The Markets' Mixed Signals

Doug Drabik discusses fixed income market conditions and offers insight for bond investors.

The year's first five months have provided investors with bountiful financial blessings. The stock market has delivered full-year returns in less than half a year. The S&P index's total return is 11.3% year-to-date. The bond market has also provided healthy income opportunities. The 10-year Treasury has averaged a 4.3% yield reaching a high of 4.7% and currently hovering around 4.46%. This translates to high-quality corporate yields in the mid-5% range and longer-term municipal tax-equivalent yields north of 6%.

So why is there so much angst among investors? The mixed economic signals may have a lot to do with it. We are informed on how resilient the market has remained. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures the final market value of all goods and services produced and is an accepted measure of our economy's performance. The last three-quarters of GDP year-over-year data have shown economic performance was better than the 30-year average of 2.5%.

Personal consumption has wavered vastly since the 2020 pandemic; however, consumers have resisted the sticky inflation the economy endures. Whether consumers have accomplished this with second jobs, accumulated savings from the pandemic period, or government-infused funding, spending has enabled corporate earnings to stand out while goods, and in particular services, are used.

As disposable income declines, the feel-good tone seems tentative at best as consumers rely heavily on credit. Who hasn’t felt the impact of higher personal consumption costs? Credit card debt has exceeded $1.3 trillion as the cost of goods and services increases and inflation eats away at purchasing power. The market tends to agree as investors are pricing in Fed rate cuts. The Fed might cut interest rates during a weakening economy or elevating unemployment. And there’s the rub. Investors are pricing in a cut while the economy seems to be thriving and employment reports are strong.