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Like the Fed, corporations also eagerly await economic data

Justin Ho May 22, 2024
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"A company is not going to come to market with a new bond deal unless they feel reasonably confident that that bond deal is going to go pretty well," says Winnie Cisar with CreditSights. Above, traders on the New York Stock Exchange floor. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Like the Fed, corporations also eagerly await economic data

Justin Ho May 22, 2024
Heard on:
"A company is not going to come to market with a new bond deal unless they feel reasonably confident that that bond deal is going to go pretty well," says Winnie Cisar with CreditSights. Above, traders on the New York Stock Exchange floor. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
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If you have paid any attention to the Federal Reserve at all over the last few years, you know that the central bank’s leadership is hyperfocused on economic data as it tries to figure out where interest rates should be.

Right now, of course, the big focus is on inflation data: the personal consumption expenditures price index, consumer price index, and producer price index.

But the Fed — and the Marketplace newsroom — aren’t the only places where people eagerly await those monthly data drops. Corporations focus on them too, and this year, those bigger-than-expected inflation reports we’ve seen from the government are playing a big role in determining when companies decide to borrow money by issuing bonds.

Figuring out when exactly to issue a bond is a pretty big deal for companies. Drew Pascarella, who teaches finance at Cornell University, said a lot of big companies have entire teams dedicated to it.

“One of the areas that they’re focused on is a calendar of these major news events that potentially would be market-moving,” he said.

That’s because after a big piece of economic data comes out — for instance, hot inflation numbers or a weak jobs report — traders can panic and start buying or selling government bonds. That causes yields on all types of bonds to jump around.

“That’s risky,” Pascarella said. “So rather than gamble, a more conservative company would choose the rate that’s available to them before the news comes out.”

Inflation reports this year have been pretty volatile and hard to predict. But Pascarella said that hasn’t always been the case. Before the pandemic, he said, when the economy was boring and predictable, “the focus on economic data would be less intense, because the potential range of outcomes from that data would be less volatile.”

The kind of economic data companies focus on also changes depending on the economy.

“Throughout my career there have been various times where certain pieces of data mattered,” said Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.

In the early 2000s, for instance, bond markets focused a lot on manufacturing data, he said. Then in the early stages of the financial crisis, the monthly jobs reports got a lot of attention, especially after one particularly bad report in September 2007.

LeBas said investors had thought things were improving.

“And as it turned out, that was actually the early stages of a substantial downturn in economic activity,” he said.

Surprises like that can also cause demand for bonds to fall.

“A company is not going to come to market with a new bond deal unless they feel reasonably confident that that bond deal is going to go pretty well,” said Winnie Cisar, head of strategy at CreditSights.

She said the stakes are high this year. Companies are trying to issue a lot of debt because they know investors want to pile money into bonds, since they’re offering pretty decent interest rates right now.

“People are thinking this might be my last chance to buy corporate bonds at 5.5%. Maybe in a year from now they’ll only be at 4.5%,” she said.

Companies issuing bonds probably won’t need to focus as much on inflation reports if prices continue to cool off more predictably, Cisar said.

“Then, I think that that is reaffirming to the market that we don’t have an economy that is reaccelerating or overheating, and that Fed policy of restrictiveness is actually working,” she said.

As that happens, Cisar said companies might go back to timing their bond sales around jobs reports and other government data, just like they did before the pandemic when inflation wasn’t an issue.

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