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A tool for a rising rate environment: high yield floating rate notes

We are entering a new era for interest rates in the developed world. The extended period of ever looser monetary policy is starting to draw to a close. In the wake of the tapering of quantitative easing (QE) from the Federal Reserve (Fed), investors now expect to see the first interest rate hikes in many years, initially in the UK and shortly afterwards in the US. The principal focus of the debate is over the questions of “when?” and “how fast?” interest rates should rise, not “if?”. For bond investors in particular, this transition has thrown up a lot of difficult questions. Having benefited greatly from falling yields and tightening credit spreads, the move to a more hawkish cycle will create many more headwinds and challenges when it comes to delivering returns for many fixed income asset classes.

Consequently, any instrument that can help investors navigate this environment has rightly been receiving a lot of interest and attention. In the latest in our series of the M&G Panoramic Outlook, we will focus on one such instrument, the high yield floating rate bond. In recent years, this instrument has gained popularity with many issuers and the market has grown to a total US$44 billion.

A high yield floating rate note (FRN) has two key defining features: (1) a floating rate coupon that is automatically adjusted in line with changes in interest rates; (2) a relatively high credit spread that reflects the additional credit risk of a non-investment grade issuer.

It is the combination of these two features which not only enables investors to receive an attractive income stream now, but also allows them to benefit from higher coupons should interest rates increase with no associated loss to capital. This last element, the lack of a hit to capital in a rising interest rate environment, is the key difference to the traditional universe of fixed coupon bonds which suffer from price declines as yields move up.

In this issue, we will take an in-depth look at the characteristics and make-up of the high yield floating rate bond market. We will also consider the key drivers of returns, as well as some of the risks and how these can be managed.

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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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The reliability of market and consumer inflation expectations

After yesterday’s poor U.S. GDP number and despite Mark Carney’s seemingly dovish testimony before the Treasury Select Committee, the Bank of England is increasingly looking like it will be the first of the major central banks to hike rates. At this stage, the BoE can retain its dovish stance because inflation is not an issue. However, in an environment of falling unemployment, early signs of a pick-up in wage inflation, rising house prices and stronger economic growth, consumers and markets may increasingly begin to focus on inflation. In anticipation, we think now is a good time to compare the inflation forecasting performance of markets and consumers.

In the graphs below we have compared UK RPI bond breakevens (a measure of market inflation expectations) with the Bank of England’s Gfk NOP Inflation Attitudes Survey (i.e. a UK household survey with over 1900 respondents consisting of nine questions on expectations for interest rates and inflation). An important point to note is that the analysis compares realised inflation (% yoy) with what survey expectations and breakeven rates indicated 2 years before.

How reliable are inflation expectations?

The comparison presents a number of interesting results:

Unexpected deflation: Both the survey and breakevens underestimated actual RPI inflation outcomes between 2006-2008 (in other words, nobody anticipated the inflationary shock coming from higher commodity/energy prices).  In 2008, UK RPI was rising at an annual rate of 5.2% as high oil prices were feeding through into higher energy bills. Market and consumer inflation expectations largely ignored the higher inflation numbers, a sign the central bank inflation targeting credibility remained strong.

UK RPI turned negative in 2009 as the world plunged into recession and the BOE cut interest rates. The market eventually began to price in deflation but only after RPI turned negative. For example, in November 2008 the 2 year breakeven was -1.4%, the actual RPI print in November 2010 was 4.7%. Owing 2 year gilt linkers relative to conventional 2 year gilts directly after the financial crisis was a great trade.

Deflation (and recessions) appear particularly hard to forecast, for consumers and markets alike. This is because consumers and markets tend to anchor their future expectations off current inflation (and growth) readings.

Post-crisis unanchoring:  Consumer inflation expectations generally underestimated realised inflation up until the global financial crisis, and has overestimated it since then, a possible sign that the crisis-recession years may have affected consumer views on the BoE’s commitment to fight inflation. Between 2000 and 2009, 2 year-ahead expected inflation averaged 2.5%. Since 2009, it has averaged 3.4%, almost one percentage point higher; suggesting a lower level of confidence that price stability will be achieved and also reflecting the higher RPI prints post 2009.

Surprisingly similar forecasts: Breakeven and survey rates differed only slightly over the sample period, with the largest gap (400bps) opening up in October 2008 after the Lehman crash. This was probably caused by the forced unwind of leveraged long inflation trades combined with a huge flight to quality bid for nominal government bonds, which distorted the market implied inflation rate. The average differential through the period (excluding years 08-09) is just 8bps. Nevertheless, breakevens seem to track RPI better since consumer surveys are usually carried out on a quarterly basis whilst the former are traded and re-valued with higher frequency. This makes them better at capturing quick moves and turning points in inflation.

Future expectations: Over the next 2 years, both consumers and markets expect RPI to rise above the current level of 2.6%. With a 2.7% implied breakeven, 2-year gilt linkers look relatively inexpensive today.

Of course, breakevens are far from being a perfect measure of inflation, as they embed inflation and liquidity risks premia, but they do appear to be better predictors of future inflation relative to consumer surveys. That does not mean survey-based data does not provide us with useful information, and for this purpose we launched the M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey last year (available here). Consumer inflation expectations affect a number of economic variables, including consumer confidence, retail spending, and unit labour costs. However, during inflection points, such as the one we may be going through at present and in a world of approaching shifts in monetary policy, the timeliness of breakevens could represent an advantage that makes it worthwhile to follow them carefully.

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Why aren’t bund yields negative again?

Whether or not you believe that the ECB moves to full government bond purchase quantitative easing this week (and the market overwhelmingly says that it’s only a remote possibility) the fact that German bund yields at the 2 year maturity remain positive is a bit surprising. The 2 year bund currently yields 0.05%, lower than the 0.2% it started the year at, but higher than you might have expected given that a) they have traded at negative yields in 2012 and 2013 and b) that the market’s most likely expected outcome for Thursday’s meeting is for a cut in the ECB’s deposit rate to a negative level.

The chart below shows that in the second half of 2012, and again in the middle of 2013, the 2 year bund yield was negative (i.e. you would expect a negative nominal total return if you bought the bond at the prevailing market price and held it to maturity), hitting a low of -0.1% in July 2012.

2y bund yields chart

Obviously in 2012 in particular, the threat of a Eurozone breakup was at its height. Peripheral bond spreads had hit their widest levels (5 year Spanish CDS traded at over 600 bps in July 2012), and Target2 balances showed that in August 2012 German banks had taken Euro 750 billion of “safe haven” deposits from the rest of the euro area countries (mostly from Spain and Italy). So although the ECB refinancing rate was at 0.75% in July 2012 compared with 0.25% today, the demand for German government assets rather than peripheral government assets drove the prices of short dated bunds to levels which produced negative yields.

This time though, whilst the threat of a euro area breakup is much lower – Spanish CDS now trades at 80 bps versus the 600 bps in 2012 – the prospect of negative deposit rates from the ECB might produce different dynamics which might have implications for short dated government bonds. The market expects that the ECB will set a negative deposit rate, charging banks 0.1% to deposit money with it. Denmark successfully tried this in 2012 in an attempt to discourage speculators as money flowed into Denmark out of the euro area. Whilst the ECB refinancing rate is likely to remain positive, the cut in deposit rates might have significant implications for money market funds. David Owen of Jefferies says that there is Euro 843 billion sitting in money market funds in the euro area, equivalent to 8.5% of GDP. But what happens to this money if rates turn negative? In 2012, when the ECB cut its deposit rate to zero, several money market fund managers closed or restricted access to their money market funds (including JPM, BlackRock, Goldman Sachs – see FT article here). Many money market funds around the world guarantee, or at least imply, a constant or positive net asset value (NAV) – this is obviously not possible in a negative rate environment, so funds close, at least to new money. And if you are an investor why would you put cash into a money market fund, taking credit risk from the assets held by the vehicle, when you could own a “risk free” bund with a positive yield?

So whilst full blown QE may well be months off, if it ever happens, and whilst Draghi’s “whatever it takes” statement means that euro area breakup risk is normalising credit risk and banking system imbalances, the huge amount of money held in money market funds that either wants to find positive yields, or is forced to find positive yields by fund closures, makes it a puzzle as to why the 2 year bund yield is still above zero.

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Deflating the deflation myth

There is currently a huge economic fear of deflation. This fear is basically built on the following three pillars.

First, that deflation would result in consumers delaying any purchases of goods and services as they will be cheaper tomorrow than they are today. Secondly, that debt will become unsustainable for borrowers as the debt will not be inflated away, creating defaults, recession and further deflation. And finally, that monetary policy will no longer be effective as interest rates have hit the zero bound, once again resulting in a deflationary spiral.

The first point is an example of economic theory not translating into economic practice. Individuals are not perfectly rational on timing when to buy discretionary goods. For example, people will borrow at a high interest rate to consume goods now that they could consume later at a cheaper price. One can also see how individuals constantly purchase discretionary consumer goods that are going to be cheaper and better quality in the future (for example: computers, phones, and televisions). Therefore the argument that deflation stops purchases does not hold up in the real world.

The second point that borrowers will go bust is also wrong. We have had a huge period of disinflation over the last 30 years in the G7 due to technological advances and globalisation. Yet individuals and corporates have not defaulted as their future earnings disappointed due to lower than expected inflation.

The third point that monetary policy becomes unworkable with negative inflation is harder to explore, as there are few recent real world examples. In a deflationary world, real interest rates will likely be positive which would limit the stimulatory effects of monetary policy. This is problematic, as monetary policy loses its potency at both the zero bound and if inflation is very high. This makes the job of targeting a particular inflation rate (normally 2%) much more difficult.

What should the central bank do if there is naturally low deflation, perhaps due to technological progress and globalisation? One response could be to head this off by running very loose monetary policy to stop the economy experiencing deflation, meaning the central bank would attempt to move GDP growth up from trend to hit an inflation goal. Consequences of this loose monetary policy may include a large increase in investment or an overly tight labour market. Such a policy stance would have dangers in itself, as we saw post 2001. Interest rates that were too low contributed to a credit bubble that exploded in 2008.

Price levels need to adjust relative to each other to allow the marketplace to move resources, innovate, and attempt to allocate labour and capital efficiently. We are used to this happening in a positive inflation world. If naturally good deflation is being generated maybe authorities should welcome a world of zero inflation or deflation if it is accompanied by acceptable economic growth. Central banks need to take into account real world inflationary and deflationary trends that are not a monetary phenomenon and set their policies around that. Central bankers should be as relaxed undershooting their inflation target as they are about overshooting.

Under certain circumstances central banks should be prepared to permit deflation. This includes an environment with a naturally deflating price level and acceptable economic growth. By accepting deflation, central banks may generate a more stable and efficient economic outcome in the long run.

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The UK’s inflation outlook – the opportunity in inflation-linked assets

With inflation numbers in the UK moving back towards target and deflationary concerns prevalent in Europe, it is worth asking ourselves whether stubbornly high prices in the UK are a thing of the past. Whilst the possibilities of sterling’s strength continuing into 2014 and of political involvement in the on-going cost of living debate could both put meaningful downside pressure on UK inflation in the short term, I continue to see a greater risk of higher inflation in the longer run.

5 years of sticky cost-push inflation

The UK has been somewhat unique amongst developed economies, in that it has experienced a period of remarkably ‘sticky’ inflation despite being embroiled in the deepest recession in living memory. Against an economic backdrop that one might expect to be more often associated with deflation, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) has remained stubbornly above the Bank of England’s 2% target.

Slide1

One of the factors behind this apparent inconsistency has been the steady increase in the costs of several key items of household expenditure, together with the recent spike in energy prices which I believe is a trend that is set to continue for many years.

Rising food prices have been another source of inflationary pressure. Although price rises have eased in recent months following this summer’s better crops, I think they will inevitably remain on an upward trend as the global population continues to expand and as global food demands change.

Sterling weakness has also contributed to higher consumer prices. Although sterling has performed strongly in recent months, it should be remembered that the currency has actually lost around 20% against both the euro and the US dollar since 2007. This has meant that the prices of many imported goods, to which the UK consumer remains heavily addicted, have risen quite significantly.

Time for demand-pull inflation?

Despite being persistently above target, weak consumer demand has at least helped to keep UK inflation relatively contained in recent years. However, given the surprising strength of the UK’s recovery, I believe we could be about to face a demand shock, to add to the existing pressures coming from higher energy and food costs.

The UK’s economic revival has been more robust than many had anticipated earlier in the year. Third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) grew at the fastest rate for three years, while October’s purchasing managers’ indices (PMIs) signalled record rates of growth and job creation. Importantly, the all-sector PMI indicated solid growth not just in services – an area where the UK tends to perform well – but also in manufacturing and construction. At the same time, the recent surge in UK house prices is likely to have a further positive impact on consumer confidence, turning this into what I believe will be a sustainable recovery.

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Central bank policy…

Central banks around the world have printed cash to the tune of US$10 trillion since 2007 in a bid to stimulate their ailing economies. This is an unprecedented monetary experiment of which no-one truly understands the long-term consequences. There has been little inflationary impact so far because the money has essentially been hoarded by the banks instead of being lent out to businesses. However, I believe there could be a significant inflationary impact when banks do begin to increase their lending activities. At this point, the transmission mechanism will be on the road to repair, and a rising money velocity will be added to the increased money supply we have borne witness to over the last 5 years. Unless the supply of money is reduced at this point, nominal output will inevitably rise.

Furthermore, I am of the view that new Bank of England governor Mark Carney is more focused than his predecessor was on getting banks to lend. His enthusiasm for schemes such as Funding for Lending (FFL), which provides cheap government loans for banks to lend to businesses, is specifically designed and targeted to fix the transmission mechanism, by encouraging banks to lend and businesses to borrow. The same is true of ‘forward guidance’, whereby the Bank commits to keep interest rates low until certain economic conditions are met.

Perhaps most importantly, I continue to believe the Bank is now primarily motivated by securing growth in the real economy and that policymakers might be prepared to tolerate a period of higher inflation: this is the key tenet to our writings on Central Bank Regime Change in the UK.

…and the difficulty of removing stimulus.

With real GDP growth of close to 3% and with inflation above 2% at the moment in the UK, a simple Taylor Rule is going to tell you that rates at 0.5% are too accommodative. But it appears that policymakers are, as we suggest above, happy to risk some temporary overheating to guarantee or sustain this recovery. We believe that this is a factor we are going to have to watch in the coming years, as the market comes to realise that it is much harder to remove easy money policies and tighten interest rates than it was to implement them and cut them.

We witnessed a clear demonstration of this with the infamous non-taper event in September: as the data improved, Bernanke had to consider reducing the rate of monthly bond purchases. However, the combination of improved data and a potential reduction in the rate of purchases saw yields rise; ultimately higher rates saw policymakers state their concerns about what these were doing to the housing market recovery, and so we got the ‘non-taper’. I believe that there are important lessons to be learned from this example, and that policymakers are going to continue to lag the economic recovery to a significant extent.

Inflation protection remains cheap

Despite these risks, index-linked gilts continue to price in only modest levels of UK inflation. UK breakeven rates indicate that the market expects the Retail Prices Index (RPI) – the measure referenced by linkers – to average just 2.7% over the next five years. However, RPI has averaged around 3.7% over the past three years and tends to be somewhat higher than the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). At these levels, I continue to think index-linked gilts appear relatively cheap to conventionals.

Furthermore, this wedge between RPI and CPI could well increase in the coming months due to the inclusion of various housing costs, such as mortgage interest payments, within the calculation of RPI. The Bank of England estimates the long-run wedge to be around 1.3 percentage points, while the Office for Budget Responsibility’s estimates between 1.3 to 1.5 percentage points . If we subtract either of these estimates from the 5-year breakeven rate (2.7%), then index-linked gilts appear to be pricing in very low levels of CPI.

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. This has created an attractive opportunity for investors willing to take a slightly longer-term view.

A reminder to our readers that the Q4 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for the UK, European and Asian economies is due out later this week . The report will be available on the bond vigilantes blog and @inflationsurvey on twitter.

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Winners of our @inflationsurvey competition. The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for 4Q 2013 will be released next week.

Beginning of November, we published a blog announcing the release of our Q4 YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for early December. We are now in the final stages of collating and analysing the survey results and will publish the full report in the coming days on Twitter (@inflationsurvey) and our bond vigilantes blog. For those of you who are not aware (where have you been?!), the survey was created by M&G’s retail fixed interest team in partnership with YouGov. We ask over 8,000 consumers from the UK, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore what their expectations are for inflation over the next 1 and 5 years. This has grown ever more important as central banks have sought to manage interest rate expectations through forward guidance.

The results of the Q3 Survey published last September as well as previous surveys are available here.

So congratulations to the 15 winners listed below, who were chosen at random amongst all our @inflationsurvey followers and who will each receive a copy of Frederick Taylor’s “The Downfall of Money”. We will DM each of you asking for your address so we can send you the book.

Simon Lander @simonlander01
Britmouse  @britmouse
Ian Burrows  @ian_burrows
Richard Lander  @richardlander
Iain Martin ‏  @_IainMartin
Morningstar UK ‏  @mstarholly
Brian Simpson ‏  @simpsob1
Amir Rizwan  @amirriz1
Tim Sharp ‏  @tm_sharp
Leanne Hallworth ‏  @leanneha41
Kevin Fenwick @kevinfenwick
Nico  @nicolocappe
qori nasrul ulum  @reme_dial
Alexander Latter  @AlexanderLatter
Ace AdamsAllStar  @AceAdamsAllStar

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Competition: follow @inflationsurvey on Twitter to have a chance to win one of 15 copies of The Downfall of Money by Frederick Taylor

At the end of October, the Citigroup Inflation Expectations survey showed a record jump in UK inflation expectations. The medium term expectation for UK inflation rose from 3.3% in September to 3.9%, and the number of people expecting inflation over 5% also rose significantly. Inflation expectations have become increasingly important in the UK because, as part of Bank Governor Carney’s new forward guidance regime announced in August, the Bank can raise rates even if unemployment remains high if inflation expectations become “unanchored”. Of course the period when the Citigroup survey was conducted was one where the major UK energy suppliers had announced annual price hikes of around 10%, and this spike in inflation expectations may well not persist. But it will have worried the Bank, and the gilt market fell on the release of the data.

Whilst UK inflation was making the news for its potential to surprise on the upside, Europe faced a very different scenario. October’s euro area CPI reading came in at an annual rate of 0.7%, down from 1.1% in September and below the market’s expectations. A Taylor Rule would suggest that with inflation so far from the ECB’s target of 2%, the central bank should be aggressively easing monetary policy (beyond today’s 25 bps cut, and beyond the zero bound to include QE?).

The next M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for the UK, European and Asian economies will be released in December. These M&G YouGov surveys are based on the best practice methodology discussed by the New York Fed (for example asking people about inflation rather than “prices of things you buy” as that sort of question tends to make people think solely of milk, bread and beer). We also have a bigger data sample than many of the other inflation surveys. Finally we also ask some interesting supplementary questions on issues like government economic policy credibility. As inflation expectations become increasingly important to central banks we think that we need to pay more attention to them – to date they have been well anchored, despite money printing through QE, but if this changes then so will central bank behaviour.

The Q4 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey will be released through Twitter. Follow @inflationsurvey to get the release time and date, and also to access the detailed report in December. The feed will also tweet on other inflation surveys and measures of inflation expectations. We hope you find it useful.

To encourage you to follow @inflationsurvey and be first to get the survey results, everybody who does so (and existing followers) will be put into a draw to win one of 15 copies of Frederick Taylor’s The Downfall of Money. This is the story of Germany’s hyperinflation of the 1920s, where the Reichmark fell to 2.5 trillion to the US dollar, and the economy collapsed – arguably sowing the seeds of the Second World War.

9781620402368

Click here for terms and conditions.

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Long term interest rates – the neglected tool in the monetary policy toolbox

I was recently fortunate enough to see a presentation by Phillip Turner from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) on a paper he published earlier this year. ‘Benign neglect of the long term interest rate’ is a highly informative and interesting piece. In it he argues that after decades of the market determining long term interest rates the “large scale purchases of government bonds have made the long term interest rate key in the monetary policy debate”, and that a policy framework should be implemented around long term rates.

The use of central bank balance sheets isn’t as novel a concept as one might think when they hear (as I did repeatedly over 4 days of conferences and seminars in conjunction with the IMF/world bank annual meetings) QE described as unconventional monetary policy. In fact Keynes argued that central banks should stand ready to buy and sell government bonds as a means of affecting the price of money (the interest rate) from as early as the 1930s. Furthermore, the Thatcher government engaged in “quantitative tightening” as recently as the early 1980s by issuing more long dated gilts than were required to finance government spending. The rationale was that issuing more gilts would drain liquidity, curtail broad money growth and slow inflation more effectively than just increasing the Bank Rate.

Setting policy for longer term interest rates may be new territory for today’s generation of policy makers however it shouldn’t be for some. It’s often forgotten that the Fed actually has a triple, not dual mandate. Along with maximising employment and promoting stable prices they are also charged with providing moderate long term interest rates.

What constitutes a moderate long term interest rate is a matter for debate but the paper makes clear that adjusting the short term rate is not necessarily an effective measure in influencing the 10yr yield.

Turner argues that it may be more efficient to alter the average maturity of the outstanding government bonds – those not held by the central bank – through open market operations. The BIS has calculated that shortening the average maturity by one year will lead to a 1% reduction in the yield on a 10 year note. Essentially the message is that the longer the average maturity of the outstanding debt the tighter the policy.

The inherent irony of lowering long term rates to stimulate the economy is that it reduces the incentives for banks to perform their socially useful function of maturity transformation – borrowing short and lending long. The lower long term interest rates the less of an incentive banks have to lend further out along the yield curve. The graph below shows that the term premium in the US 10yr has been negative for a large part of this decade.

Negative term premium is a disincentive to lending

However I believe that tougher regulation (larger capital buffers), increased litigation costs and a general de-levering of the economy will restrict the level of bank lending regardless of how steep the yield curve is.

This chart shows the maturity distribution of bonds held by the Fed.

Maturity distribution of Fed Treasury holdings

I’ve calculated that the average maturity of all Treasuries in issue is roughly 6 years, whilst the average of those on the Fed’s balance sheet is about 10 years. Operation Twist was a conscious effort by the fed to lower long run yields and they are still buying bonds at the long end. Given that factors other than the steepness of the yield curve are driving bank lending perhaps the Fed should be buying fewer Treasuries with 7-10 years to maturity in favour of even more longer dated ones. Also if and when they decide to sell their holdings they should consider this (and the on-going) analysis on the wider implications of altering the average maturity of the Treasury free float.

There are plenty of other interesting observations and questions raised in the paper so I recommend reading the whole thing…..especially if your job involves managing a central bank balance sheet.

richard_woolnough_100

Jobless claims and Fed policy

Today’s release of jobless claims shows that the US economy is continuing its healthy response to the stimulus provided by the Fed. Momentum in the US labour force remains in a positive direction.

The very long term chart below shows today’s headline number of 331,000 to be relatively low historically. However, this is actually understating the current strength of the labour market.

Slide1

In order to interpret the jobless rate more effectively we need to look at it as a percentage of the ever increasing labour force, and not just the headline number. We have made those adjustments in the chart below.

Slide2

The fact that the economy has thankfully responded to low rates is good, though not new, news. However, the one thing that is very different this time is where we are in the interest rate cycle. At previous lows in jobless claims the Fed has typically been tightening to slow the market down. This time they are still in full easing mode with conventional and unconventional policy measures. This contrasts dramatically with the lows in jobless claims in the late ’80s and the beginning and the middle of the last decade, when the Fed was already in full tightening mode. This is highlighted in the chart below.

Slide3

As you would expect to see, interest rate policy works with a lag. Given that we are unlikely to see conventional tightening for a while, one would expect the US economy to remain in decent shape.

A bear market in bonds can be seen as predicting a future normalisation of rates. If, like the Fed, you recognise that this time around things are not all normal, then you could expect short rates to stay low and employment growth to continue. The extent of the current bear market in bonds is therefore limited by the new environment we are in, where conventional economic systems have been amended and changed by the financial crisis.

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