Market Commentary: Tallies and Rallies

by Gayl Mileszko

Preston Edward Buckley, 103, of Perrytown, North Carolina drove himself to his local board of elections five miles away in Warrenton and, for the first time in his 82 years of voting, cast his general election ballot curbside. A native of Carroll County, Tennessee, Mr. Buckley is a World War II veteran who became one of the first African-Americans to serve on the New Jersey Highway Patrol. After retirement, he moved to North Carolina and became an investigator for a law firm. A proud citizen, born three years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, he served as a poll watcher and even conducted voting workshops well into his 90’s. Mr. Buckley along with the rest of his neighbors in the Tar Heel State are still waiting for the final tallies. More than one million absentee ballots were cast there and those postmarked on or before November 4th with the proper signatures will be accepted up until this Thursday, November 12th. Results are expected to be certified on Friday.

The Associated Press (“AP”) has been counting the vote for 170 years, tabulating results, and declaring unofficial winners on Election Night or soon thereafter. This year, the AP has again called most of the 7,000 races it followed, starting with the two state results first declared at 7 p.m. on Election Night, culminating with the presidential race on November 7 at 11:26 a.m. The pandemic altered the method of voting for millions of Americans and turnout was well above average. Our patience in an era which generally affords us instant gratification has been tested this time by the closeness of the vote in key areas, the markedly different procedures and deadlines adopted by individual states, the slowness of mail-in vote tallies, and polling that proved to be way off base. Several recounts will soon occur and more than the usual number of lawsuits are being filed to, among other things, halt the count, disqualify tranches of ballots, and compel closer observation of the counting process.

Wall-to-wall media coverage of all the twists and turns began well ahead of the first absentee votes which began arriving a month and a half before Election Day. Estimates vary, but a fair number of the 157.6 million registered voters have new questions about the integrity of the process. Debate on reforms at the local, state and federal level will no doubt ensue, shaped by this year’s post-mortems as well as promising new technologies. In the meantime, our republic awaits official election results in the form of individual state certifications in the coming days and weeks, the official votes of the Electoral College on December 14th, and the final count by Congress on January 6th.

Wall Street has already conducted its own tallies, digested results which appear to confirm a divided federal government, lessened regulatory and tax hike risks, GOP control of state houses and legislatures, and no earth-shattering referendum outcomes. Stocks had their biggest post-election rally in over a century. Treasuries also staged a massive rally, propelling municipal and corporate bonds. On the heels of the investor relief rally came the news that Pfizer and BioNTech reported that their Covid-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective. The Dow and S&P 500 indices jumped again, hitting record highs, as investors cheered the prospect of controlling the disease that has derailed our economy for most of the year and killed more than 239,000 of our citizens.

Since the start of the month, the CBOE Volatility Index, dubbed the Fear Index, has dropped 35% to 24.80. The Dow is up 11% to 29,420. The S&P 500 has gained 275 points or more than 8% to 3,545. The Nasdaq is up 642 points to 11,553. The Russell 2000 has gained 198 points or 13%. Oil is 16% higher at $41.36. Gold prices have increased $3 an ounce. As investors turn to risk assets in the twin relief rallies, pundits might expect bonds to have sunk. Treasuries have, in fact, weakened over these past 10 days. The 2-year yield is 3 basis points higher at 0.18%, the 10-year has added 8 basis points to sit at 0.95% and the 30-year yield has increased 9 basis points to 1.74%. However, the 10-year Baa corporate bond yield has dropped 12 basis points to 2.91%. The 2-year AAA benchmark municipal yield has fallen 1 basis point to 0.20, the 10-year yield dropped 7 basis points to 0.86% and the 30-year yield has fallen 10 basis points to 1.61%.,

Since Election Day 2016, the Dow has gained 61%, the S&P is up 66%, the Russell 2000 has increased by 45% and the Nasdaq by 123%. Oil prices are 8% lower and gold is 47% higher. Ten-year Treasury yields are 35% lower. The lowest investment grade corporate yields have dropped 41%. 10-year tax-exempt yields have been reduced by half from where they stood at 1.71%.

The past two weeks have seen blockbuster corporate issuance but a light municipal calendar. The 30-day visible supply of municipal bonds only totals $7.9 billion. Ahead of the elections, state, local and non-profit borrowers came to market at a fast and furious pace. Mid-October saw the second largest competitive sale week on record. The volume was easily absorbed by a market with unrelenting demand for tax-exempt bonds and newfound demand for taxable and corporate CUSIP supply bolstered in part by foreign demand which has doubled year-over-year. Overseas buyers are discovering new diversification within rating categories, a notable pickup in spread, additional value, less credit risk than with investment grade corporate bonds, and a lot more yield than in their own sovereign debt.

High yield municipal bonds and longer maturities have been outperforming shorter investment grade counterparts in the latest risk-on environment. This class has been stressed throughout the pandemic as investors feared the pandemic’s long-term impact on airlines, airports, mass transit, toll roads, smaller universities, rural hospitals, and nursing homes. But buyers tired of seeing months of negative real returns on short investment grade holdings and mutual funds, and recognizing the essentiality of these institutions, facilities and services in their own communities are buying individual bonds again. In the past two weeks, we have seen Edkey Charter Schools come to market with an $87 million non-rated deal structured with 35-year term bonds priced at 5.00% to yield 5.125%. Judson Park, Judson Manor, and South Franklin Circle life plan communities in Ohio, borrowed $83.8 million in a BBB-minus financing that featured a 2050 term bond priced at 5.00% to yield 4.19%. The Tahoe-Douglas Visitors Authority sold $112 million of non-rated revenue bonds including a 2051 maturity priced at 5.00% to yield 4.47%. And Missouri Slope Lutheran Care Center in Bismarck, North Dakota had a $78 million non-rated transaction with a final maturity in 2056 priced with a coupon of 6.625% to yield 6.85%.

Bond markets closed on Wednesday in observance of Veterans Day. We at HJ Sims thank Preston Buckley of Perrytown, North Carolina and all the veterans who have sacrificed much to defend our precious freedoms, namely: those of speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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