Director of Real-Time Economics
Ryan Sweet is director of real-time economics at Moody's Analytics. He is also editor-in-chief of Economy.com, to which he regularly contributes, and a member of the US macroeconomics team in West Chester, PA. He is among the most accurate high-frequency forecasters of the US economy, according to MarketWatch. He is also an adjunct professor in the Economics and Finance Department at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He has a master's degree in economics from the University of Delaware and a bachelor's degree in economics from Washington College.
Greater uncertainty surrounding the sustainability of corporate earnings growth has adversely affected the performance of medium- and lower-grade corporate bonds. If fears over the adequacy of future corporate earnings persist, the upside for benchmark U.S. interest rates is probably well under consensus expectations.
Gridlock is here. Because of the constraints placed on fiscal policy by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, the Federal Reserve's role at assuring an adequate rate of economic growth has been magnified. Though currently not a pressing issue, a widely anticipated deceleration of corporate revenues and profits may eventually influence Fed policy. Such slowdowns increase the risk of widespread cutbacks in business outlays on capital goods and staff. A severe enough retrenchment in business spending would quickly end the current episode of monetary firming. Both equities and corporate bonds can transcend the slower growth of corporate earnings. However, if an unbending climb by benchmark interest rates amid continually slower profits growth triggers expectations of a prolonged shrinkage of earnings, share prices will sink and corporate credit spreads will swell.
Recent outsized advances by equity prices probably owe something to either actual or anticipated buybacks of common stock. Both the relative steadiness of corporate credit quality and ample amounts of corporate cash now improve the outlook for equity buybacks. In the Financial Accounts of the United States, the Federal Reserve supplies an estimate of net equity buybacks, where the estimate applies to net buybacks of both common and preferred equity. Because of an often heavy use of preferred stock by financial companies, net buybacks of nonfinancial-corporate equity are the preferred measure when analyzing the behavior of net equity buybacks over time. For example, the $55 billion of total net equity buybacks for the year-ended June 2018 consisted of $485 billion of net stock buybacks by U.S. nonfinancial companies and $281 billion of net equity issuance by U.S. financial institutions.
Higher interest rates and trade related frictions, including the effective tax hikes brought on by the imposition of tariffs, have lowered the market value of U.S. common stock by 8.1% from its current zenith of September 20, 2018. Thus far, systemic financial liquidity has yet to suffer materially from the latest bout of equity market volatility. However, liquidity will be adversely affected if a further weakening of the equity market substantially increases the cost of both equity and debt capital. A persistently volatile equity market risks swelling the uncertainty surrounding the valuation of business assets. In turn, capital spending and business outlays on staff may be less than otherwise.
Crafting economically sound trade policy is easier said than done.
Credit quality benefits to the degree a borrower has locked in continued access to debt capital and has capped the interest expense of outstanding debt. Basically, long-term debt having a fixed interest rate is preferred to short-term debt having a variable interest rate. Through the first nine months of 2018, U.S. corporate bond issuance incurred year-over-year setbacks of 21% for investment-grade (to $698.9 billion) and 25% for high-yield (to $151.5 billion).
Free-falling share prices might soon drive the 10-year Treasury yield under 3%. The market value of U.S. common equity was recently 7.4% under its record high of August 29, 2018. In the event the equity market sinks 10% under its current zenith, the containment of inflation expectations supplies the Fed with more than enough leeway to temporarily halt its ongoing normalization of monetary policy. When monetary policy lacks precedent, flexibility is necessary. Never before has the Fed simultaneously firmed policy by both hiking fed funds and reducing its holdings of Treasury bonds and agency mortgage backed securities.
Share prices recently dropped in response to an unanticipated and possibly fundamentally overdone jump by Treasury bond yields. Nevertheless, the market value of U.S. common equity may need to drop by at least 5% from its current record high if a flight from risk is to prompt a flight to quality that is capable of lowering Treasury yields in a lasting manner. A convincing fundamental justification for the latest ascent by Treasury yields is elusive. U.S. consumer price inflation remains well contained. August 2018's PCE price index rose by merely 0.1% from July as its year-to-year increase dipped from July's 2.3 to 2.2%. More importantly, the core PCE price index, which excludes often volatile food and energy prices, was unchanged from the prior month, which left its yearly increase at 2.0% for fourth consecutive month.
Profits Determine Effect of High Corporate Debt to GDP Ratio: As of 2018's second quarter, the gross debt of U.S. nonfinancial corporate businesses was at an unprecedented 45.8% of GDP, where the ratio is a moving yearlong average. Data from the “Financial Accounts of the United States,” formerly known as the “Flow of Funds Accounts,” is best viewed from the perspective of a moving yearlong average mostly because the quarterly data are frequently subject to substantial revisions, where even the moving yearlong averages can be altered considerably.
An abatement of tariff-related fears reduced the uncertainty surrounding a positive outlook for US corporate earnings. In response, the market value of US common stock quickly approached its record high of August 29, 2018. Moreover, high-yield bonds rallied from already richly-priced levels. In turn, a recent composite high-yield bond spread was thinner than 340 basis points (bp) for the first time since the middle of April 2018.