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Bond – Equity Correlation: The Most Important Question?

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A reminder that falling bond yields are synonymous with higher bond prices. In other words, a downtrend in yield equates to a bull market in bonds.

In January, bonds were still in a technical bull market as defined by the broad declining channel that had contained the 40 year bull market. In March the break of that downtrend turned the macro trend from bullish to neutral. Now, all that is left to define a bearish trend is a substantive violation of the 3.25% pivot zone. More recently, after testing the major macro pivot in the 3.25% zone, ten year Treasury yields have fallen sharply. The decline begs the question: Is the decline the result of the decades long negative correlation between equity and fixed income reasserting itself on the back of equity weakness or is it simply the beginning of a relief rally created by the combination of major support and a deeply oversold condition? While it is too soon to answer the question with any degree of certainty, it is clear that the outcome will have vitally important macro/portfolio implications. My guess is that if equities continue to weaken, that the bonds will continue to do better, but that without the bid provided by flight-to-quality that the outlook for bonds will quickly deteriorate as the oversold condition is alleviated. In future posts I will provide a deeper dive into the shorter term technical and fundamental outlook for bonds, but the posts from January 2, 11, and February 9 should provide adequate background for now.

Early in the year I published a five part market overview detailing my macro technical and fundamental views of the “Big 4” asset classes: Equities, Rates, Commodities and the Dollar. As part of that series I discussed the importance of the correlation between equities and bonds and the central role falling inflation played in creating the relationship.

This inverse correlation is a historical anomaly, yet it drives much modern portfolio construction. The idea is that when equities decline sharply, flight to quality in bonds pushes rates lower (bond prices higher). In other words, gains in the bond portion of the portfolio partially hedge losses in the equity portfolio. Variations of the 60/ 40 portfolio construction (60% equities and 40% bonds) and risk parity strategies are intended to shield investors from the worst of equity declines and indeed have had an admirable track record of reducing return volatility . After decades of success, the amount of assets devoted to this strategy, both overt and passive, is staggeringly huge. If the historic positive correlation is reasserting itself due to a change in the trend of inflation (stocks down and bonds down), the subsequent unwind has the potential to create massive dislocation.

In my view, the combination of extremely negative real rates (nominal rates less inflation ), an inflation cycle that has turned from virtuous to vicious, and equity markets, that at least at the index level, are extremely overvalued, may be setting the stage for a polarity switch in which bond prices and equity prices fall and rise together. That has clearly been the case so far this year. Year-to-date (YTD) the bond composite has returned approximately -12% while the S&P has returned approximately -1%. In other words, both sides of 60/ 40 and risk parity portfolios have lost considerable value. If the year were to end now, it would be a historically bad year for the strategy. Is the switch in correlation a short term phenomenon or the start of something much larger? To my mind, this is the central question for the remainder of this year. I think the next few months will be telling.