“Financial Stress” Spikes. Markets, Long in Denial, Suddenly Grapple with New Era


by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

Fed’s monetary policy shift is finally taking hold. It just took a while.

The weekly St. Louis Fed Financial Stress index, released today, just spiked beautifully. It had been at historic lows back in November, an expression of ultra-loose financial conditions in the US economy, dominated by risk-blind investors chasing any kind of yield with a passion, which resulted in minuscule risk premiums for investors and ultra-low borrowing costs even for even junk-rated borrows. The index ticked since then, but in the latest week, ended February 9, something happened:

The index, which is made up of 18 components (seven interest rate measures, six yield spreads, and five other indices) had hit a historic low of -1.6 on November 3, 2017, even as the Fed had been raising its target range for the federal funds rate and had started the QE Unwind. It began ticking up late last year, hit -1.35 a week ago, and now spiked to -1.06.

The chart above shows the spike of the latest week in relationship to the two-year Oil Bust that saw credit freeze up for junk-rated energy companies, with the average yield of CCC-or-below-rated junk bonds soaring to over 20%. Given the size of oil-and-gas sector debt, energy credits had a large impact on the overall average.

The chart also compares today’s spike to the “Taper Tantrum” in the bond market in 2014 after the Fed suggested that it might actually taper “QE Infinity,” as it had come to be called, out of existence. This caused yields and risk premiums to spike, as shown by the Financial Stress index.

This time, it’s the other way around: The Fed has been raising rates like clockwork, and its QE Unwind is accelerating, but for months markets blithely ignored it. Until suddenly they didn’t.

This reaction is visible in the 10-year Treasury yield, which had been declining for much of last year, despite the Fed’s rate hikes, only to surge late in the year and so far this year.

It’s also visible in the stock market, which suddenly experienced a dramatic bout of volatility and a breathless drop from record highs. And it is now visible in other measures, including junk-bond yields that suddenly began surging from historic low levels.

The chart of the ICE BofAML US High Yield BB Effective Yield Index, via the St. Louis Fed, shows how the average yield of BB-rated junk bonds surged from around 4.05% last September to 4.98% now, the highest since November 20, 2016:

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