.S. economy. The correlation is not as strong as the other indicators, especially from 2000-2006, when the oil-to-gold ratio did not reflect actual economic performance. Perhaps, the boom in commodities distorted the market information. Regardless, the predicting power of the oil-to-gold ratio seems to have been restored since 2006-2007 and if so, the recent sharp fall in the ratio seems to confirm very subdued growth expectations.
By my estimate, none of the market-based indicators are predicting a meaningful improvement in global growth. If anything, all indicators seem to suggest that global growth could stay subdued or even weaken more. If so, global stocks may continue to underperform global bonds and commodity prices may not rally very much. As a result, the Fed may have to resume easing in 2016 to revive growth and fend off recessionary pressures.
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