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The yield-dampeners: will interest rates inevitably rise when QE ends?

After the ‘taper tantrum’ of 2013, many commentators predict that the catalyst for a sell-off in fixed income assets could be the ending of quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve later this year. In the latest issue of our Panoramic Outlook series, I present an alternative view to this consensus thinking, analysing a number of dynamics in bond markets that have surprised investors during this period of extraordinary monetary policy. My emphasis is on what I view as three key ‘yield-dampeners’ at work that investors should be aware of:

  • The fragility of the global economic recovery and high debt levels in the US economy make it unlikely that interest rates will return to pre-crisis levels, limiting the potential downside to bonds.
  • There are some powerful structural deflationary forces which are helping to keep inflation low.
  • A strong technical factor – the global savings glut – is likely to remain supportive to fixed income assets as is firm demand from large institutional pension funds and central banks.

Given these influences, it’s very much possible that those looking for yields to rise back to pre-crisis levels when QE ends may be disappointed. Not only are these yield-dampening forces at play in the US Treasury market, but they could also easily be applied to the UK or European government bond markets, potentially providing a useful lesson for the future path of yields. This will impact the attractiveness of other fixed income assets such as investment grade and high yield corporate bonds. Arguably, ultra-low cash rates and a stable interest rate environment for government bonds would provide a solid base for corporate bond markets as investors continue to seek positive real returns on their investments. The full analysis is located here.

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What could possibly derail the global economy?

Things are looking pretty good for the global economy right now. The U.S. Federal Reserve is slowly reducing quantitative easing, China is continuing to grow at a relatively rapid pace, the Bank of England is talking about rate hikes, and the central banks of Japan and Europe continue to stimulate their respective economies with unconventional and super-easy monetary policy. The International Monetary Fund expects growth in the developed economies to pick-up from a 0.5% low in 2012 to almost 2.5% by 2015, while emerging market economies are expected to grow by 5.5%.

Of course, it is notoriously difficult to forecast economic growth given the complexity of the underlying economy. There are simply too many moving parts to predict accurately. This is why central banking is sometimes described as similar to “driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror

With this in mind, it is prudent to prepare for a range of possible outcomes when it comes to economic growth. Given the consensus seems pretty optimistic at the moment, we thought it might be interesting to focus on some of the possible downside risks to global economic growth and highlight three catalysts that could cause a recession in the next couple of years. To be clear, there are an infinite range of unforeseen events that could possibly occur, but the below three seem plausibly the most likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

Risk 1: Asset price correction

Every investor is a winner

There is no question that ultra-easy monetary policy has stimulated asset prices to some degree. A combination of low interest rates and quantitative easing programmes has resulted in fantastic returns for investors in various markets ranging from bonds, to equities, to housing. Investors have been encouraged by central banks to put their cash and savings to work in order to generate a positive real return and have invested in a range of assets, resulting in higher prices. The question is whether prices have risen by too much.

This process is likely to continue until there is some event that means returns on assets will be lower in the future. Another possibility is that a central bank may be forced to restrict the supply of credit because of fears that the economy, or even a market, is overheating. An example of this is the news that the Bank of England is considering macro-prudential measures in response to the large price increases in the UK property market.

In addition, there is a surprising lack of volatility in investment markets at the moment, indicating that the markets aren’t particularly concerned about the current economic outlook. Using the Chicago Board Options Exchange OEX Volatility Index, also known as the old VIX (a barometer of U.S. equity market volatility) as an example shows that markets may have become too complacent. Two days ago, the index fell to 8.86 which is the lowest value for this index since calculations started in 1986. Previous low values occurred in late 1993 (a few months before the famous bond market sell-off of 1994) and mid-2007 (we all remember what happened in 2008). The lack of volatility has been something that several central banks have pointed out, including the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. The problem is, it is the central banks that have contributed most to the current benign environment with their forward guidance experiment, which has made investors relaxed about future monetary policy action.

If these events were to occur, we could see a re-pricing of assets. Banks suffer as loans have been given based on collateral that has been valued at overinflated prices. A large impact in currency markets is likely, as investors become risk averse and start to redeem assets. These events could spill over to the real economy and could therefore result in a recession.

Risk 2: Resource price shock

Energy prices could hamper economic growth

It appears that the global economy may be entering a renewed phase of increased volatility in real food and fuel prices. This reflects a number of factors, including climate change, increasing biofuel production, geopolitical events, and changing food demand patterns in countries like China and India. There may also be some impact from leveraged trading in commodities. There are plenty of reasons to believe that global food price shocks are likely to become more rather than less common in the future.

As we saw in 2008, these shocks can be destabilising, both economically and politically. In fact, you could argue that the Great Financial Crisis was caused by the spike in commodity prices in 2007-08, and the impact on the global economy was so severe because high levels of leverage made the global economy exceptionally vulnerable to external shocks. Indeed, each of the last five major downturns in global economic activity has been immediately preceded by a major spike in oil prices (as the FT has previously pointed out here). Commodity price spikes impact both developed and developing countries alike, with low-income earners suffering more as they spend a greater proportion of their income on food and fuel. There is also a large impact on inflation as prices rise.

A resource price shock raises a number of questions. How should monetary and fiscal policy respond? Will central banks focus on core inflation measures and ignore higher fuel and food prices? Will consumers tighten their belts, thereby causing economic growth to fall? Will workers demand higher wages to compensate for rising inflation?

Risk 3: Protectionism

After decades of increased trade liberalisation, since the financial crisis the majority of trade measures have been restrictive. The World Trade Organisation recently reported that G-20 members put in place 122 new trade restrictions from mid-November 2013 to mid-May 2014. 1,185 trade restrictions have been implemented since October 2008 which covers around 4.1% of world merchandise imports.  Some macro prudential measures could even be considered a form of protectionism (for example, Brazil’s financial transactions tax (IOF) which was designed to limit capital inflows and weaken the Brazilian currency).

If this trend is not reversed, trade protectionism – and currency wars – could begin to hamper economic growth. Small, open economies like Hong Kong and Singapore would be greatly impacted. Developing nations would also be affected due to their reliance on exports as a driver of economic growth.

Many economists blame trade protectionism for deepening, spreading and lengthening the great Depression of the 1930s. Should the global economy stagnate, political leaders may face growing pressure to implement protectionist measures in order to protect industries and jobs. Policymakers will need to be careful to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Economic forecasting is a tricky business. It is important that investors are aware of these risks that may or may not eventuate, and plan accordingly. The outlook may not be as rosy as the consensus thinks it is.

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Sell in May and go away – does it work for European fixed income?

As is usually the case on 1 May, there was a plethora of articles and commentary on the “sell in May and go away” effect. If you are unfamiliar with this highly sophisticated trading strategy, it involves closing out any equity exposure you may have on 30 April and re-investing on 1 November. Historically, U.S. equities have underperformed in the six-month period commencing May and ending in October, compared to the six-month period from November to April. No one knows why this seasonal pattern exists, but some theories include lower trading volumes in the summer holiday months and increased investment flows when investors come back from holidays.

With this in mind, we thought it might be interesting to see if the same effect exists in European fixed income markets. In order to identify the sell in May effect, we generated total returns on a monthly basis for a portfolio of European government, investment grade and high yield bonds. We then generated a total return for a portfolio that was invested between the months of November and April and compared this with a portfolio that was invested between the months of May and October. In order to generate the maximum number of observations possible, we went back to the inception of the respective Merrill Lynch Bank of America indices. The results are below.

Slide1

There appears to be a seasonal effect in European high yield markets. This is the fixed income asset class that is most correlated to equity markets, and the analysis shows that a superior return was generated by only being invested between the months of November and April (199% total return). In fact, this strategy substantially outperformed a strategy of being invested over the whole period (1997 – April 2014). If an investor chose to only invest between the months of May and October, they would have suffered a 21% loss over the past 16 years.

Slide2

The natural extension of this analysis is to gauge how a trading strategy that was fully invested in European government bonds between the months of May and October and fully invested in European investment grade between November and April would have performed over the past 18 years. We can then assess how this strategy would have performed relative to portfolios that were fully invested in European government bonds, European investment grade corporate bonds and European equities only. The results show that a strategy of selling investment grade assets in May and buying government bonds has produced superior returns equal to 5.9% per annum, outperforming European equities by 56% in total or 2.5% p.a.

Slide3

The above chart shows the same analysis, this time looking at how the strategy would have performed in total return terms but we have replaced European investment grade exposure with European high yield. Following this strategy would have generated an annualised return of around 10.5% or 391% over 16 and a bit years. This is far superior to the returns on offer in the European high yield and European equity markets over the same time period, which were 155% and 43% respectively.

Our analysis shows that there is a strong seasonal effect evident in European high yield markets, where returns are more volatile and there can be large upside and downside contributions due to fluctuations in the capital value of high yield bonds. However, it should be acknowledged that the results have been biased by the fact that major risk-off events (like Lehman Brothers, the Asian financial crisis and the Russian financial crisis for example) have generally occurred between the months of May and October. Nonetheless, historical total returns suggest that there is a seasonal effect in European high yield markets that investors should probably be aware of. Ignoring transaction costs or tax implications which would eat into any total returns, a strategy of selling investment grade or high yield corporate bonds in May and buying government bonds until November would have produced superior returns relative to European government bonds, investment grade corporate bonds, high yield corporate bonds and European equities.

Whilst it is always dangerous to base a trading strategy around a nursery rhyme, based on historical total returns there does appear to be a bit of sense in selling risk assets in May, retreating into government bonds which would likely benefit most in a risk-off event, and adding risk back into fixed income portfolios in November. But of course, another old saying still rings true – past performance is not a guide to future performance.

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France and Ireland – a look at the economic scorecard before the big game this weekend

The 6 Nations Rugby Championship comes to a conclusion this weekend, with three teams still in the running to win. The key game to watch will be France versus Ireland, as a French win would open the door for France or England to win. Of course, England will still have to beat the Azzuri in Rome. An Irish win would see the “boys in green” send record-breaking captain Brian O’Driscoll home to Dublin with the Championship trophy in his final game of rugby.

In the spirit of competition, here is a look at the economic scorecard for France and Ireland. Will it provide an indication of who will win Saturday’s match?

Round 1 – Real gross domestic product per capita

Slide1

Despite a large deceleration in output from the Irish between the years of 2007-2010, the Irish are still producing around €6,000 more per capita more than the French. IMF forecasts suggest that by 2018, Irish GDP per capita will be around €38,000 while the French equivalent is estimated to be around €30,000. The IMF forecasts suggest that the Irish workforce is expected to remain more efficient and productive than the French in coming years. For the entire Eurozone, the Irish currently rank second behind Luxembourg on this measure. The French are ranked seventh.

On this measure, it is a clear win for Ireland.

Round 2 – The unemployment rate

Slide2

Based on recent trends, the unemployment rates in France and Ireland appear to be converging. The Irish unemployment rate has fallen from a peak of 15.1% in January 2012 to sit at 11.9% only two years later. Over the same time period, the French unemployment rate has risen from 9.9 to 10.9%. The deterioration in the labour market in France reflects the general stagnation of economic growth. In recent months, the French government has been attempting to tackle the problem of the deteriorating labour market through its active employment policies such as sponsored contracts and training positions for the unemployed.

Despite the improving unemployment rate in Ireland, and worsening unemployment rate in France, round two goes to France on account of the unemployment rate being 1% lower than Ireland. Unless France can generate better growth, it may be the case that in twelve months’ time the Irish unemployment rate is actually lower than the French equivalent. For now, it’s a French win.

Round 3 – Household saving rate

Slide3

French households have consistently saved between 15-16% of their gross disposable income over the past ten years, suggesting that there is some scope for French consumers to stimulate their economy should confidence pick-up. The Irish household saving rate has been more volatile, falling and rising as one would expect given the concerns around the economic outlook for the country. More recently, Irish households have been spending more and supporting the economic recovery. This is a tough one to call, as the fall in household savings suggests stronger economic growth in Ireland in the short-term. However, because of the potential for French consumer to spend some of their savings in the future, France wins this round.

Round 4 – Percentage of the population with tertiary education

Slide4

Since 2004 there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of the population that has attained a tertiary level of education in Ireland, with an increase from 24.9 to 35.9%. France, whilst improving, has not been able to generate the same increase and in 2013 the percentage of the population that had obtained a tertiary level of education was 28.7%. Ireland ranks number one while France is at number twelve in the EU on this key measure. There is widespread recognition that tertiary education is a major driver of economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy. Ireland’s well educated workforce has certainly assisted the economy in recovering from the financial crisis. It has become increasingly difficult for industries in the west to compete with the emerging nations in terms of manufacturing products; a flexible, highly-educated and competitive labour force is vital in our globalised world.

Ireland’s workforce looks like a winger, whereas the French workforce could be compared to a prop forward. Ireland wins this round.

Looking at measures like real GDP per capita, the unemployment rate, household savings and the level of education in the workforce for Ireland and France is interesting. It shows that Ireland appears very well positioned to generate positive economic growth over the medium term. The old way of categorising European economies as “core” or “peripheral (or worse – PIIGS)” appears no longer relevant, as “peripheral” nations have taken a lot of vital steps to become more competitive through internal devaluation and lower wages. Improved export performance has been reflected in an improvement in current account balances in recent years. Today, the French economy appears cumbersome; it is hampered with a relatively inflexible and rigid labour market and is struggling to become more competitive in a globalised economy as we previously mentioned here.

Final round – the rugby statistics

Slide5

After a 2-2 economic scorecard, the final round had to focus on the rugby itself. Unfortunately for the French, the Irish rugby team appear superior in 16 out of 20 key rugby statistics including total points, metres gained and lineouts won. The French have home advantage which is a big positive; though this will be mitigated by the emotion felt by the Irish players given it is Brian O’Driscoll’s last match.

This leaves a 3-2 economic and rugby scorecard win to Ireland over France. That said, it would take a brave pundit to discount Les Bleus, who have a habit of rising for the big occasions. If you don’t believe me, just ask any New Zealander.

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Europe’s debt/GDP levels are worse today than during the Euro crisis. So why are bond yields falling?

Two and a half years ago, there was a real fear in the marketplace that the euro would not survive. It appeared unlikely that Greece would be able to remain in the Eurozone and that some of the larger distressed economies like Italy and Spain may follow them out. High levels of government debt, unemployment and a banking system creaking under all this pressure did not bode well for the future. The mere possibility of a Eurozone nation leaving triggered massive volatility in asset markets from government bonds to equities, as investors grappled with the consequences of such an event occurring.

Of course, the bearish forecast for Europe did not eventuate. Perceptions had shifted significantly from the darkest days of the euro crisis. Politicians and central bankers have shown significant determination in keeping the euro intact, despite often only acting at the darkest hour. In markets, confidence returned after ECB President Mario Draghi’s now famous “whatever it takes” comment and it had a real effect on government bond yields with spreads over German bunds collapsing across the Eurozone.

Unfortunately for European government bond investors, the Eurozone could re-emerge as a source of risk. The reason is, since 2011 European government and economic fundamentals have generally gotten worse and not better.

2014-02 blog

When we look at the above table – which measure fundamental indicators like total investment, the unemployment rate and gross levels of government debt to GDP from 2011 and compares it to now – we can see a lot more red (which indicates a deterioration) than green (which indicates an improvement). Yet what is striking is that apart from Germany and the Netherlands who have seen their 10 year government bond yields increase slightly, all other European nations have seen their yields fall. This is not what we would expect to see given that various metrics like GDP, the unemployment rate, output gap and government debt to GDP are actually worse now than they were at the height of the Eurozone crisis.

I can see three main reasons why yields have fallen across the Eurozone despite a worsening in the economic statistics. The first is that confidence has returned and the credit risk premium demanded by bond investors has fallen. Investors in European bonds now believe that default risk has fallen from the dark days of 2011, despite a general worsening in conditions which would imply higher – and not lower – default risk. When Draghi said the ECB would do “whatever it takes”, the market believed him.

Secondly, the inflation risk premium that investors demand has collapsed as Eurozone inflation has collapsed. Low inflation in the Eurozone is largely the result of painful internal devaluation, high unemployment and government austerity. Countries like Ireland, Portugal and Greece are feeling this the most, having experienced deflation over the last couple of years. As we can see in the table, austerity has meant that budget deficits have improved across the Eurozone, but this has also resulted in deflationary forces becoming more pronounced. Lower European inflation means higher real yields, and this has contributed to nominal yields falling or remaining low in Eurozone government bonds. However, the danger for the periphery is that lower inflation implies lower nominal growth rates, and this means even greater pressure on the Eurozone periphery’s huge debt burdens. Markets should react to lower nominal growth rates by questioning these counties’ solvency, pushing bond yields higher.

Thirdly, the other main reason that peripheral yields have converged is that there are genuine signs of rebalancing, as indicated by improving current account balances and falling unit labour costs. The majority of Eurozone nations are now running a current account surplus, including Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Despite being locked into the single exchange rate which is arguably way too high for these countries, global competitiveness has improved and exports have increased.

There are good reasons the euro will survive. However, it is important to question whether the market is charging a high enough credit risk premium given the challenges that continue to face the Eurozone. Increasingly, bond investors need to assess the risks of deflation in Europe as well. Arguably a lot of good news is priced in to government bond markets at the moment, and we remain hesitant to lend to those European countries displaying weaker financial metrics at this point in the cycle. With the IMF recently finding “no evidence of any particular debt threshold above which medium-term growth prospects are dramatically compromised”, it suggests that there are many more important things to bond investors than the public debt/GDP ratio (like credit growth, labour markets and inflation). Public debt/GDP ratios are what investors have been fixated on since the financial crisis, but they are a lazy and incomplete way of assessing the risks in government bond markets.

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Should the Bank of England hike rates?

Many of us have become accustomed to a world of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE). Taking into account inflation, real short-term interest rates are negative in most of the developed world. Of course, these historically low interest rates were a central bank response –co-ordinated on some occasions – to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Whilst we are still waiting for the official data, it appears increasingly likely that 2013 marked the start of a synchronised recovery in the advanced economies. So is it now time for the Bank of England to consider hiking the base rate? Perhaps good – and not awesome – economic growth is more appropriate to avoid a bust down the line.

Economic theory and real world experience tells us that interest rates that are kept too low for too long will distort investment decisions and lead to excessive risk-taking. They may also result in the formation of asset price bubbles that ultimately collapse. With parts of the UK housing market (including London and the south-east) posting double-digit returns in 2013, the FTSE 100 within arm’s reach of an all-time high last seen during the tech bubble (and up over 60% since 2009), and UK non-financial corporate bond spreads 45 basis points away from 2007 lows; it is clear that ultra-low interest rates have had a great effect on both financial markets and the real economy.

At the risk of being called a party pooper, here are 5 reasons why I think we could see an interest rate hike before year end (the market is pricing in around February/March 2015), and certainly before the third quarter of 2016 (the time when the BoE think the unemployment rate will fall to 7%).

  1. Asset price bubbles are forming
  2. Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%
  3. Inflation risks should not be forgotten
  4. The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral
  5. The risk of Euro area break-up appears to have fallen

Asset prices bubbles are forming

There has been a significant run-up in UK financial assets over the course of the past five years, particularly since QE became a feature of the financial landscape. Investors in equity and bond markets alike have been enjoying the fruits of QE. Those that own financial assets have seen their net wealth increase substantially from the post-crisis lows. Consensus forecasts for 2014 suggests that most market forecasters expect another robust year for risk assets, fuelled by easy money and the search for positive real returns.

Of course, the greatest financial asset that the average UK household own is their own house. In 2011, it was estimated that around 15 million households are owner-occupied (a rate of around 65% of total households). Thus it is unsurprising that newspaper readers are usually hit with a headline about rising house prices on a daily basis. House prices, on a number of measures, have begun to accelerate again with low interest rates and tight housing supply a key contributor to the price increase. Low interest rates have given UK consumers the incentive to accumulate high levels of household debt compared to their incomes.  The average house price is now 5.4 times earnings, the highest level since July 2010 and well above the long-run average of 4.1.

UK house prices are re-accelerating and pushing higher

The Help-To-Buy scheme is contributing to the run-up in this highly leveraged and interest-rate sensitive sector (a topic I covered back in July here). By hiking the base rate this year, the BoE would hopefully achieve a reduction in speculation and debt accumulation in the housing sector. This would not be a popular action to take – it never is – but we should all be wary about the damage a rampant housing market can have on an economy.  BoE Governor Mark Carney – as head of the Financial Policy Committee – has already moved to stop the Funding for Lending Scheme and mentioned that placing restrictions on the terms of mortgage credit may be a tool that can be used to reign in house prices.

Whether macro-prudential policy tools will work or not remains open to debate. Ultimately, central banks are trying to focus in on one element of the economy by raising interest rates or restricting credit. We do have a real-life macroeconomic example currently taking place though. On October 1, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand imposed a limit on how much banks could devote to low-deposit loans and required major banks to hold more capital to back loans. It’s very early days but for the month of November, the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand reported a 1.2% increase in New Zealand house prices and 9.6% over the year. The RBNZ and BoE might find that trying to slow the housing market using macro-prudential measures is a bit like trying to stop a car by opening the doors and hoping that wind-resistance does the rest. You really need to put your foot on the brake.

The longer the boom lasts, the greater the pain when it inevitably ends.

Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%

The unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 to 7.4% over the past nine months and is a key tenet of the BoE’s forward guidance. The fast decline has seen some speculation amongst economists that the BoE may lower the unemployment threshold from 7.0 to 6.5%. Of course, the 7.0% threshold that it has set it is not a trigger to hike interest rates, rather it is a point at which the BoE would consider hiking rates. However, the labour market has improved much quicker than the BoE has been expecting with the unemployment rate now sitting at the lowest rate since March 2009. We are still well above the average unemployment rate seen during the period between 2000 and 2008, but I would argue that this was an abnormal period for the UK economy. It was a NICE period – non-inflationary, constantly expanding – and is unlikely to be repeated. Arguably the UK’s natural rate of unemployment is now a percentage point or two higher than that of the noughties, suggesting less spare capacity in the UK economy than many expect. It may not be long before we start to see wage demands start to pick up, leading to rising inflationary pressures. Higher wage growth in 2014 would bode well for consumption and household net wealth given the increase in house prices and investment portfolios.

The UK unemployment rate is below the long-run average

As it is generally accepted that monetary policy operates with a lag, (the BoE estimate a lag time of around two years), and the unemployment rate itself is a lagging indicator of economic activity. If the BoE waits until the unemployment rate hits 7%, or for confirmation that economic growth is strong, then it may be too late. A slight tap on the breaks by hiking the base rate may be appropriate.

Inflation risks should not be forgotten

Ben wrote an excellent piece on the UK’s inflation outlook last month. To quote:

Current inflation levels may seem benign. However, potential demand-side shocks coupled with a build-up in growth momentum and the difficulty of removing the huge wall of money created by QE will pose material risks to inflation in the medium term. Markets have become short-sightedly focused on the near term picture as commodity prices have weakened and inflation expectations have been tamed by the lack of growth.

In addition, central banks have a nasty habit of keeping monetary policy too loose for too long. It even has a name – “The [insert FOMC Chairperson Name] Put”. The easy-money policies of the FOMC in the 1970s are seen as a key contributor to the runaway inflation seen during the period.  Eventually, the FOMC reversed its own policies, hiking rates to 19% in 1981.

Of course, what central bankers really fear is that ultra-easy monetary policy and the great experiment of QE will lead to an increase in inflation. A return of inflation will only be tamed by hiking rates. Whilst the inflation rate has been moderating in the UK and is close to the Bank of England’s target at 2.1%, it follows almost 5 years of above target inflation. Whist it is not a clear and present danger, the experience of the 1970s suggests that we cannot ignore the threat that inflation poses to the UK economy, especially as rising inflationary expectations are often difficult to contain.

The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral

The Taylor rule provides a rough benchmark of the normal reaction to economic conditions as it relates interest rates to deviations of inflation from target and the output gap. According to the Taylor rule for the UK, a base rate of 0.5% is around 2.0% below where it should be given current rates of growth and inflation.

The BoE base rate remains highly stimulatory

Negative real interest rates have done the job by stabilising the economy, but is it now time to tap the brakes? With the UK economy growing at an annualised rate of more than 3% in the second and third quarters of 2013 (above the long-term average of 2%), the UK may be operating much closer to full employment than many currently estimate. Forward looking survey indicators and economic data suggest the UK economy is growing strongly, with business confidence at a 20 year high and the UK Services PMI for December suggesting a strong broad-based upturn. Of course, the BoE would like the other components of GDP like exports and investment to contribute more to economic growth. A rising currency wouldn’t help this. But sometimes it is difficult to have your cake and eat it too, especially if you are a central banker.

The risk of Euro area breakup appears to have fallen

Now it’s time for the “Draghi Put”. Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech is probably the most important speech ever given by a central banker. The speech has had a fantastic effect on assets from government bonds to European equity markets and everything in between. More importantly, as I wrote here back in July 2013, despite the problems that Europe faces – the concerning outlook, the record levels of unemployment and debt, the proposed tax on savers in Cyprus – no country has left the EMU. The EMU has in fact added new members (Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014). European countries remain open for trade, have continued to enforce EU policies and have not resorted to protectionist policies. EU banking regulation has become stronger, the financial system has stabilised, and new bank capital requirements are in place.

This bodes well for the UK, as stabilisation in the Eurozone suggests stronger export demand, increased confidence, and higher investment in the UK from European firms. Perversely, an interest rate hike might actually improve confidence in the UK economy, signalling that the central bank is confident that economic growth is self-sustaining.

The BoE must walk the tightrope between raising rates slightly now to avoid higher inflation and financial instability or risk having to do a lot more monetary policy “heavy-lifting” down the line. A base rate at 0.5% is way below a neutral level and the BoE has a long way to go before getting anywhere near this level. It could act this year and gradually start raising interest rates to lessen the continued build-up of financial imbalances. The difficult action in the short-run to raise the base rate will help to support “healthy” economic growth in the long-run.

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A Fed taper is on the table

The FOMC took markets and economists by surprise in September this year when the committee members decided to hold off from tapering and maintain its bond-buying programme at $85bn per month. Three months down the road and the consensus for the December meeting outcome is that the Fed will not reduce the pace of MBS or treasury purchases. Consensus has been wrong before; will it be wrong again tomorrow? We think it will be a closer call than many expect.

In our opinion, there are several good reasons for the Fed to taper very slowly. Firstly, inflation is a non-issue, below target and close to lows not seen for decades. Secondly, the 30 year mortgage rate has risen from 3.5% in May to around 4.5% today, impacting US housing affordability and already tightening policy for the Fed. Thirdly, there is continued concern that 2014 may bring a return of the political brinkmanship that characterised late September, with the US Treasury signalling that the debt limit will have to be raised by February or early March to avoid default. Ultimately, the Fed is nowhere near hiking the FOMC funds rate.

There is no doubt after the September decision that tapering is truly data dependent and in this sense, macro matters. Fortunately, Ben Bernanke has told us what economic variables he and the FOMC will be looking at a press conference in June. The Fed wants to see a broad based improvement in three economic variables – employment, growth and inflation – before reducing the scale of bond buying.

The table below shows that the data has improved across the board. Annualised GDP is stronger, the unemployment rate is lower and the CPI is only 1.2%. Other key leading economic indicators like the ISM and consumer confidence are higher while markets are in a remarkably similar place to where they were three months ago with the 10 year yield at 2.86%.

US macroeconomic indicators chart

After the surprise of September’s announcement, we believe that every FOMC meeting from here on out is “live” – that is, there is a good chance that the Fed may act to reduce its bond-buying programme in some way until it reaches balance sheet neutrality. A reduction in bond purchases is not a tightening of policy, we view it as a positive sign that policymakers believe that the US economy is finally healing after the destruction of the financial crisis. As I wrote in September, interest rate policy is set to remain very accommodative for a long time, even after balance sheet neutrality has been achieved.

Given the positive developments in the US economy over the past three months, the December FOMC announcement could announce a) a small reduction in bond buying and b) an adjustment of the unemployment rate threshold or a lower bound on inflation. Whatever the case, quantitative easing is getting closer to making its swansong.

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The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q4 2013

The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for November shows that consumers in all countries surveyed expect inflation to rise from current levels in both one and five years’ time. In the UK, short-term inflation expectations fell over the quarter to 2.8%, following recent downward pressure on UK CPI. It may also suggest that the shock from recent increases in utility bills may be fading. Over five years, however, inflation is once again expected to rise to 3.0%, suggesting expectations for future inflation remain well anchored above the Bank of England’s (BoE) CPI target of 2.0%. We did not see the same spike in inflation expectations as in other recent inflation expectations surveys such as the Bank of England’s own survey, possibly as ours is more recent and was conducted between November 22-25.

In Europe, all countries surveyed with the exception of Switzerland, expect inflation to be equal to or higher than the European Central Bank’s (ECB) CPI target of 2.0% on both a one- and five-year ahead basis. All European Monetary Union (EMU) countries expect inflation to be higher in both one and five years than it is currently, while only two countries – Spain and Switzerland – anticipate it being less than 3.0% in 5 years’ time.

Comparing the results with those from earlier surveys reveals a number of noteworthy observations. Inflation expectations for one year ahead have fallen in all surveyed EMU countries since the start of 2013. This is unsurprising given the weak macroeconomic environment and the fact that commodity prices have declined by roughly 5.6% in the past three months. Consumers have also benefitted from a stronger euro, which has gained around 6.6% over the past year on a real effective exchange rate (REER) basis. Notably, short-term inflation expectations in France, Spain and Italy are now running well above their current inflation rates.

Survey respondents in Hong Kong show no signs of moderating their inflation expectations, which remain at a high level of 5.0% and 5.5% over one and five years, respectively. In Singapore, inflation expectations over one year are double current inflation (2%) whilst the five-year reading remains stable at 5.0%, as it has done throughout the course of 2013.

The findings and data from our November survey, which polled over 8,500 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here or via @inflationsurvey on Twitter.

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Jim Leaviss’ outlook for 2014. The taper debate (watch the data), inflation (where is it?), and it’s a knockout. Merry Christmas!

With many expecting a ‘great rotation’ out of fixed interest assets in 2013, bond investors will, in the main, have experienced a better year than some had predicted 12 months ago. It might not always have felt like it at the time – indeed, over the summer when markets were sent into a spin by the prospect of the US Federal Reserve (the Fed) cutting its supply of liquidity earlier than expected, it almost certainly did not. But riskier assets, notably high yield corporate bonds, have continued to perform strongly, while investment grade corporate bonds are on track to deliver another year of positive returns, in spite of the volatility.

Meanwhile, the macroeconomic backdrop has generally improved over the past year, with the economic recovery gaining significant momentum in the US and, more recently, the UK. However, the picture in Europe remains mixed, while our concerns over the emerging markets are mounting. However, despite their disparate prospects, all countries – and all bond markets – are united by at least one common dependency: the Fed.

So what does 2014 have in store for global bond markets? In our latest Panoramic outlook, Jim outlines his macroeconomic and market forecasts for the year ahead. And for those of you who have been wondering, the annual M&G Bond Vigilantes Christmas quiz will be posted later this week.

Enjoy!

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Research trip video: Australia – the land of houses and holes

A couple of weeks ago I headed back to my hometown of Sydney, Australia. In between the barbies, the beach and a few beers, I managed to get around and film this short research video.

Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world and those that live there enjoy a very high standard of living. Growth is dominated by its service sector which makes up around 70% of GDP, whilst the total mining sector represents around 20% of GDP. With one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, a strong currency and the possibility of a China slowdown clearly on the horizon, will Australia’s economic performance over the next twenty years be as strong as the last?


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