The credit crunch era has brought bond markets towards the centre stage of economics and finance. Before then there were rare expressions of interest in either a crisis or if the media wanted to film a response to an economic data release. You see equities trade rarely but bonds a lot so they filmed us instead and claimed we were equities trades so sorry for my part in any deception! Where things changed was when central banks released that lowering short-term interest-rates ( Bank Rate in the UK) was not the only game in town and that it was not having the effect that they hoped and planned. Also the Ivory Towers style assumption that short-term interest-rates move long-term ones went the way of so many of their assumptions straight to the recycling bin.

QE

It is easy to forget now what a big deal this was as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England joined the Bank of Japan in buying government bonds or Quantitative Easing ( QE). There is a familiar factor in that what was supposed to be a temporary measure has now become a permanent feature of the economic landscape. As for example the holdings of the Bank of England stretch to 2068 with no current plan to reverse any of it and instead keeping the total at £435 billion by reinvesting maturities. Indeed on Friday it released this on social media.

Should quantitative easing become part of the conventional monetary policy toolkit?

The Author Richard Harrison may be in line for promotion after this.

Though the model does not support the idea that central banks should maintain permanently large balance sheets, it does suggest that we may see more quantitative easing in the future.

So here is a change for bond markets which is that QE will be permanent as so far there has been little or no interest in unwinding it. Even the US Federal Reserve which to be fair is doing some unwinding is doing so with baby steps or the complete opposite of the way it charged in to increase QE.

Along the way other central banks joined in most noticeably the European Central Bank. It had previously indulged in some QE via its purchases of Southern European bonds and covered ( bank mortgage) bonds but of course it then went into the major game. In spite of the fact that the Euro area economy is having a rather good 2017 it is still at it to the order of 60 billion Euros a month albeit that halves next year. So we are a long way away from it stopping let alone reversing. If we look at one of the countries dragged along by the Euro into the QE adventure we see that even annual economic growth of 3.1% does not seem to be enough for a change of course. From Reuters.

Riksbank’s Ohlsson: Too Early To Make MonPol Less Expansionary

If 3.1% economic growth is “too early” then the clear and present danger is that Sweden goes into the next downturn with QE ongoing ( and maybe negative interest-rates too). One consequence that seems likely is that they will run out of bonds to buy as not everyone wants to sell to the central bank.

Whilst we may think that QE is in modern parlance “like so over” in fact on a net basis it is still growing and only last month a new player came with its glass to the punch bowl.

In addition, the Magyar Nemzeti Bank will launch a targeted programme aimed at purchasing mortgage bonds with maturities of three years or more. Both programmes will also contribute to an increase in the share of loans with long periods of interest rate fixation.

Okay so Hungary is in the club albeit via mortgage bond purchases which can be a sort of win double for central banks as it boosts “the precious” ( banks) and via yield substitution implicitly boosts the government bond market too. But we learn something by looking at the economic situation according to the MNB.

The Hungarian economy grew by 3.6 percent in the third quarter of 2017…….The Monetary Council expects annual economic growth of 3.6 percent in 2017 and stable growth of between 3-4 percent over the coming years. The Bank’s and the Government’s stimulating measures contribute substantially to economic growth.

We are now seeing procyclical policy where economies are stimulated by monetary policy in a boom. In particular central banks continue with very large balance sheets full of government and other bonds and in net terms they are still buyers.

The bond vigilantes

They have been beaten back and as we observe the situation above we see why. Many of the scenarios where they are in play and bond yields rise substantially have been taken away for now at least by the central banks. There can be rises in bond yields in individual countries as we see for example in the Turkish crisis or Venezuela but the scale of the crisis needs to be larger and these days countries are picked off individually rather than collectively.

At the moment there are grounds for the bond yield rises to be in play in the Euro area with growth solid but of course the ECB is in play and in fact yesterday brought news of exactly the reverse.

 

A flat yield curve?

The consequence of central banks continuing with what the Bank of Japan calls “yield curve control” has led to comments like this. From the Financial Times yesterday.

Selling of shorter-dated Treasuries pushed the US yield curve to its flattest level since 2007 on Tuesday. The difference between the yields on two-year Treasury notes and 10-year Treasury bonds dropped below 55 basis points in afternoon trading in New York. While the 10-year Treasury was little changed, prices of two-year notes fell for the second consecutive day. The two-year Treasury yield, which moves inversely to the note’s price, has climbed 64 basis points this year to 1.83 per cent.

If we look long the yield curve the numbers are getting more and more similar ironically taking us back to the “one interest-rate” idea the central banks and Ivory Towers came into the credit crunch with. With the US 2 year yield at 1.8% and the 30 year at 2.71% there is not much of a gap.

Why does something which may seem arcane matter? Well the FT explains and the emphasis is mine.

It marks a pronounced “flattening” of the yield curve, with investors receiving decreasing returns for holding longer-dated bonds compared to shorter-dated notes — typically a harbinger of economic recession.

Comment

We have seen phases of falls in bond prices and rises in yield. For example the election of President Trump was one. But once they pass we are left wondering if the around thirty year trend for lower bond yields is still in play and we are heading for 0% ( ZIRP) or the icy cold waters of negativity ( NIRP)? On that road the idea that the current yield curve shape points to a recession gets kicked into touch as Goodhart’s Law or if you prefer the Lucas Critique comes into play. But things are now so mixed up that a recession might actually be on its way after all we are due one.

For yields to rise again on any meaningful scale there will have to be some form of calamity for the central banks. This is because QE is like a drug for so many areas. One clear one is the automotive sector I looked at yesterday but governments are addicted to paying low yields as are those with mortgages. On that road they cannot let go until they are forced to. Thus the low bond yields we see right now are a short-term success which central banks can claim but set us on the road to a type of junkie culture long-term failure. Or in my country this being proclaimed as success.

“Since 1995 the value of land has increased more than fivefold, making it our most valuable asset. At £5 trillion, it accounts for just over half of the total net worth of the UK at end-2016. At over £800 billion, the rise in the nation’s total net worth is the largest annual increase on record.”

Of course this is merely triumphalism for higher house prices in another form. As ever those without are excluded from the party.