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Fed cuts, trade tensions may set stage for Bank of Canada easing

One of the biggest questions in global fixed-income markets is whether the Fed’s July rate cut was an insurance cut or the start of a longer easing cycle.

Key takeaways

  • We believe the Fed is fixated on current trade tensions for now and that it remains to be seen whether the July cut is insurance or the kickoff of a more data-dependent easing cycle. 
  • We believe a second rate cut by the Fed at its September meeting will have left the Bank of Canada with little choice but to follow with a cut of its own at its October meeting. 
  • We’re still upbeat on corporate credit, but we think it makes sense to pull back a bit on risk exposure by moving up in credit quality and emphasizing more stable sectors while avoiding cyclical ones.  

Another cut from the Fed

As expected, the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) at the July policy meeting cut its benchmark federal funds rate by 25 basis points, to a range between 2.00% and 2.25%. It was the first cut since the global financial crisis hit more than 10 years ago. Of course, the question now is: What next for the Fed? Specifically, is the July move simply an insurance cut reminiscent of the Bank of Canada’s (BoC’s) two rate cuts in 2015 in response to weak oil prices? Or was it the start of a longer easing cycle?

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in a press conference after the July announcement that the reduction was a “midcycle adjustment,” which points to an insurance cut rather than a full-blown easing cycle.¹ Of course, trade tensions flared again in August, and U.S. and Canadian government bond yields dropped further on growth concerns.

Our view is that we’ll most likely get two more cuts from the Fed before the end of 2019. If July was an insurance cut, then the Fed is trying to influence market sentiment, so one or two follow-up cuts make sense. Not following up with another rate cut would also likely send a confusing message to financial markets about the Fed’s course. We see the Fed then reassessing in 2020 based on the economic data, U.S.-China trade negotiations, and other global headwinds. 

Chart showing U.S. fed funds rate vs. BoC, overnight lending rate. Chart shows that policy rate in Canada has been below U.S. interest rates since early 2016. As of August 1,  2019, U.S. policy rate was 2.25% (upper limit) while interest rates in Canada was at 1.75%.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Fed seems to be taking a global view, because the relatively strong footing of the U.S. economy on its own doesn’t warrant rate cuts. Aside from trade tensions, the United Kingdom potentially leaving the European Union remains a risk, and Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, appears committed to a no-deal Brexit, if that’s what it takes. Challenges remain elsewhere in Europe, and outgoing European Central Bank President Mario Draghi in July hinted at more cuts and negative rates to help boost the European economy.

The Fed has been clear lately that it’s trying to keep the growth cycle going rather than letting it die of old age and that it’s willing to risk inflation above 2% for an extended period to accomplish this goal. 

Bank of Canada may follow the Fed

Whether the BoC cuts rates in late 2019 depends partly on the Fed’s actions. For now, at least, the bank seems convinced that the overnight target rate of 1.75% is calibrated properly with the Canadian economy’s trajectory. However, if the Fed announces a second cut in 2019, we anticipate that the BoC will be left with little choice but to follow with a cut of its own. While our view here isn’t consensus at this time, Canada’s economy is closely tied to the United States, and if the Fed is worried enough to cut rates twice, then the BoC should probably also be worried. In addition to this consideration, any inaction on the part of the BoC in the face of an aggressively dovish Fed could have the effect of a stronger Canadian dollar, which could be a drag on the Canadian economy–something the BoC would want to avoid.  

Canadian government yields can fall more

U.S. 10-year rates have been trending lower over the past year, moving down from roughly 3.25% in late 2018 to below 1.50% in mid-August.² Meanwhile, the yield curve even inverted in August, indicating the bond market is broadcasting the slowing conditions that the Fed is now responding to.

With the economy now in its 11th year of recovery after the financial crisis, we believe the roughly 3.25% yield reached in the fall of 2018 will be the highest rate for the 10-year U.S. Treasury until after the next recession. We believe the same also applies to the Canada 10-year yield, which fell below 1.10% in mid-August, from a high of about 2.60% in the fall of 2018. Like the United States, the Canadian yield curve is very flat to inverted. 

Chart showing U.S. vs. Canada 10-year yields. The chart shows that yields in both countries have been falling since mid-late 2018.

Although both U.S. and Canadian 10-year yields are the lowest since late 2016, they’re relatively high compared with most developed-market countries—remember, there’s more than US$14 trillion of global debt with negative yields.³ The U.S. and Canadian government yields can continue to decline if the global economy slows materially, and they have in fact been lower at times during the past decade. 

"Similarly, the recent move lower in yields has made us reluctant to take duration risk."  

Canadian corporate credit and the housing market

We entered 2019 with a positive view on Canadian corporate credit. Credit appears healthy from a fundamental perspective, although spreads versus government bonds of similar duration have begun to widen out after narrowing earlier in the year; they may still be too tight given the global economic challenges. Therefore, we think it makes sense to pull back a bit on risk by moving up in credit quality in general and emphasizing more stable sectors and avoiding cyclical sectors; for example, favoring utilities over commodities.

Similarly, the recent move lower in yields has made us reluctant to take duration risk. Overall, we favor maintaining neutral to slightly short durations.

Looking at the broader Canadian economy, we continue to view the overall housing market— specifically in big cities such as Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto—as a potential risk. Home building and residential construction have been a big part of the economy for the past 10 to 15 years, so we think a slowdown would have a significant impact. Headwinds for the housing market include taxes on foreign buyers and stress tests for mortgage borrowers, although recently falling rates have provided some relief. 

Conclusion

We expect at least one more cut from the Fed in 2019 and for the BoC to follow suit with its own cut before the end of the year. U.S. and Canadian 10-year bond yields have declined on global trade tensions, and we expect them to end 2019 at around 1.75% and 1.30%, respectively. Market volatility picked up recently in August on uncertainty over U.S. tariffs and Chinese currency markets, and geopolitical risks are elevated, so we think it’s time to be cautious and emphasize quality. For example, it’s difficult for us to strongly favor riskier assets such as corporate bonds because we don’t see enough potential reward to justify the risks based on current credit spreads. Markets could remain volatile in late 2019 and into 2020 until investors get more clarity on U.S.-China trade negotiations and as long as other risks remain elevated. 

 

 

1 Transcript of Chair Powell’s Press Conference, July 31, 2019, www.federalreserve.gov. 2 U.S. Department of the Treasury (treasury.gov), as of August 31, 2019. 3 “Negative-Yielding Debt Hits Record $14 Trillion as Fed Cuts,” Bloomberg, August 1, 2019.

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Terry Carr, CFA

Terry Carr, CFA, 

Senior Portfolio Manager, Chief Investment Officer, Canadian Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

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