The implications of lower inflation and a more moderate economic backdrop for fixed-income investing are manifold.
For starters, a business cycle characterized by growth and inflation remaining at generally lower levels and exhibiting less volatility – with a bit more conservative financial regulation – is likely to lead to lower and less volatile long-term interest rates. The front end of the U.S. Treasury yield curve, however, will continue to be driven by the business cycle and changes in administered rates.
As a result, the yield curve dynamic in the U.S. in 2017 – where short rates rose by roughly 1 percentage point while the 10-year Treasury yield was scarcely changed from its level at the beginning of the year – might become more the rule than the exception. And to the extent that short rates continue to fluctuate widely over the business cycle, while long rates remain generally low and stable, the yield curve may be, on average, flatter and more frequently inverted than it has been in recent decades.
To the extent this plays out, investors and managers that expect steeper curves and higher long-term rates might not have the right approach to playing the yield curve. Furthermore, those who assume yield curve flattening is a signal of impending economic slowdown might get the wrong read on the economy, and end up wrong-footed on asset allocation and intersector positioning.
The more moderate macro backdrop may translate into a longer business cycle. Already, the current practice of cautious, yet pre-emptive, central banking has delivered nearly a decade of U.S. economic expansion. In terms of fixed-income portfolio management, this sort of longer, milder business cycle has, and may continue to see, more micro inter- and intrasector allocation opportunities and less frequent major macro spread widening and narrowing incidences. As a result, asset allocation schemes focused on capturing intrasector and issue selection opportunities might prove more successful than those focused on trend reversals at the turning point of the overall business cycle.
Nathan Sheets is chief economist and head of global macroeconomic research and Robert Tipp, chief investment strategist and head of global bonds, at PGIM Fixed Income, Newark, N.J. This article represents the views of the authors. It was submitted and edited under Pensions & Investments guidelines, but is not a product of P&I's editorial team. The full white paper is available on PGIM's website.