Market Commentary: On the Cusp of Another New Year

In Chinese folklore, the Jade Emperor decided that there should be a way of measuring time and settled on a 12-year calendar. To designate the years, he decided to host a competition for naming rights. On his birthday, he called for a swimming race and invited all animals to participate. The first twelve to cross a wide river would win a spot on his new zodiac calendar. So the great race began and the quick-witted Rat convinced the kind and powerful Ox to give him a ride on his back. The Ox moved rapidly into the lead but, just as he reached the river bank, the Rat jumped off and finished ahead of him, earning his position as the first zodiac sign. The peeved Ox was followed by the Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig, the final order of the zodiac.

Rats have long symbolized wealth and surplus in Chinese culture. They are said to be savers, but lack courage and can be stingy. Their love for hoarding can sometimes cause them to waste money on unnecessary things. Those born in the Year of the Rat are considered clever and industrious. The most recent Years of the Rat were in 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972 and 1960, half of which were good for stocks, half for bonds, none good for both. The next one begins on January 25, the Lunar New Year, which always occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Feng shui grand masters see this year as the start of a new age. Many expect slowing growth, radical positions, impassioned protests, and more tension between countries. Some see great opportunities for wealth with best performances coming from energy, entertainment, land development, technology, and banking.

China’s Vice Premier Liu He, born in the Year of the Dragon in 1952, will be in Washington on Wednesday to sign a partial trade deal with President Trump, born in the Year of the Dog in 1946. The trade war between the two superpowers has generated much uncertainty for global investors for the last two years. And although markets cheer the accord, and relief to some businesses comes with the Phase One truce, for the time being tariffs continue to impact chemical makers, apparel retailers and auto parts manufacturers. A substantial percentage, perhaps close to two-thirds, of everything Americans buy from China will still be tariffed.

2020 in the Gregorian calendar is a leap year. It is a decennial census year, a presidential election year, and a year in which the United Kingdom and Gibraltar are scheduled to leave the European Union. Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics, the World Expo opens in Dubai, and NASA launches a rover mission to study the habitability of Mars. The financial markets will focus on the eight scheduled meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee, beginning on January 28, but will also pay close attention to the Democratic primaries which start on February 3 and conclude with the convention in Milwaukee on July 16.

The new trading year began with the targeted U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone airstrike that killed Iran General Qassem Soleimani followed by the deployment of 3,500 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East. Markets were roiled and investors fled to safe havens out of concern for retaliations and an escalation of conflict. Once Iran appeared to stand down, tensions very quickly faded and the U.S. rallies resumed. At this writing, the Dow is up 368 points since the start of the year, the S&P 500 is up 57 points, and the Nasdaq is up 301 points or 3.4%, while the Russell 2000 Index of small cap companies manufacturing or producing goods in the U.S. is basically flat at 1,668. Oil prices spiked briefly but have settled in the $59 range, down nearly 5% in 2020. Gold prices have gained $27 an ounce and stand at $1,549.

The bond market continues its 30-plus year-long rally, buoyed further by the temporary flight to quality. Although the 2-year Treasury yield is up 2 basis points on the year to 1.58% at this writing, the 10-year benchmark has fallen 7 basis points to 1.84% and the 30-year yield is down 8 basis points to 2.30%. $8.19 billion was added to high grade corporate bond funds in the opening week of 2020, and high yield funds reported inflows of $1.12 billion. Ten-year Baa corporate bond yields have dropped 11 basis points to 3.59%.

Municipal bonds are still on a tear. Yields, as measured by the AAA general obligation MMD scale, have compressed by another 10 basis points. The 2-year is at 0.94% and the 10-year at 1.35%. The 30-year benchmark at 1.98% is 105 basis points lower than where it stood one year ago. Continuing the 53-week pattern, municipal bond mutual fund inflows continue to set new records. Investors added an astonishing $2.89 billion into state and local government debt funds during the first, traditionally sleepy, week of January. More than $612 million was added to high yield funds.

During the first full week of issuance, $5.9 billion of bonds were issued and the high yield muni sector saw little activity. The California School Finance Authority sold $32.3 million of non-rated revenue bonds for Arts in Action Charter Schools that came with a 40-year final maturity priced with a 5.00% coupon to yield 3.67%. And the Build NYC Resource Corporation issued $9.3 million of non-rated revenue bonds structured with a 30-year term bond priced at 5.00% to yield 4.00%. This week’s $6.6 billion slate include a $23.5 million non-rated South Carolina Jobs-Economic Development Authority deal for Hilton Head Christian Academy. The 30-day visible supply of visible bonds totals $12.3 billion. On the cusp of a new calendar used by one quarter of the world’s population, we join in wishing all a Happy New Year.