BlackRock Commentary: Higher rates reinforce income’s appeal

Wei Li – Global Chief Investment Strategist of BlackRock investment institute, together with Alex Brazier – Deputy Head, Kurt Reiman – Senior Strategist for North America, and Nicholas Fawcett – Macro research all forming part of the BlackRock Investment Institute, share their insights on global economy, markets and geopolitics. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.

Key Points

Favoring fixed income: We don’t see major central bank rate cuts this year, so we prefer to earn income in short-term bonds, high-grade credit and agency mortgage-backed securities.

Market backdrop: U.S. stocks rose and Treasury yields were mostly steady. U.S. Q4 GDP was resilient but declining consumer spending suggests growth is slowing quickly.

Week ahead: The Fed and the European Central Bank anchor policy decisions this week. We see them hiking and holding rates higher for longer than markets expect

Major central banks are set to hike policy rates again this week and keep them higher, counter to market views for cuts this year. We see this disconnect resolving and favoring higher rates. That’s because we think inflation will fall fast but stay above target. Rates staying high plus the political tussle over raising the U.S. borrowing limit are market risks. We prefer to earn income and like short-term government bonds, high-grade credit and mortgage-backed securities.

Yield is back

Income is finally back in fixed income thanks to higher yields and coupons. Short-term government bonds and investment grade (IG) credit now offer some of the highest yields in the last two decades. See the chart. We prefer to earn income right now from these high-quality fixed income assets as rates rise and stay high. Fixed income’s appeal remains intact the longer central banks keep rates near their peak. The lack of duration – or the sensitivity of bond prices to interest rates – in short-term paper also helps preserve income even if yields rise anew. Global IG credit offers high-grade, liquid income – and we think the strong balance sheets of high-quality companies that refinanced debt at lower rates can weather the mild recession we see ahead. We also like agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) to diversify income.

We see major central banks on a path to overtighten policy because they’re worried about the persistence of underlying core inflation, excluding food and energy prices. PCE data in the U.S. confirmed the outlook for core inflation hasn’t improved, and it’s tracking to be well above policy targets into 2024. Core services inflation is proving sticky even as goods prices fall. That stickiness is tied to wage pressures in the labor market that we see remaining tight. We think central banks will want more evidence that core inflation and wage pressures are sustainably subsiding before they declare victory on inflation and think about easing policy. This will take a long time – and is unlikely to happen this year, in our view.

This week, the Fed and ECB are set to push rates further up again. We see the Fed hiking 0.25% and the ECB raising 0.5%, with more hikes likely to follow. Then we see them keeping rates high. But markets are pricing rate cuts in 2023 even as both central banks insist they will stay the course. That disconnect needs to be resolved, and we think it will be in favor of higher rates as inflation persists above central banks’ 2% target. Rates staying high is one reason we prefer earning income with shorter duration paper.

Term premium’s return 

Another reason is term premium – the compensation investors demand for holding long-term government bonds. We see investors seeking more term premium with higher inflation and other near-term risks on the horizon. Political pressure on the Bank of Japan to change its yield curve control policy is likely to ramp up with inflation running at a four-decade high. The risk: a global spillover from higher Japanese government bond yields to global yields. We think moving away from yield curve control would be like a move away from a currency peg – even tweaks could lead to abrupt market dislocations.

Risks over raising the U.S. borrowing cap are also in focus now after the U.S. hit its debt ceiling this month – this reinforces our view that investors will once again demand term premium. Negotiations are likely to go down to the wire this summer and could be as fraught as 2011, when S&P Global downgraded the U.S. triple-A credit rating. We ultimately expect a resolution. If a U.S. default were to occur, it would likely be technical in nature, meaning the U.S. would prioritize debt payments over other obligations. We would expect only a temporary rise in selected Treasury bill yields as the default date nears. Another debt ceiling impasse could also pressure risk assets as in past episodes – this keeps us cautious on U.S. equities.

Our bottom line

Rates staying high and the political tussle over the U.S. debt ceiling are market risks. We take a granular view on fixed income at this juncture. We tactically like short-term government bonds, high-grade credit and agency mortgage-backed securities for attractive income.

Market backdrop

U.S. stocks climbed and bond yields were mostly steady, with European and emerging market shares outperforming the U.S. on investor inflows. U.S. GDP was resilient in the last quarter of 2022. Consumer spending helped prop up growth, but we see signs of weakness beneath the surface. The U.S. PCE data showed consumer spending was losing momentum at the end of the year and suggests that growth is slowing more quickly than we expected.

The Fed and the European Central Bank anchor this week’s central bank decisions. We see them both pushing up rates further and pushing back against market expectations for rate cuts. The U.S. services PMI and payrolls data will give the latest view on recession risks. We think further resilience in activity and the labor market could embolden the Fed.

Week Ahead

Jan. 31: Euro area flash Q4 GDP; U.S. consumer confidence

Feb. 1: Fed policy decision; U.S. job openings; euro area inflation

Feb. 2: European Central Bank, Bank of England policy decisions

Feb. 3: U.S. payrolls, U.S. ISM services PMI; China services PMI

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