The Dog Days of Summer were on full display this past month, as a variety of concerns pushed stocks and bond yields lower. After reaching new record highs in late July, the S&P 500 Index dropped approximately 1.8% in August as trade concerns pressured investor sentiment around the world. Impacts of U.S.- China trade tensions reverberated throughout the economy and financial markets in recent weeks, including weakening global manufacturing data and plunging sovereign interest rates. As a result, safe-haven assets like gold, government bonds, and utilities outperformed in August.
Escalating trade tensions early last month dashed hopes of a quick resolution. Both sides needed to show strength as China was dealing with protests in Hong Kong and is preparing for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China this October, while President Trump is gearing up for the U.S. presidential election. While manufacturing has borne the brunt of the damage, the latest round of tariffs will impact more consumer goods.
Fortunately, the U.S. consumer remains in good shape, bolstering the economy. The unemployment rate is low, wages are rising, and debt as a percentage of disposable income remains near four decade lows. Personal spending has driven U.S. output, which during the first half of 2019 remained slightly above the average for this economic expansion. We believe the key to sustaining growth is renewed strength in business investment, which likely requires progress on trade.
The inverted U.S. Treasury yield curve reflects these uncertainties. An inversion occurs when short-term interest rates exceed longer term rates and typically indicates pending economic weakness or recession. Considering the relative strength of the U.S. economy and expected interest rate cuts from the Federal Reserve, we’re not convinced recession is imminent. Instead, we believe the current shape of the yield curve reflects a run on U.S. Treasuries based on the global search for yield. More than $17 trillion in sovereign debt offers negative yields, wherein the lenders pay borrowers for the “privilege” of loaning them money.
Another message sent by the yield curve is that monetary policy is too tight given trade uncertainty, so the Federal reserve needs to respond promptly with lower interest rates. Of course, we will have a recession someday, and now that we’re in the longest expansion ever, anticipation is high. Yet reviewing fundamentals, even with trade, we’re hard pressed to project contraction soon. It is conceivable, though, that a variety of global events, including the uncertainty of trade and the U.S. election, may cause businesses and consumer to “sit this one out” in the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. We estimate the odds of that recessionary scenario at 1 in 3.
In conclusion, fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain solid even as trade uncertainty weighs on investor sentiment. We would interpret the yield curve inversion as a search for yield, not of imminent recession. Also keep in mind that stocks have historically performed well in the 12 to 18 months following inversions. We recommend suitable investors continue to focus on economic and market fundamentals while maintaining diversified portfolios.
As always, we encourage you to contact us with any questions.