Morning Report: The Fed maintains rates

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2928 4
Eurostoxx index 390.26 -0.72
Oil (WTI) 62.94 -0.66
10 year government bond yield 2.53%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.23%

 

Stocks are up this morning after the Fed maintained rates. Bonds and MBS are down.

 

As expected, the Fed maintained the Fed Funds rate at current levels, although they did tweak the rate on overnight reserves. During the press conference, Jerome Powell pushed back against the idea that the Fed’s next move will be a cut. Rates initially fell down the 2.46% level, but overnight retraced that move and we are back at levels we saw before the meeting. The Fed was surprised by the strength in both the job market and the overall economy and the fact that inflation remains lower than they would like to see.

 

At the press conference, a number of journalists asked about the market’s forecast for another rate cut. Powell stressed that the Committee’s view is that the current level of interest rates is “appropriate” and that core inflation was running close to the Fed’s target of 2% for most of 2018. The Fed Funds futures trimmed their estimates for a 2019 rate cut, from a 2/3 chance to more 50/50.  MBS spreads are slightly wider (meaning mortgage rates are a touch higher relative to the 10 year than they were yesterday).

 

Fed fund futures dec 2019

 

Construction spending fell 0.9% MOM and 0.8% YOY in March, according to the Census Bureau. Residential construction drove the decrease, falling 1.8% MOM and 8.4% YOY. Ex-residential construction, spending was solid, but we could see a downward revision in Q1 GDP estimates due to the resi numbers.

 

Productivity rose 3.6% in the first quarter as unit labor costs fell 0.9%. Q4’s productivity number was revised upward to 1.3%. Not sure what drove the decrease in unit labor costs – wages have been rising – but the problems with measuring productivity in this economy have been noted before. Regardless, the drop in labor costs and higher output mean inflation should remain below the Fed’s 2% target.

 

Initial jobless claims rose to 230k last week.

 

Lumber prices have been falling after spiking at record levels last year. Given that this is the time of year we should see more demand, this is surprising. The driver has been weather and continued weakness in homebuilding. Lower commodity prices should increase the margins for homebuilders and hopefully incent more homebuilding. Note that the S&P homebuilder ETF is up 25% this year.

 

What would happen to mortgage rates if we release Fannie and Freddie from conservatorship? Currently, Fannie and Freddie debt is treated as sovereign debt by investors, in other words, they believe the government will stand behind the debt if the GSEs run into trouble. This lowers their cost of funds, which gets passed on to borrowers in lower mortgage rates. If Fannie and Freddie are released from conservatorship, and the government no longer backs their debt, it will increase mortgage rates overall (their debt will definitely NOT be AAA), and will probably impact their ability to do perform the affordable housing part of their mandate. It is important to remember the reason why Fannie and Freddie were privatized in the first place – it was done in the 1970s to paper over the debt being issued to fund the Vietnam war. In a way, the government was using off-balance sheet financing, similar to the special purpose vehicles banks were using in the mid 00s. If there is more than 20% outside ownership in the subsidiary, then the parent is no longer required to consolidate the subsidiary’s debt on its balance sheet. In other words, they don’t have to claim that debt on their books, even if they are guaranteeing it. This accounting sleight of hand lowered the US debt numbers in the 1970s and it was hoped that this would help fight rising inflation (obviously that did not work). It may turn out that there would not be a bid for new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock without a government credit wrapper, which means that hopes for a fully privatized Fannie and Freddie might turn out to be impossible to achieve.

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