Positive Outlook for Securitized Supported by Strong Consumer Credit Conditions
As the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) policy continues to shift from accommodative to neutral, we expect volatility in both rates and credit markets to remain high. Entering 2019, we maintain a positive fundamental outlook on most credit-oriented securitized assets as real estate and consumer credit conditions remain constructive. However, we have concerns that mark-to-market volatility could increase. We continue to have a more cautious view on agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) due to supply-demand headwinds from the Fed winding down its $1.7 trillion MBS holdings and from potential reductions in bank holdings of agency MBS. We believe the securitized world is on track to begin 2019 offering higher yields than at the start of 2018, this is largely a function of higher interest rates and wider spreads across many sectors. Given our view of a more range-bound interest rate environment in 2019, we expect the cashflow yields of securitized assets to dominate returns, and we believe these yields offer compelling risk-adjusted opportunities.
Interest Rates and Fiscal Policy
In the U.S., rising interest rates and tightening Fed policy were the dominant themes for 2018. For 2019, we expect between two and four 25 basis-point rate hikes by the Fed, in addition to another interest rate hike in December 2018. Depending on economic conditions, we project terminal Fed Funds rates between 3% and 3.5%, and continued curve flattening with 10-year U.S. Treasury rates also ranging between 3% and 3.5%. We expect unemployment to remain low and wages to continue to rise, while broader gross domestic product (GDP) growth should taper due to global headwinds and the impact from higher rates. This forecast should bode well for credit- related securitized assets, as it implies healthy U.S. household and consumer credit conditions, while also keeping residential and commercial mortgage rates constrained and relatively low by historical standards. We maintained a relatively short-duration positioning in 2018, due to a concern of rising rates. Although our concern about the impact from higher rates has largely been realized, we continue to maintain a shorter- duration positioning due to the flatness of the curve, which we believe provides minimal compensation for taking on longer duration risks.
In Europe and the U.K., we expect accommodative central bank policies to continue due to modest economic growth and uncertainty surrounding both Brexit and Italy. Although the European Central Bank (ECB) has announced the end of its asset-backed securities (ABS) purchase program, given their relatively low level of ABS purchases, we do not expect this change to have a material impact on European ABS valuations. Low interest rates have had a positive effect on home prices, consumer credit and general economic health across most of Europe, and we do not foresee these conditions to deteriorate any time soon. We expect modestly positive growth to continue within most of the eurozone, although, we believe the U.K. could experience a modest recession due to Brexit impacts.
2018 was a difficult year for U.S. agency MBS, plagued by rising interest rates, extended durations, widened spreads, increased volatility and supply-demand headwinds resulting from the decline in Fed MBS purchases. Agency MBS, one of the most interest rate sensitive sectors within securitized markets, comprises the vast majority of the securitized world. Since these securities are largely characterized by fixed rate mortgages, mortgage prepayment speeds play a crucial role in determining the duration of these securities. As interest rates increased in 2018, the large majority of the mortgage market became out-of-the-money from a rate-based refinance perspective, and mortgage prepayment speeds slowed significantly. Considering the,rough year that agency MBS had in 2018, we believe that the majority of the damage from higher interest rates and rising volatility has now been realized for the sector, as interest rates are 70 to 100 basis points higher, MBS durations are now more than a year longer, interest rate volatility and mortgage option costs have increased, and nominal spreads to U.S. Treasuries have widened 20 to 30 basis points. However, supply pressure from decreasing Fed purchases will continue into 2019, and possibly accelerate. The Fed began 2018 buying roughly $20 billion agency MBS per month and ended the year essentially making no new purchases. The Fed’s agency MBS holdings fell by more than $100 billion over the course of 2018, from $1.77 trillion to $1.67 trillion, and we expect the portfolio to shrink to a greater degree in 2019. Despite our expectation for agency MBS spreads to widen further in 2019 as a function of weaker demand, we still expect agency MBS to outperform U.S. Treasuries with the additional carry of agency MBS outweighing the impact from widening spreads. Within agency MBS, we continue to favor higher coupon MBS, which offer greater duration-adjusted carry, and have the potential to benefit from either a stable interest rate environment or a continued rising rate environment.
U.S. Housing Market Fundamentals and Non-Agency RMBS
In 2018, U.S. home prices rose roughly 5% to 6% for the seventh consecutive year, but the impact of rising home prices, in conjunction with rising interest rates, has begun to negatively impact home affordability. Going forward, we project U.S. home price appreciation to closely mirror U.S. economic growth and to be constrained by affordability. Despite increasingly more challenging affordability, housing demand is still healthy due to a robust economy, and- a housing supply that is relatively low by historical standards. This favorable supply-demand dynamic leads us to project that U.S. home prices will rise between 3% to 4% in 2019.
Non-agency residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) should continue to perform well in 2019, although to a lesser degree than in recent years. Mortgage market conditions remain healthy with declining mortgage delinquency and default rates, reflecting the strength of the U.S. economy and upward trajectory of home prices. Spreads on non-agency RMBS have tightened significantly over the past several years, and material further spread tightening seems unlikely. We believe that non-agency RMBS still offers reasonably compelling risk-adjusted carry compared to other sectors, and performance in 2019 should largely be a function of cashflow-based returns, with little expectation of price appreciation. Over the past few years, we have reduced our non-agency RMBS holdings from our biggest overweight, to a moderate overweight, but we still remain positive on the sector.
Driven by a low mortgage rate environment and improving economic conditions, we believe that home price appreciation across most of Europe will continue into 2019. We particularly favor RMBS in areas which we believe to have the greatest potential for home price appreciation, especiallly Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece. We also like RMBS in the Netherlands, Germany and selectively in the U.K. Although we expect that home prices will soften in the U.K., we do not expect a material decline largely due to limited housing supply and low mortgage interest rates. Within U.K. RMBS, we have a strong bias towards very seasoned loans. These loans have the advantage of significant embedded home-price appreciation and are held by borrowers who have proven payment histories. Finally, we also favor countries with well-established mortgage lending laws, which facilitate reasonably swift repossession of properties in the event of defaults.
U.S. Commercial Real Estate (CMBS)
U.S. commercial real estate experienced a period of significant growth post crisis, however, prices have stabilized over the past two years and we expect prices to remain relatively flat in 2019. Commercial real estate conditions remain positive with high occupancy levels, rising rental rates and a healthy U.S. economy, but higher interest rates could provide a headwind in 2019. The commercial real estate market is a highly idiosyncratic sector, as credit quality can vary significantly between different asset classes and specific properties. We are generally constructive on the housing sector of commercial real estate, office buildings and distribution centers. We continue to have concerns about retail shopping centers, as the “Amazon effect” continues to impact how consumers shop and the viability of many brick-and-mortar shopping stores. We are also cautious regarding hotel valuations given the volatile nature of their earnings and valuations.
European Commercial Real Estate (CMBS)
We expect to see diverging trends in European commercial real estate markets, with many European cities becoming beneficiaries of Brexit-related locations, while London will likely suffer from over-building and weakened demand for office space. We have largely avoided U.K. commercial real estate exposure and have a cautious outlook for U.K. commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) in 2019. Although supply of European CMBS remains limited given the dearth of securitizations over the past few years, and sourcing opportunities can be challenging, we remain generally positive on European commercial real estate.
Consumer Credit and ABS
Consumer credit continues to improve in the U.S. with low unemployment, rising wages, increased savings rates, and more conservative consumer debt levels. Credit card debt, auto loans and consumer loans have performed well, and we believe this positive dynamic will continue in 2019. Consumer ABS was one of the few sectors to experience spread tightening in 2018, causing relative value for consumer ABS to appear slightly less compelling than it was a year ago, but we remain positive from a fundamental credit perspective. We favor the relatively short-duration nature of consumer ABS, which limits risk exposure to a potential recessionary environment in 2020 or 2021.
European ABS spreads remain relatively tight, and offer less attractive relative value. Fundamental credit conditions appear generally positive, but vary by country based on lending laws and local economic conditions.
Diversification does not eliminate the risk of loss.
There is no assurance that a Portfolio will achieve its investment objective. Portfolios are subject to market risk, which is the possibility that the market values of securities owned by the Portfolio will decline and may therefore be less than what you paid for them. Accordingly, you can lose money investing in this Portfolio. Please be aware that this Portfolio may be subject to certain additional risks.
Fixed income securities are subject to the ability of an issuer to make timely principal and interest payments (credit risk), changes in interest rates (interest rate risk), the creditworthiness of the issuer and general market liquidity (market risk). In the current rising interest rate environment, bond prices may fall and may result in periods of volatility and increased portfolio redemptions. Longer-term securities may be more sensitive to interest rate changes. In a declining interest rate environment, the portfolio may generate less income. Certain U.S. government securities purchased by the strategy, such as those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are not backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. It is possible that these issuers will not have the funds to meet their payment obligations in the future. Public bank loans are subject to liquidity risk and the credit risks of lower-rated securities. High-yield securities (junk bonds) are lower-rated securities that may have a higher degree of credit and liquidity risk. Mortgage- and asset-backed securities are sensitive to early prepayment risk and a higher risk of default, and may be hard to value and difficult to sell (liquidity risk). They are also subject to credit, market and interest rate risks. Investments in foreign markets entail special risks such as currency, political, economic and market risks. The risks of investing in emerging market countries are greater than the risks generally associated with foreign investments. Derivative instruments may disproportionately increase losses and have a significant impact on performance. They also may be subject to counterparty, liquidity, valuation, correlation, and market risks. Restricted and illiquid securities may be more difficult to sell and value than publicly traded securities (liquidity risk). Due to the possibility that prepayments will alter the cash flows on collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs), it is not possible to determine in advance their final maturity date or average life. In addition, if the collateral securing the CMOs or any third-party guarantees are insufficient to make payments, the portfolio could sustain a loss.
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