Market Commentary: Fed Hushpuppies

by Gayl Mileszko

Southern farmers sitting down to supper learned long ago to quiet their howling hound dogs by tossing them small snacks, many of which were made of deep-fried cornmeal and wheat flour mixed with buttermilk, eggs, and salt. The treats known as hushpuppies have since become a tasty side dish for two-legged gluttons as well. They are typically served with other fried or barbecued foods and have savory fillings that include corn, cheese green onions, jalapeno peppers, and garlic. But no holds are barred at the Southern Hushpuppy Championships held every September in Lufkin, Texas, where fryers have their best batterballs on display and compete for bragging rights in crowds of up to 30,000. 

Central banks have been serving up their own monetary versions of hushpuppies to billions around the world ever since September 2007 and they now have $29.3 trillion of fresh, fried, and refried items on their balance sheets. To limit the economic damage from the Great Recession and then the pandemic, they have employed the standard mix of rate cuts and forward guidance as well as nontraditional recipes including negative interest rates, credit easing, relaxing regulatory requirements, creating international swap lines, backstopping money market funds, expanding repurchase agreement operations, making large scale asset purchases, and lending to banks, securities firms, major corporate employers, small- and mid-sized businesses, nonprofits, and state and local governments. A few of these unprecedented gadgets have been put back in the kitchen drawer, but the White House, Congress, Wall Street and Main Street know they are there and can be utilized again to safeguard against future market collapses or Capitol Hill paralyses. In the meantime, most of the programs are still in use by our Federal Reserve, the system created by Congress in 1913 to help stabilize the economy through price stability and maximum employment. A third unspoken mission appears to be holding down the government’s interest costs. The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday suggested that risks to the Fed’s credibility and independence are growing.

There may be shortages of labor, semiconductor chips, ammunition, chlorine, rental cars and blood supplies, but there is no shortage of economic data. In general, indicators of economic activity and employment have strengthened and sectors hit hardest by the pandemic are improving, but there are enough numbers coming in below expectations to keep markets clinging to the skirts and shirttails of the Fed. At the last meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee in late April, officials noted that the ongoing public health crisis continues to weigh on the economy and risks to the economic outlook remain. The Fed insists that inflation has been running persistently below the two percent goal, using a definition from a recipe book clearly written in a language no one else on Earth speaks. They have been hushing big players and small fry with assurances that the elevated price increases we are seeing are transitory, almost a natural result of all our pent-up demand and the supply chain lags. Not everyone sees it the same way, so some have inflation hedges in play.  Gold and silver are typical “inflation trades” and we note that since March gold prices are up more than $175 an ounce and silver up 14% to $27. Bitcoin prices are up 38% since the start of the year, oil prices are up 51%, and copper has increased by 22%.

As usual, this week’s FOMC meeting has secondary stock and bond markets in simmer mode awaiting new commentary on just how long CPI and PPI increases are expected to traumatize us. Very few traders were expecting any rate or taper action; most just wanted to have more hushpuppies in the form of assurance that no policy changes are coming in the near future, that asset purchases and low rates continue, and that the crazy prices on so many consumer staples will soon pass. The growling is bound to begin when the Fed signals the tapering of mortgage-backed securities purchases – possibly in August or September – and the howling will start with an advance notice of Treasury tapering or any dots plotting higher rates in 2022 or early 2023. How much of a battering might we expect? Well, when Chair Bernanke surprised markets with his testimony in May of 2013 that the Fed may reduce its bond-buying program, the 10-year Treasury yield rose 54% or 106 basis points from 1.96% to 3.02% and the 10-year AAA muni benchmark yield increased 51% or 94 basis points from 1.83% to 2.77% by the end of the year. The lesson on forward guidance was learned the hard way, so no such surprise is expected this time unless it involves something like a stepped-up digital dollar program. But correctional selloffs in stocks and bonds should be expected in advance of or alongside any major steps toward normalization. After all, thousands of traders and millions of investors have never known anything but abnormal, Fed-protected conditions. After 14 years, it is hard to imagine anything remotely resembling a free market.

Aside from the Fed meeting, markets are following the presidential overseas travel involving  G-7, NATO, and Vladimir Putin meetings. The focus is away from Washington, D.C. where not much is happening anyway. Vote counts reveal the unlikelihood of consensus on infrastructure, domestic or global tax reform, or pretty much anything major at this point. This does not bode well for state and local governments and nonprofit borrowers who have been hoping for the restoration of tax-exempt advance refundings and federally subsidized Build America Bonds via an omnibus budget reconciliation measure.  But the municipal bond market is humming along quite nicely. So far this month, the 2-year AAA muni general obligation bond yield has fallen another 2 basis points to 0.08%, the 10-year is down 10 basis points to 0.89% and the 30-year has decreased by 12 basis points to 1.39%. This is right in line with Treasury yields: the 10-year and 30-year yields have fallen 10 basis points to 1.49% and 2.18%, respectively.

Secondary markets may be uncertain in these first few days of the trading week, but primary markets are still on fire. Last week, HJ Sims sold $10.6 million of nonrated taxable water system revenue bonds through the Louisiana Local Government Environmental Facilities and Community Development Authority for People’s of Bastrop, LLC; the sole 2051 maturity priced at 5.625% to yield 5.802%. Among other high yield transactions, the Kentucky Economic Development Authority sold $4.3 million of non-rated bonds for Christian Care Communities structured with 2055 term bonds that priced with 5.125% coupons to yield 5.50%, and the Build New York City Resource Corporation issued $52.1 million of nonrated bonds for New World Preparatory Charter school bonds that had a 2056 maturity priced at 4% to yield 3.30%.

Although the size of this week’s $13 billion municipal calendar is met with welcome relief, the supply of bonds still remains well below levels of demand. The negative net supply was estimated at $29 billion last Friday and it is expected to grow to $40 billion by the end of August. Coupon income, as well as called and maturing bond principal far outpaces the need for tax-exempt investment product from mutual funds and ETF’s taking in record levels of new money as well as from individuals looking to reinvest all their cash to produce income. High yield munis are in greatest demand and have generated 5.04% returns so far this year; taxable munis maturing in 15 or more years are up 1.75% this month alone.

The amount of high yield municipal bonds outstanding is estimated at 13% of total muni debt, a significant increase from February of 2020, when it was below 10%. This week, borrowers look to add even more to the total. The slate includes a $132 million non-rated Yamhill County Hospital Authority refunding for the Friendsview Retirement Community in Newberg, Oregon. American Samoa has a $41 million Ba3 issue. And there are 7 charter school deals in the market including the $118.7 million non-rated Wonderful Foundations deal issued through the Wisconsin Public Finance Authority (PFA) and issuers in California and Florida; a $21.7 million non-rated financing for Santa Clarita Valley International School,  an $8 mil BB+ rated financing for The Rocklin Academy in California, a $16.5 million nonrated PFA issue for Bonnie Cone Classical Academy in Huntersville, North Carolina, a $30 million Ba1 rated transaction for Galileo Schools for Gifted Learning in Sanford, Florida, and an $11 million nonrated deal for Imagine School at North Manatee in Palmetto, Florida.

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