The Canadian bond market was remarkably stable in March, as a federal budget, a rate increase and legislative turmoil in the U.S. and the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union were taken in stride by investors, with each event having minimal impact on the market. Bond yields in Canada and the United States remained within their respective trading ranges which began in early December. The FTSE TMX Canada Universe Bond index returned 0.41% in March.
U.S. equity markets climbed higher consistently throughout February as fourth-quarter earnings results were solid and nominal economic growth continued to strengthen. Despite some theatrics from Washington, optimism remains for President Trump’s pro-growth agenda. The S&P 500 Index reached a new all-time closing high of 2,369.75 on February 27. Large-cap stocks as represented by the S&P 500 Index gained 4.0%*, outperforming small-cap stocks measured by the Russell 2000 Index which rose 1.9%.*
U.S. GDP growth accelerated markedly between the first and second halves of 2016 and recent economic data suggests that growth will continue at a reasonable pace in the first half of this year. The Conference Board’s measure of consumer confidence hit a 15-year high in February, bolstered by expectations of favorable job and income prospects and suggesting that consumption growth will remain healthy. Optimism seems to be finally improving for businesses as well, with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Index of Small Business Optimism posting a 13-year high in January. The global economy appears to also be on the mend, with indicators for both manufacturing and non-manufacturing rising in the Eurozone and Japan over recent months.
The Canadian bond market moved in a seesaw pattern in February, with yields rising and then falling twice in the month. The bond market remained in the trading range that began in December, once the market had initially reacted to the surprise U.S. presidential election result. The market’s focus remained on the new U.S. administration, as the correlation between Canadian and U.S. bond yields was very high. Investors were hoping for greater clarity on the new government’s fiscal, regulatory and trade policies. The economic consensus remained optimistic, with risk premia (yield spreads) for provincial and corporate bonds shrinking and the U.S. stock market continuing its post-election rally. The FTSE TMX Canada Universe Bond index returned 0.96% in February.
Following their very strong gains in January, Canadian preferred shares continued to move upward in price in February, but at a more subdued pace. Reduced activity in preferred share Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) probably accounted for the smaller preferred share gains. The Bank of Montreal Laddered Rate Reset ETF (ZPR) experienced a 45% drop in units created from January to February, although a meaningful $81.8 million still flowed into the ETF. We suspect that the lower activity in ZPR reflected reduced hedging requirements for structured notes as the RSP season wound down. Because of the lower demand for rate reset preferred shares, that sector underperformed the broad market for the first time since last September. Also in February, new issue activity increased to four issues, compared with only one the previous month. The S&P/TSX Preferred Share index returned 1.49% in the month.
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