Unraveling US rate-cut bets spur investors to readjust their portfolios

(Reuters) – Fears of rebounding inflation are forcing investors to prepare for a scenario few expected to confront in 2024: a year without U.S. interest rate cuts.

Expectations for how much policy easing the Federal Reserve can deliver are falling rapidly as one strong economic report after another suggests inflation could come creeping back if the central bank lowers borrowing costs prematurely.

Those worries took on added urgency following Wednesday’s robust consumer price data: futures markets now show investors expect rates to fall by just 40 basis points this year, compared to 150 basis points priced in at the start of 2024.

The fading prospect of rate cuts presents a dilemma to market participants who piled into stocks and bonds over the last few months in hopes of policy easing, leaving some of them scrambling to readjust their portfolios.

Though the S&P 500 stands near record highs, some equity investors are loading up on insurance in the options market or pouring money into popular inflation hedges such as energy stocks, wary that a key bull market support may be fading. The index fell nearly 1% on Wednesday.

Bond investors are already feeling the pain, as they reposition portfolios amidst a weeks-long selloff that has hammered Treasury prices. Benchmark 10-year yields, which move inversely to bond prices, hit their highest level since November on Wednesday as they breached 4.5%.

“We are heading to the possibility of no U.S. rate cuts in 2024, or at least fewer cuts than the market currently prices,” said Tara Hariharan, managing director at global macro hedge fund NWI.

Investors cheered when Fed Chairman Jerome Powell in December confirmed expectations of a Fed pivot towards rate cuts and policymakers penciled in 75 basis points of borrowing cost reductions for 2024, though that outlook was contingent on inflation continuing to cool.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell holds a news conference in WashingtonFILE PHOTO: U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell holds a news conference in Washington

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. (Reuters)

The S&P 500 has added some $4.7 trillion in market value since then and climbed to record highs as investors bet on a so-called soft landing scenario, in which the Fed was able to tame inflation without hurting economic growth.

Months of strong data, however, have some investors questioning whether the excitement surrounding a pivot has been premature. Those worries have been readily apparent in the bond market, where yields have been steadily rising in recent weeks.

Tim Murray, capital markets strategist at T. Rowe Price, said he has been shifting out of fixed income, wary that a possible inflationary rebound could erode bonds’ future cash flows.

“Bonds are a really good recession hedge but they’re not a very good hedge against inflation,” he said.

He has also been increasing positions in energy stocks, which have soared along with oil prices and are a popular inflation hedge. The S&P 500 energy sector is up 17% this year, dwarfing the 8.2% rise of the S&P 500.

Rick Rieder, chief investment officer of global fixed income at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said he reduced the interest rate exposure of some of the portfolios he runs, including the $2.7 billion BlackRock Flexible Income ETF, over the past few months by selling certain shorter and longer-dated bonds that could be hit harder if rates move higher.

U.S. bond giant PIMCO, in contrast, has been raising its interest rate exposure, or duration, believing that bonds have become more fairly priced following their latest selloff. The company trimmed its rate cut forecast last week after strong U.S. labor market data.

“If anything, we’re looking potentially at when we should be getting overweight,” said Mike Cudzil, a portfolio manager at the fund.

Hariharan, of NWI, said yields on longer-dated U.S. government bonds are “too low given heavy Treasury supply.”

Meanwhile, signs of caution are growing in the equity market. Bank of America clients sold a net $3.4 billion in equities last week, with individual stocks seeing their largest outflows since July 2023, the firm said in a note.

Scott Wren, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said his firm has been positioned in short-term fixed income as a “parking spot” as it waits for an equities pullback to put money into stocks.

“The next move by the Fed is down, but you’re going to have to wait,” he said.

Stock investors are also seeking protection in derivatives markets. The Cboe Volatility Index – an options-based gauge of investors’ demand for portfolio protection – is hovering near a two-month high.

Citi strategists, analyzing the historic relationship between stocks and yields, said in a note late on Wednesday that it would take the pricing out of approximately 50 to 75 basis points of Fed cuts and for the 10-year yield to rise by between 5 and 35 basis points over the next four to five weeks to badly hurt equities.

For Bryant VanCronkhite, senior portfolio manager at asset management firm Allspring, a continued rise in commodity prices could be a major risk for equities, as it could accelerate inflation and price out rate cuts. He believes markets stand at a juncture where it is difficult to predict the next move in stocks.

“Quite honestly, I don’t know if it’ll be up 10% or down 10%,” he said.

(Reporting by Carolina Mandl, Davide Barbuscia and Lewis Krauskopf; Additional reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Editing by Ira Iosebashvili and Jamie Freed)


Source link

Check Also

Why Investors Love Coca-Cola Stock in 5 Simple Charts

The soda giant is still a great stock for long-term investors. Coca-Cola (KO 0.29%) is …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *