Market Commentary: On Magic Mountain and Capitol Hill

Government, business, academic, humanitarian and other leaders and dealmakers from 117 countries gather this week at the ski resort in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland for the 50th annual invitation-only meeting of the World Economic Forum. This year’s theme is “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World” and the thousand-odd journalists covering the events on the “Magic Mountain” will once again be taking the proverbial temperature of the global elite on topics such as cybersecurity, climate, e-commerce, inequality, reskilling, rural mobility, and the future of healthcare. The combined wealth of attendees, on a per-square-foot basis, will likely set a new record and the menu as well as the agenda will be a topic of lively debate. Half of the 70,000 meals for participants, staff and security will feature a plant-rich flexitarian plates such as broccoli mousse with toasted pignoli, and maple-smoked haloumi cheese with mint dust.

President Trump is delivering a keynote speech to the Forum at this writing. In his scheduled meetings with the Presidents of the European Commission, Iraq, Switzerland and Kurdistan, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he is accompanied by his Secretaries of Treasury, State and Commerce, his U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination. While they represent the nation overseas, the U.S. Senate has convened on Capitol Hill in Washington for only the third time in history to sit as a court of impeachment. The first day of the trial began on Tuesday afternoon with votes on rules to govern the proceedings. Senators will be living on snacks in the cloakroom for several weeks of marathon proceedings while reviewing the facts and reflecting the proverbial temperature of the nation on the charges against the President. At this point, no one expects conviction and removal, but the political process is back in progress and has been known to have some twists and turns.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a thousand feet away from colleagues concurrently considering a long calendar of unrelated cases while he is required by the Constitution to preside over an entirely separate branch of government, again for only the third time in history. The rest of the country nevertheless proceeds with more routine matters. At the Federal Reserve, the Open Market Committee prepares for its first monetary policy meeting of the year. The Treasury is auctioning $78 billion of 3- and 6-month bills and $80 billion of 4- and 8-week bills and planning to re-issue 20-year bonds. The Centers for Disease Control is immersed in identifying and preventing the spread of the deadly new Wuhan coronavirus. The Census Department has kicked off the decennial population count in rural Alaska. Democratic voters in Iowa are getting ready to caucus.

On Wall Street and at Davos, investors are sitting on a lot of cash but many are very confused about when and where to put it to work. Last year, it paid to buy almost anything. This year, there are new concerns about the sustainability of the 121-month U.S. economic expansion, the 30-year bond market rally, the 11-year bull market in stocks, and geopolitical tensions that spiked at the start of the new decade. It is unclear how much help central banks can be in a future economic downturn. Trade conflicts persist, even after the Phase 1 agreement was signed with China and the Congress approved the Administration’s new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. There is still plenty of uncertainty remaining with Brexit and not much apparent reward for taking risks in nearly any global sector. Rates remain at historic lows and asset prices are elevated across the board. Cash may be “trash” in the eyes of some fund managers, but 10-year sovereign bonds yields in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan are still negative as are many returns after adjusting for inflation.

At the midway mark in this first month of the year, the 2-year Treasury yield stands at 1.55% and the AAA municipal general obligation bond yields 0.90%. The 10-year Treasury yield is down 9 basis points on the year to 1.82% while the comparable high grade muni yield is 15 basis points lower at 1.29%. The 30-year Treasury yields 2.28%, down 10 basis points from the start of the year, and the 30-year muni yields 1.94%, 15 basis points lower. Baa corporate bond benchmark yields are down 13 basis points to 3.57%. The Russell 2000 Index is up nearly 2% to 1,699, oil prices are down 4.1% to $58.54, and gold prices have risen 2.3% to $1,557 an ounce. The normal ratios of stocks and bonds, municipal bonds and Treasuries, are askew. There are also increasing pressures for more socially conscious or green investing and attention to environmental credit risks and concerns about where markets are heading in this era of central bank interventions, high budget deficits and extraordinary debt levels.

At the 17th Annual HJ Sims Late Winter Conference next month in San Diego, we are fortunate to have Robert Genetski, as one of our keynote speakers. “Dr. G” is one of the nation’s leading classical economists who takes the voodoo out of the science and provides valuable insights on the impact of policy on growth. He is a Blue Chip interest rate forecaster who will endeavor to help us anticipate where we are heading as borrowers, investors, employers and citizens. We invite you to join us and participate by registering at this LINK.

The municipal bond market is still riding high thanks to favorable technical factors of supply and demand. Fund flows have been positive for 54 weeks; $5.1 billion of new investments in muni bond funds were made in the last two weeks. Bloomberg just reported that the last time tax-exempt yields were this low, Dwight Eisenhower was president and Elvis Presley was releasing his second studio album. Munis are outperforming the Treasury market and Muni-Treasury ratios in the 1-15 year range are at record 35-year lows. This week, the primary market calendar totals $7.1 billion, up from $5.4 billion last week. The high yield calendar includes nearly a dozen deals, including our $41.5 million revenue and refunding issue for Henry Ford Village, a continuing care retirement community with 852 independent living units, 96 assisted living units, and 89 licensed nursing care beds. The non-rated bonds are being issued by the Economic Development Corporation of the City of Dearborn, Michigan.