Psst! Wanna see something scary? Take a peek at the price spread between the iShares TIPS Bond ETF (NYSE Arca: TIP) and the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (NYSE Arca: IEF). It’s collapsing. Again.
The spread dipped below $8 this week, a four-year low. The spread’s a recession bellwether. When it narrow, i.e, the TIP premium shrinks, an economic slowdown becomes more likely. And when it reverses (goes negative), well, we’re in some pretty deep stuff.
The spread tanked in 2008, finally bottoming at -$1.64 before stairstepping back into positive territory. Now, there’s a long way to go before the spread turns negative again, but its recent headlong plunge has been breathtaking.
It’s not that nosedives haven’t punctuated the spread’s history. The TIP premium toppled 51 percent in 2010 only to recover to higher ground the next year, followed by a 40 percent slide. Another ascent ensued, again exceeding an old high, before a 41 percent tumble in 2013.
It’s different this time around. After last year’s lurch, there was only an anemic rally. No new high. The TIP/IEF spread recovered just half its loss before heeling over in July. Since then, the TIP premium has shrunk 36 percent, certainly not the biggest drop in recent history, but no bottom’s yet been established.
Fear, again, has gripped the markets. The world is rushing into Treasuries and Treasury proxies like IEF. At last look, the ETF was trading around $105 per share and looking to challenge the $108 resistance level on its weekly chart.
Risk assets, most particularly equities, are being dumped like tea into Boston Harbor. The question now is whether these fears are irrational. They’re certainly excessive. Stock fluctuations, according to value hero Benjamin Graham, are “a consequence of the ingrained tendency of most people to speculate or gamble … to give way to hope, fear and greed.”
We’ve got plenty of fear to go around. It’ll take a while to see much hope emerge.
Brad Zigler pens Wealthmanagement.com's Alternative Insights newsletter. Formerly, he headed up marketing and research for the Pacific Exchange's (now NYSE Arca) option market and the iShares complex of exchange traded funds.