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Preferred Securities in a Trump Administration

Flaherty & Crumrine Incorporated

December 21, 2016

Summary & Conclusions


Fixed income assets, including preferred securities, have sold off substantially since Donald Trump’s surprise election on November 8th. There are some good – and some not so good – reasons for this. We will describe and give our thoughts on some of them and how they may affect preferred securities over coming quarters.

We’ll start with a general observation. Republican control of the White House, House of Representatives and Senate (albeit with a razor-slim majority there) is almost certain to shift policy back toward the center after a government-centric turn over the past eight years. A better balance between public and private sectors could improve prospects for economic growth. To the degree that economic growth is responsible for much of the political malaise in the U.S., progress on raising long-term economic growth is vital.

Policies highlighted by President-elect Trump that could benefit economic growth include:

Mr. Trump also campaigned on policies that could dampen economic growth, including:

And finally, a policy of Mr. Trump in the “it could-be-good or could-be-bad” category:

Adding it up, we see a lot of low-hanging fruit in tax and regulatory reform that could boost growth without adding a lot to the deficit – and that could help to narrow it over time if faster growth takes hold. There is risk on trade and immigration policy, but there are also paths toward better policy on both. And as long as infrastructure spending is not too large, it probably will not do too much harm and could do some good. Economic prospects are now more uncertain, but we think likely outcomes, on balance, are reasonably good.

At the same time, we think most of these policies are likely to affect economic growth – and, thus, monetary policy – only at the margin. The U.S. economy still faces constraints from slowing population growth, an aging workforce, poor educational outcomes for many citizens and sluggish productivity growth, none of which can change very quickly regardless of economic policy. Some of the policies outlined above could improve productivity and growth, and others could detract from them. Moreover, global economic growth remains challenged, and excess capacity both in the U.S. and abroad limits potential returns on U.S. investment in many industries.

We think U.S. inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (real GDP) growth will accelerate from an average of 2% since 2011 to 2.0-2.5% over the next several years, but we do not foresee the U.S. economy leaping to a higher-growth plateau. Yes, real GDP grew by 2.9% in the third quarter of this year (and it’s likely to be revised up from there), but that’s after an average of 1.1% growth in the first half. Slightly faster growth and slightly higher inflation should prompt the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy by 25 bp in December 2016 (now fully priced-in), June 2017, and December 2017.

As we argued in our latest U.S. Economic Update, we expected higher interest rates in the U.S., although we have been surprised by how quickly they adjusted.3 After their recent selloff, we think U.S. Treasury rates are roughly in-line with the pace of economic growth and Federal Reserve tightening that we expect for 2017. Continued growth will push rates gradually higher, but with downside risks still present, we think most of the near-term adjustment in rates has already happened. At the same time, yield spreads on preferred securities remain relatively wide. Credit fundamentals are good, and judging by performance of common stocks since the election, investors anticipate substantial improvement in the profits of financial companies, which should lead to narrower yield spreads on preferred securities. Nevertheless, investors should expect preferred yields to remain volatile as policies are unveiled and enacted.

Finally, many preferred securities are no longer the long-duration instruments they once were. Flaherty & Crumrine’s portfolios are comprised mostly of fixed-to-floating rate preferred securities. These securities have a fixed-rate period for an initial period, typically 5-10 years, and then float off an interest-rate index, at which point they have minimal interest-rate duration. As a result, they have intermediate duration – with about the same sensitivity to Treasury rates as a 5-year Treasury note, which shortens as they approach their floating-rate dates.4 At the same time, they earn relatively high yields. This combination of high yield and moderate duration means that when Treasury rates rise while credit spreads are about steady, it typically takes less than a year to recoup even a 100 bp rise in rates.

It would have been prescient to sidestep the recent 75 bp rise in intermediate Treasury rates since late summer. Having absorbed it, we do not see another sharp Treasury selloff occurring near-term, while we do see credit prospects improving, especially for financial companies. Moreover, opportunities to reinvest income and redemption proceeds have improved substantially over the past several months. Accordingly, we think preferred securities are attractive at current prices. Active management may be particularly valuable during the changing market conditions ahead.

1 For example, regulatory compliance at financial institutions requires sizable information-gathering and analytic systems and compliance staffs to run them. Those people and systems raise expenses, but they do not make new loans or otherwise add to revenue. They may provide ancillary benefits to an institution and society (including possibly reducing risk of future crises), but they lower productivity, at least over the short run.

2 Source: United Nations, World Population Prospects, Zero-Immigration Scenario, 2015.

3 Third-Quarter U.S. Economic Update, Flaherty & Crumrine Incorporated, November 7, 2016.

4 Fixed-to-floating rate securities have high credit duration (i.e., price sensitivity to changes in option-adjusted credit spreads, holding Treasury rates constant), but generally have intermediate interest-rate duration (price sensitivity to changes in Treasury rates, holding option-adjusted credit spreads constant).