US payroll data has increased the possibility of a rate hike by the Federal Reserve or Fed in early May, leading to higher rates and affecting those who expected a pause or pivot through poorly performing yield curve steepener trades. The market expects the Fed to raise its target rate to 5.00-5.25% and keep it there through mid-year.
There is more to the pressure than just yields. Surveys indicate a drop in profits for sensitive areas of the equity market, such as technology and banks; as soon as the labor market starts softening, a credit crunch is expected to accelerate by some.
Despite the turbulence from earnings, data suggests the S&P 500 (INDEX: SPX) may perform well through year-end. Historically, the full-year return was always positive when the S&P 500 had a positive first quarter. However, there have been exceptions, says Callum Thomas, quoting data gathered by Ryan Detrick.
Peeking beneath the hood, only a few (primarily rate-sensitive) stocks have bolstered recent index strength; many components are not participating in the rally, which could be a harbinger of potential post-earnings weaknesses.
Notwithstanding, if rates continue to fall, so do borrowing costs; falling inflation cuts pressures on input cost; rising unemployment helps keep labor costs under control, Bloomberg reports. The forecasts (not surveys) actually show earnings holding up better than the narrative suggests.
So what, then? In an annual report, JPMorgan Chase & Co (NYSE: JPM) concludes that if “we have higher inflation for longer, the Fed may be forced to increase rates higher than people expect despite the recent bank crisis.” Compounding the rate hikes is quantitative tightening or QT, the process of a central bank reducing the amount of money it has injected into an economy by selling bonds or other financial assets, which “may have ongoing impacts that might, over time, be another force, pushing longer-term rates higher than currently envisioned.” The net effect, though insights gleaned from the curve may be muddied due to the scale of recent interventions, is an “inverted yield curve [implying] we are going into a recession” and lower credit creation because, as Sergei Perfiliev well puts it, “if capital ends with the Fed, it is dead – it has left the economy and the banking system.”
How do we position ourselves, given all these narratives? Equity volatility implied (IVOL) and realized (RVOL) decreased. This may continue to be a booster. In fact, “if markets remain within a +/-1.5% range, a drop in volatility could trigger significant buying activity from the vol-control space, with up to $14 billion in notional flows hitting the tape, creating a favorable environment for equities,” says Tier1Alpha.
So, positioning-wise, stocks could trade up into a “more combustible” state where “volatility is sticky into a rally,” as Kai Volatility’s Cem Karsan said would happen.
SpotGamma confirms that, based on current positioning, SPX IVOL is projected to move up as the underlying index moves up; there are likely many people chasing the rally with long calls, “creating a swelling of call skew.”
In this environment, very wide call ratio spread structures discussed in past letters may continue to do well. We can use the profits from those call structures to cut the cost of our bets on the equity market downside and lower interest rates.
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