A September to remember

A September to remember

By Deborah Cunningham, CFA, Executive Vice President, Chief Investment Officer, Global Liquidity Markets, Federated Investors

Investing has, and probably always will be, a mix of expectations and the unexpected. It’s rare for cash managers to face the latter, but in mid-September repo rates for overnight transactions using Treasury and agency collateral vaulted far above the typical levels before the Federal Reserve injected the markets with additional reserves. It was not a credit event, and we were quick to broadcast that. By now, even investors who never pay attention to repo rates have gotten the message.

If you will allow a now-overused saying, it was a case of a perfect storm with corporate tax day for the quarter hitting just as the Treasury issued a large amount (in the $50 billion range) of net new coupon supply, exacerbated by lower bank reserves parked at the Federal Reserve and by New York Fed staff frankly out of practice with doing daily operations. I am not blaming the Fed for this happening, but saying—and this is a good thing—that the liquidity space has been so stable there’s been no need for intervention.

Despite being late, the Fed’s continuing action to support overnight trading has substantially reduced the risk of this occurring again, in our opinion.

There were two more twists in September, both announced at the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. The markets anticipated a quarter-point lowering of the target range to 1.75-2%, but found Chair Jerome Powell’s press conference rhetoric less dovish than assumed. This caused the London interbank offered rates (Libor) in the 6-to 12-month part of the curve to climb higher than before the cut, the futures market to suggest only one cut by year-end and the Libor curve to slope positively.

The latter shift was counterintuitive. A decrease in rates normally impacts the entire short-term curve, but that was not the case after the Fed's reduction in September. It was sort of a reverse of the December 2018 meeting, at which the Fed raised rates yet investors started doubting that quarterly hikes would continue. In any case, it was a pleasant surprise and gave us buying opportunities further out the curve, lengthening our weighted average maturities, whose ranges remained 30-40 days for our government funds and 40-50 for our prime and municipal funds.

The other twist was that the Fed lowered the reverse repo program (RRP) rate by 30 basis points. This facility is designed to give participants a safety net for overnight transactions. Since RRP started in 2016, this “floor” has equaled the low end of the fed funds rate range; now it is 1.70% and 5 basis points below the lower bound of that range. That is a bit of a headscratcher. Policymakers have been lowering interest paid on excess bank reserves parked at the Fed (IOER), so it would seem this is part of their attempt to control the process. They may need to buttress daily operations with new quantitative easing at some point: call it QE-light.

So where does that put us now? Despite certain domestic and global uncertainties, the U.S. economy is moderating but still growing. Consumer spending is strong, manufacturing is weakening but not contracting, the housing market is solid and employment outstanding. If policymakers reiterate at the October FOMC meeting that they are data dependent and some key issues such as trade are resolved, rates might stabilize in 2020. At present, the wait-and-see approach seems wiser than heady expectations.

The Treasury yield curve ended September with 1-month at 1.9%, 3-month at 2.83%, 6- month at 1.83% and 12-month at 1.77%. Libor ended the month with 1-month at 2.03%, 3-month at 2.10%, 6-month at 2.06% and 12-month at 2.04%.

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