«People talk a lot about a bond bubble. But it’s not in the treasury market and it’s not in the housing market. It’s in Corporate America.»
It’s one of the most important questions this year: Where are bond yields in the United States heading next? For Jeffrey Sherman the answer seems to be obvious: «Up», he signals with his thumb while at lunch at the Los Angeles headquarters of DoubleLine Capital. The Deputy Chief Investment Officer at the renowned fixed income boutique of bond king Jeffrey Gundlach expects more turmoil for financial markets and draws parallels to 1987, the year of the monster crash. At this time, the lively and approachable Californian spots the most attractive opportunities in the commodity sector since commodities tend to perform well in the late stage of the cycle.
Mr. Sherman, tensions in the financial markets are rising. As someone who likes financial history, what are your thoughts when you look at the big picture?
From a short-term perspective, it sure feels like 1987: a little spookiness in the stock market and yields rising. So there are a lot of parallels to 1987. For example, tariffs, a weak dollar and a new Fed Chairman. And remember, there was the crash before the crash. That year, the stock experienced some jitters already in April and about six months later you had the big crash on Black Monday.
That day in October 1987 the Dow Jones suffered its biggest loss in history. At that time people pointed to electronic trading and new financial products like portfolio insurance. Do you spot similar risks today?
People blame quants, people blame algorithms, people blame risk parity. But I’m not convinced. The reason we had this sell off is not algos or risk parity. It’s because of humans. For instance, we all have been told that ETF buyers are buy and hold investors forever. But they’re buy and hold investors until they’re not, until they panic. That’s why these websites for electronic trading like Betterment and all the other Robo-Advisers were down on February 5th. I think even Fidelity had an issue because of the huge volume. So why did all these people try to log in? They weren’t logging in to buy, they were logging in to sell!
What’s next for stocks?
I think you’ll see it again. If bond yields rise you are going to see another scare. It’s the velocity, it’s the speed at which this correction happened: 10% in roughly three to four days, that’s a big move. But what’s interesting is that the bond market was not behaving in a manner which is consistent with the recent past. It didn’t seem like it wanted to rally. Bond yields essentially ended flat that week if not slightly higher. To us, that causes us pause. It means that this correction was an equity market story and bonds weren’t even paying attention to it. Basically, the bond market said: look we continue to trade on fundamentals. We have bigger deficits, we have a growth story, so yields need to be higher.
So what has changed in the bond market?
What has changed is the tax cut. The tax plan really started in the middle of September and that’s when you saw the bond market reacting. That’s when President Trump felt he had to do something and it took him and congress the rest of the year to get it done. At that point, the market had shifted from its disinflationary mindset to a moderate inflation mindset. And that’s the repricing that has been taking place.
Is the tax cut really a game changer for the US economy?
As critical as people were initially of the tax cuts, the cuts are beneficial in 2018 for roughly 98% of the working class. That means that there is more money to be spent or saved. Also, there is something about paycheck growth versus one-time bonuses. In the former case, people tend to spend more, especially people low-income earners because they are the spenders by definition. They don’t make enough money to save. So I think there is the potential to get a little bit of inflation. Because if it is that expansion from the consumer, it will look growthy, but it will also look inflationary. But how long it persists is the multi trillion-dollar question.
What’s more, the tax cuts will bloat the deficit even more. What’s your take on that?
We have an administration and a Congress which want to spend money. For instance, Senator Rand Paul was filibustering for about two hours, ranting about the increase in the deficit and then voted for the tax plan. It’s hypocrisy. So I think they will continue with this deficit binge.
How will this impact the midterms in fall?
People are speculating if the Democrats are going to take over. Socially, they probably could. But they are going to have a hard time economically to take over either the House or the Senate; simply because the tax cuts are going to trickle through and many workers are going to get the benefit of minimum wage. So even the people who aren’t truly getting a tax cut are getting a pay hike. They are going to say: “Look how well we did.” So for the Republicans the timing is beautiful. But I think it reverses in 2020. That’s something we have been talking about for a few years: It’s not the 2016 election that really is the one that’s going to be a pivot. It’s going to be 2020. The reason for that is that the deficits are going to explode, and this administration seems to love debt.
And how do you cope with political risks like the Muller investigation form an investor’s perspective?
The Mueller investigation looks bad. I mean that thing gets worse every week or two. But markets don’t care. They only care if there is an impeachment and then you will get a short-term correction. But it’s very hard to impeach the president. Even if the Democrats get it in one arm of congress they would have to get it through the Senate. So they would have to go to trial in the Senate and the Republicans still have a blocking majority there. And the Republicans showed that they’re loyal to Trump. So it’s practically impossible. But there is always political risk in the world. And typically, the flight to quality trade is what works. That’s why you own high quality bonds like Treasuries, Japanese government bonds and things like that.
So where are US bond yields heading in 2018?
I think we’re going to 3.25 to 3.5% on ten year Treasuries. We broke through most levels on the ten year bond and on the thirty year bond. They have broken their downward channels. Coming in the year it was like: “Hey, we will probably test 3% on the ten year by the first half of the year. Then in January it turned into: “You know, it’s probably the first quarter”. Now it’s maybe March because the bond market does not want to rally. But it’s not just technicals. We’re talking about the Fed’s balance sheet, we’re talking about expanded deficits and we’re talking about less revenue coming in for the government. Don’t forget tax cuts aren’t free.
What does that mean for the new Fed chief Jerome Powell and his plans to tighten monetary policy further?
In March he’s going to hike the Federal Funds Rate. But if you want to hike interest rates three or four times this year plus do the balance sheet unwinding then I think we’re going to have a problem early 2019. I think the financial markets will respond and that’s not good for risk assets. So I’m not convinced that the Fed will take this entire path because I think it becomes painful. This was all set up by Yellen around a year ago. Since then, a lot of fundamentals have changed in the debt market. The plan was set up when yields were lower and before we were set to double the deficit. So it’s really hard to say how the path will look like for the Fed. That’s why we were all listening and watching how Powell behaved when he took the stage this week. It looks like the Fed is going to be more hawkish. But If you want to finance all that debt, you kind of need some dovish people on the board of the Fed. You don’t really want Hawks on there.
Where do you see the biggest risks if something goes wrong?
It’s not that we are extremely bearish on the world. But if rates go up it will put some upward pressure on spreads. And if you respect financial history, what the Fed has always done is hike until something breaks. We definitely had the debt build up. Looking at debt to GDP, people talk a lot about a bond bubble. But it’s not in the treasury market and it’s not in the housing market. It’s in Corporate America.
What’s wrong with Corporate America?
Many companies really lived on due to this low interest rate environment. Zombie companies, those that earn less than they pay in interest, are on the rise again. That’s why you have to watch the corporate market. Right now, it’s not a problem. But let’s say we go to 4% on ten year Treasuries. Does a 6% high yield bond make sense? Probably not. It’s probably 9% or 10% because you have to worry about refinancing. So this is something that hasn’t really happened historically. In fact, the high yield market lived through the entire secular bond bull market. So if we go into this structural bear market, the junk bond market is toast. You are going to have 30% to 40% default rates. That’s extreme thinking. But let’s just take it back down: A 4% on the ten year bond seems completely plausible. So how do you think these risk assets respond? And what does it mean for other markets? People have become complacent with high yield bonds. They assume they don’t default hardly ever. But we know that’s not true. There’s a reason they carry this kind of rating.
Junk bonds tend to act more like stocks in their market behavior than other bonds. What’s your outlook on equities?
One of the most dangerous things is naive extrapolation. Last year, most equity markets advanced more than 20% in dollar terms. So I think some of the risk this year is this naive extrapolation of this recent experience. It’s this recency bias that people think that it just can continue forever. So the risk is that people get complacent and think that equites can always go up.
What is your recommendation when it comes to investing in stocks?
In the US, it’s very difficult to say stocks are cheap. In terms of valuations, when you think about the Cape ratio for instance, you have roughly a 33 ratio on the US market, something closer to 22 to 23 on Europe and about 18 on emerging markets. So what you see is that the European market and emerging markets are a lot cheaper. Also, if you buy into this thesis that we will continue to have this coordinated global growth story, then the emerging markets should be the biggest benefactor. So the ideas is that if you want to deploy new money into equities it’s probably best to kind of shy away from the US because everybody knows the story about the tax reform already. US stocks are priced I won’t’ say to perfection but to a pretty rosy scenario. So if yields push significantly higher it’s really hard on a discounted cash-flow basis to rationalize all of that.
So where do you spot more attractive opportunities for investors right now?
Commodities is our choice investment for investors to get diversification at low prices. It’s an area that tends to do well late in the cycle. It’s a fundamental story. The consumption side has been increasing and there’s upside to that. If we go from 3.5% global GDP growth to 4% that changes the consumption dynamics significantly. Also, commodities are cheap by historical levels which means it looks like they have room to run. People have kicked them out of their portfolios because of how bad they did for years. It’s an asset class that has underperformed the S&P 500 since the financial crisis every year. But if you get some inflation it’s going to be exhibited in this part of the market. Commodities aren’t perfect on inflation. But they’re pretty good when you have changes in unexpected inflation – and that’s what investors are waking up to.
And which commodities do like most?
I like industrial metals. Copper is kind of iffy at times. However, there’s a strong case for nickel due to demand from electric vehicle production. And if we get growth, zinc still looks interesting because it’s used in galvanizing steel. So I think industrial metals have momentum. I’m optimistic for the precious metals as well. If we do get inflation signs you will see that in the gold and silver price. What’s more, I still think oil goes higher. I think demand will pick up and we will get back to $80. Maybe not this year. Maybe it takes two years. But if the growth story is true the energy market is too cheap still.