The smart money thinks Trumponomics is a flop.
Last year, after an earlier stock market swoon brought on by headlines about the U.S.-China trade conflict, I laid out three rules for thinking about such events.
- First, the stock market is not the economy.
- Second, the stock market is not the economy.
- Third, the stock market is not the economy.
But maybe I should add a fourth rule: The bond market sorta kinda is the economy.
An old economists’ joke says that the stock market predicted nine of the last five recessions. Well, an “inverted yield curve” — when interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than on long-term bonds — predicted six of the last six recessions. And a plunge in long-term yields, which are now less than half what they were last fall, has inverted the yield curve once again, with the short-versus-long spread down to roughly where it was in early 2007, on the eve of a disastrous financial crisis and the worst recession since the 1930s.
Neither I nor anyone else is predicting a replay of the 2008 crisis. It’s not even clear whether we’re heading for recession. But the bond market is telling us that the smart money has become very gloomy about the economy’s prospects. Why? The Federal Reserve basically controls short-term rates, but not long-term rates; low long-term yields mean that investors expect a weak economy, which will force the Fed into repeated rate cuts.
So what accounts for this wave of gloom? Much though not all of it is a vote of no confidence in Donald Trump’s economic policies.
You may recall that last year, after a couple of quarters of good economic news, Trump officials were boasting that the 2017 tax cut had laid the foundation for many years of high economic growth.
Since then, however, the data have pretty much confirmed what critics had been saying all along. Yes, the tax cut gave the economy a boost — a “sugar high.” Running trillion-dollar deficits will do that. But the boost was temporary. In particular, the promised boom in business investment never materialized. And now the economy has reverted, at best, to its pre-stimulus growth rate.
At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that Trump’s belligerence about foreign trade isn’t a pose; it reflects real conviction. Protectionism seems to be up there with racism as part of the essential Trump. And the realization that he really is a Tariff Man is having a serious dampening effect on business spending, partly because nobody knows just how far he’ll go.
To see how this works, think of the dilemma facing many U.S. manufacturers. Some of them rely heavily on imported parts; they’re not going to invest in the face of actual or threatened tariffs on those imports. Others could potentially compete with imported goods if assured that those imports would face heavy tariffs; but they don’t know whether those tariffs are actually coming, or will endure. So everyone is sitting on piles of cash, waiting to see what an erratic president will do.
Of course, Trump isn’t the only problem here. Other countries have their own troubles — a European recession and a Chinese slowdown look quite likely — and some of these troubles are spilling back to the United States.
But even if Trump and company aren’t the source of all of our economic difficulties, you still want some assurance that they’ll deal effectively with problems as they arise. So what kind of contingency planning is the administration engaged in? What are officials considering doing if the economy does weaken substantially?
The answer, reportedly, is that there is no policy discussion at all, which isn’t surprising when you bear in mind the fact that basically everyone who knows anything about economics left the Trump administration months or years ago. The advisers who remain are busy with high-priority tasks like accusing The Wall Street Journal editorial page of being pro-Chinese.
No, the administration’s only plan if things go wrong seems to be to blame the Fed, whose chairman was selected by … Donald Trump. To be fair, it’s now clear that the Fed was wrong to raise short-term rates last year.
But it’s important to realize that the Fed’s mistake was, essentially, that it placed too much faith in Trumpist economic policies.
- If the tax cut had actually produced the promised boom,
- if the trade war hadn’t put a drag on growth,
we wouldn’t have an inverted yield curve; remember, the Fed didn’t cause the plunge in long-term rates, which is what inverted the curve. And the Trump boom wasn’t supposed to be so fragile that a small rise in rates would ruin it.
I might add that blaming the Fed looks to me like a dubious political strategy. How many voters even know what the Fed is or what it does?
Now, a word of caution: Bond markets are telling us that the smart money is gloomy about economic prospects, but the smart money can be wrong. In fact, it has been wrong in the recent past. Investors were clearly far too optimistic last fall, but they may be too pessimistic now.
But pessimistic they are. The bond market, which is the best indicator we have, is declaring that Trumponomics was a flop.
An old line about war says that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. A similar line about the economy would be that amateurs talk about stocks, but professionals study the bond market. And lately the bond market is telling a tale of profound pessimism.
Why does the bond market reflect economic expectations? If investors expect a boom, they also expect the Fed to try to rein in the boom by raising short-term interest rates (which it more or less directly controls), to head off potential inflation. The prospect of higher short-term rates then leads to higher long-term rates, because nobody wants to lock money in at a low yield if returns are going up. Conversely, if investors expect a slump, they expect the Fed to cut rates, and pile into long-term bonds to lock in returns while they can.
So the slump in long-term yields since last fall, from a peak of 3.2 percent to just 1.63 percent this morning, says that investors have grown drastically less sanguine about the economy. Long-term rates are now notably lower than short-term rates — and this kind of “yield curve inversion” has in the past consistently been the precursor to recession:
Ominous yieldsFederal Reserve of St. Louis
Bond investors could, of course, be wrong — there are some people out there claiming that we’re in a bond bubble. And so far the real economy, as measured by G.D.P., job growth, and all that, is still chugging along. But as I said, there’s clearly a wave of pessimism sweeping the market. What’s it about?
One answer is that last fall many investors were looking at a couple of quarters of high growth, and thinking that this might be the start of an extended boom. Serious economists warned that this growth was a temporary lift — a “sugar high” — driven by the shift from fiscal austerity to what-me-worry deficit finance. But at least some people bought into the Trumpist line that tax cuts were going to produce an enduring rise in the growth rate.
At the same time, Trump’s trade war may be starting to take a toll. In particular, the uncertainty may be deterring business spending. Whether new tariffs would hurt or help your business, it now makes sense to hold off on plans to expand, until you see what he actually does.
Finally, economic troubles in the rest of the world — several major European economies are quite possibly in recession — are filtering back to the U.S.
Now, most economists aren’t predicting a recession here, for good reason. The truth is that nobody is very good at calling turning points in the economy, and calling a recession before it’s really obvious in the data is much more likely to get you declared a Chicken Little than hailed as a prophet. (Believe me, I know all about it.) But the bond market, which doesn’t worry about such things, is looking remarkably grim. I leave the possible political implications as an exercise for all of you.
You know the moment in a horror movie when the characters are going about their business and nothing bad has happened to them yet, but there seem to be ominous signs everywhere that only you, the viewer, notice?
That’s what watching global financial markets the last couple of weeks has felt like.
In a lot of ways, nothing looks particularly wrong. The S&P 500 was down 0.7 percent Wednesday, tumbling for a second consecutive session, but over all is down only about 5.5 percent from its early May high. The unemployment rate is at a five-decade low. With major companies nearly done releasing their first-quarter results, 76 percent had results above expectations.
But along the way, global bond prices have soared, driving interest rates down sharply. Ten-year Treasury bonds are yielding only 2.26 percent as of Wednesday’s market close, down nearly a full percentage point since November 2018. The outlook for inflation in the years ahead is falling as well, as are the prices of oil and other commodities.
Most significant, the fall in longer-term bond yields has not been matched by a fall in shorter-term rates. For example, a 30-day Treasury bill is yielding 2.35 percent — meaning you can earn more on your money tying it up for a month risk-free than you can tying it up for a full decade.
This is not normal. It is called an inverted yield curve, and historically it has been viewed as a sign of a recession in the offing. At a minimum, it indicates that bond investors believe the Federal Reserve will soon need to cut interest rates — in effect, that it overshot with those four rate increases last year.
There is also a soft underbelly to some of the good economic data of late. Orders for capital goods like business equipment fell 0.9 percent in April, suggesting companies may not be in an expansionary mood. The Institute for Supply Management’s index of activity at manufacturing companies fell sharply in the most recent reading, though it remained in expansion territory.
The financial markets don’t always tell a tidy little story about what is happening, but here’s a theory about reconciling the apparent calm in the economy with the many worrying signs.
The breakdown in trade negotiations with China and the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods are part of the story, but only a part.
Businesses have weathered escalating tariffs for two years now, and while tariffs can be costly, they do not need to wreck the economy. After all, prices for products fluctuate for all sorts of reasons, and market economies are pretty good at adjusting.
Bankers are often criticized for being out of touch with the real world. Often that is unfair, but on Tuesday, as the leaders of the nation’s three biggest banks told investors that the economy was great, investors were acting like the boom was over.
Speaking at the Goldman Sachs financial conference, the chief executives of JPMorgan Chase , JPM -4.46% Wells Fargo WFC -4.54% and Bank of America BAC -5.43% all said they see exceptionally strong economic conditions at the moment, citing strong consumer spending and business confidence.As they were speaking, their stocks told a different story. Shares of all three banks fell 4.5% to 5.5%, worse than the 3.2% decline in the S&P 500.On closer inspection, all three bank executives gave hints of trouble just beneath the surface.
JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive James Dimon spoke of the indirect costs of trade tensions to business confidence and investment. He sounded skeptical these tensions would be resolved within the cease-fire time period agreed to by the U.S. and China over the weekend. “There’s no way you can finish the complexity of these trade negotiations in 90 days,” he said... Mr. Dimon also suggested he’s been puzzled that middle-market borrowers haven’t ramped up their borrowing more as the economy has improved… Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan struck a similar note, saying medium to large-size clients are already making changes to their supply chains in response to the trade uncertainty, which he said costs them money while adding no value for their customers.
Wells Fargo Chief Executive Timothy Sloan cited a different risk, saying the biggest concern he hears from business clients is “their inability to hire enough workers.” This is the kind of thing that can lead to what Mr. Dimon referred to as a “traditional recession” caused by Federal Reserve raising interest rates as wages and prices rise.
Sometimes the risks are greatest just when things seem to be at their best. Investors are right to brace for what may come next.