The Fed is hosting its 2016 annual academic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming this weekend. Fed Chair, Janet Yellen is scheduled to speak. While no interest rate decision will be announced, markets nonetheless are fixated on developments. With little real economic data or interest to move stock and bond prices, traders eagerly await some insight into future rate policy, in hopes of gaining some direction for markets.
We see the impact of Jackson Hole on bond and utility stock prices, and prices for REITs. Each of these instruments trade as fixed income securities and are, therefore, rightly influenced by trends in interest rates. But, it's actually long term interest rates that impact these instruments over time, not the short end of the curve that the Fed sets.
Utility stocks have performed extraordinarily well over the past six months, as we first pointed out in this blog in April 2016, Investing in Utility Stocks. Utility stocks as measured by the return on the ETF, XLU, were up 18.8% through August 10 of this year (see Returns on Selected Assets Year to Date). It's also worth reading our 2016 market predications posted on December 30, 2015 and What's Working in this Market Correction from January 7, 2016.
Over the past few weeks, though, bonds, REITs and utility stocks have given back some of their gains as investors eye a potential rate hike by the Fed. Let's take a look at how bonds are priced and why I treat utility stocks as the equivalent. Utility stocks generally trade with a high level of dividend yield. Because utility revenues are quite stable, the dividend is therefore predictable and protected, as much as possible, from swings in the economy. Therefore, as with bonds that pay a fixed level of interest, the value of the utility stock is tied to the discounted future value of the dividend stream. If the dividend is stable, the stock value will rise as the discount rate falls and decline as the discount rate rises.
Markets, of course, are forward looking, which explains why utility stocks are weakening, while no interest hike has actually been scheduled. The Fed also does not directly impact longer term interest rates that are the basis by which utility dividend and bond interest would be discounted. Nonetheless, the markets are fragile and investors anxious.
If we look at the last Fed hike on December 15, 2015, however, we see a very different picture emerge. The US 10-year rose by 2 basis points to 2.30% in the day following the announcement, eventually rising to a high of 2.32% on December 29. But the yield began immediate falling thereafter, to 2.00% on January 28, and 1.63% by February 11, 2016. The 10-year yield now sits at 1.55%. The XLU utility ETF, by the way closed on the day of the December Fed hike at 42.33, climbing to 53 on July 6, 2016 (a gain of 25%).
This points to the most interesting aspect of how bonds and utility stocks trade, not on forecasted Federal Funds rates, or perhaps even the US 10-year, but on the forecast of inflation in the economy, as inflation erodes the value of fixed income securities. The point of all this is that if a Fed hike acts to curb growth (and therefore inflation) a rise in the Fed Funds rate could actually act to lower the US-10 year and raise, not lower, the price of bonds and utility stocks. This is precisely what happened following the Fed's December rate hike. There's no reason to believe that this would play out any differently in the months following the next rate increase.