Wall St ImageKey points

- The Fed’s decision not to taper reflects a desire to see stronger US economic growth and guard against uncertainties around coming US budget discussions.

- The Fed clearly remains very supportive of growth and this will help growth assets like shares, albeit there may still be a speed bump in the month ahead.

Introduction

In what has perhaps been the biggest positive policy surprise for investors this year, the US Federal Reserve decided not to start tapering its quantitative easing (QE) program and leave asset purchases at $US85bn a month. This followed four months of almost constant taper talk which had led investment markets to factor it in. As a result the decision not to taper combined with very dovish language from the Fed has seen financial markets celebrate. This note looks at the implications.

Ready, set…stop

With the Fed foreshadowing from late May, that it would start to slow its asset purchases “later this year”, financial markets had come to expect that the Fed would start tapering at its September meeting. In the event the Fed did nothing. Several factors explain the Fed’s decision:

  • The Fed always indicated that tapering was conditional on the economy improving in line with its expectations whereas recent data – particularly for employment and some housing indicators – has been mixed.
  • Second, the Fed has become concerned that the rapid tightening of financial conditions, mainly via higher bond yields, would slow growth.
  • Third, the upcoming budget and debt ceiling negotiations (with the risk – albeit small – of a Government shutdown or technical default) and accompanying uncertainty appear to be worrying the Fed.
  • Finally, the Fed may have concluded that any forward guidance it would have provided to help keep bond yields down may have lacked sufficient credibility given the coming leadership transition at the Fed.

Observing the run of somewhat mixed data lately and the back up in bond yields, I and most others concluded that the Fed would address this by announcing a small tapering, ie cutting back asset purchases by $US10bn a month, and issue dovish guidance stressing that rate hikes are a long way away in order to keep bond yields down. However, it turns out that the Fed is more concerned about the risks to the growth outlook from higher bond yields at this point than we allowed for particularly given the US budget issues.

The Fed’s announcement is ultra-dovish with tapering delayed till “possibly” later this year and the Fed further softening its guidance. For example, the mid 2014 target for ending QE is gone and the 6.5% unemployment threshold for raising interest rates has been softened with Bernanke saying rates may not be increased till unemployment is “substantially” below 6.5%. The median of Fed committee members is for the first rate hike to not occur until 2015, and for the Fed Funds rates to hit only 1% at the end of 2015 and 2% at the end of 2016.

The key message from the Fed is very supportive of growth. They won’t risk a premature tightening in financial conditions via a big bond sell off and tapering won’t commence until there is more confidence that its expectations for 3% growth in 2014 and 3.25% growth in 2015 are on track.

Given that we also see US growth picking up tapering has only been delayed, but there is considerable uncertainty as to when it will commence. The Fed’s October 29-30 meeting looks unlikely as there is no press conference afterwards and US budget concerns may not have been resolved by then. The December 17-18 meeting is possible as it is followed by a press confidence but is in the midst of holiday shopping. So it could well be that it doesn’t occur till early next year.

Perhaps the main risk for the Fed is that by not tapering (when it had seemingly convinced financial markets that it would) it has created a lack of clarity around its intentions which will keep investors guessing as to when it will commence. This will likely add to volatility around data releases and speeches by Fed officials.

The US economy and inflation

In a broad sense though, the Fed is right to maintain a dovish stance:

  • Growth is on the mend thanks to improving home construction, business investment and consumer spending but it’s still far from booming and is relatively fragile as the private sector continues to cut debt ratios. This is also evident in the mixed tone of recent economic indicators with strong ISM business conditions readings but sub-par jobs growth and some softening in housing indicators on the back of a rise in mortgage rates to a still low level of around 4.6%.
  • Spare capacity is immense as evident by 7.3% official unemployment, double digit labour market underutilisation and a very wide output gap (ie the difference between actual and potential growth).


Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

  • A fall in labour force participation has exaggerated the fall in the unemployment rate. At some point participation will start to bounce back slowing the fall in unemployment.
  • Inflation is low at just 1.5%. There is absolutely no sign of the hyperinflation that the Austrian economists and gold bugs rave on about.

So while some will express annoyance that the Fed has confused them, at the end of the day the economic environment gives the Fed plenty of reason to be flexible.

Implications for investors

The Fed’s decision to delay tapering for now and its growth supportive stance is unambiguously positive for financial assets in the short term and this has been reflected in sharp falls in bond yields, gains in shares and commodity prices and a rise in currencies like the $A.

The sharp back up in bond yields since May when the Fed first mentioned tapering had left bonds very oversold and due for a rally. This could go further as market expectations for the first Fed rate hike push back out to 2015. However, the Fed has only delayed the start of tapering and as the US/global growth outlook continues to improve the upswing in bond yields is likely to resume, albeit gradually. This and the fact that bond yields are very low, eg 10 year bonds are just 2.7% in the US and just 3.9% in Australia, suggests that the current rally will be short lived and that the medium term outlook for returns from sovereign bonds remains poor.

For shares, the Fed’s commitment to boosting growth is very supportive. QE is set to continue providing a boost to shares going into next year even though sometime in the next six months it’s likely to start to be wound down. But it’s now very clear that the Fed will only do this when it is confident that economic growth is on track for 3% or more and this will be positive for profits. This is very different to the arbitrary and abrupt ending of QE1 in March 2010 and QE2 in June 2011, that were associated with 15-20% share market slumps at the time. See the next chart.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

With shares no longer dirt cheap, it’s clear that the easy gains for share markets are behind us. But by the same token shares are not expensive either and an “easy” Fed adds to confidence that profit growth will pick up next year driving the next leg up in share markets.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

Shares are also likely to benefit from long term cash flows as the mountain of money that has gone into bond funds since the GFC is reversed gradually over time with some of it going into shares. See the next chart.

Source: ICI, AMP Capital

However, while the broad cyclical outlook for shares remains favourable, there will be some speed bumps along the way. The coming government funding and debt ceiling negotiations in the US could create uncertainty ahead of the usual last minute deal. And investors will now be kept guessing about when the first taper will come which means any strong economic data or hawkish comments from Fed officials could cause volatility. The May-June share market correction was all about pricing in the first taper and that process might have to commence all over again at some point.

For high yield bearing assets generally, eg bank shares, the Fed’s inaction and the rally in bonds will provide support. However, underperforming cyclical stocks, such as resources, may ultimately be more attractive as they offer better value and will benefit as the global and Australian economies pick up.

For emerging world shares, the Fed’s inaction takes away some of the short term stress, but it’s likely to return as US tapering eventually comes back into focus with current account deficit countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil remaining vulnerable.

Finally, the Fed’s decision not to taper does make life a bit harder for the Reserve Bank of Australia in the short term in trying to keep the $A down. It has added to the short covering bounce that has seen the $A rise from $US0.89 this month and so adds to the case for another interest rate cut. However, the rebound in the $A is likely to prove temporary as the Fed is expected to return to tapering some time in the next six months.

Dr Shane Oliver
Head of Investment Strategy and Chief Economist
AMP Capital

 

DISCLAIMER: The above information is commentary only (i.e. our general thoughts).  It is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, investment advice.  To the extent permitted by law, no liability is accepted for any loss or damage as a result of any reliance on this information.  Before making any investment decision you need to consider (with your financial adviser) your particular investment needs, objectives and circumstances.

Published in Investment Advice
Thursday, 18 July 2013 12:37

The US Federal Reserve, Rates and Bonds

Introduction

As the US economy continues to recover, it was inevitable that investor focus would shift from the need for more stimulus, which has been the dominant issue over the last few years, to when the US Federal Reserve will actually start to reverse the stimulus. This is important because easy monetary conditions on the back of poor growth and low inflation – first low rates and then QE – have helped underpin a fall in bond yields to record lows. This in turn has underpinned strong returns from sovereign bonds and gains in bond-like high yield investments, notably corporate debt, real estate investment trusts (REITs) and high yield shares, such as banks and telecommunications companies in Australia.

Nervousness about a change in direction from the Fed has been building this year, particularly over the last month following Fed Chairman Bernanke’s comments that he is prepared to slow or “taper” the pace of quantitative easing “in the next few meetings”. This would likely mean cutting the US$85 billion a month it is buying in government bonds and mortgage-backed securities to around US$60 billion a month.

Fearing this signals a shift towards the start of US monetary tightening, expectations for interest rate hikes in the US have been brought forward a year or so, bond yields have increased sharply and beneficiaries of easy money in the US, such as non-government debt, REITs, emerging market debt and equities, high yield shares and the A$ have all been under pressure. This has happened at a time when not all US economic data has been strong, leading some to fear a premature tightening by the Fed.

So the Fed’s latest monetary policy setting meeting was much anticipated for greater clarification around these issues.

The message from the Fed

The basic message from the Fed may be summarised as follows.

First, Chairman Ben Bernanke confirmed that the Board may start to slow the pace of QE later this year. He added that the reduction is likely to be gradual and that QE could end by mid next year. However, he also noted that this is conditional on the economy continuing to improve as the Fed expects, with growth projected to accelerate to 3-3.5% next year. While the immediate reaction in share markets has been negative, taking the lead from confirmation that QE is on track to be phased down, the fact it will only be phased down if the economy continues to improve is likely to be supportive for shares going forward, as this means stronger profits. When it does start to taper, the Fed is likely to prefer a meeting after which it has a press conference where it can explain its actions. This would suggest action will be taken at the September meeting at the earliest.

Second, the pace of QE can still be increased or decreased in the future, depending on how the US economy is performing. In other words, just because the Fed might start to taper in say, September, doesn’t mean that all the next moves will automatically be towards a further reduction. In fact, Bernanke appears to have made a steady decline in QE towards ending the program in mid-2014 contingent on expectations being met that the unemployment rate will fall to around 7% by then. For growth-oriented investments, this is effectively what some have called the “Bernanke put”, i.e. either the economy and profits improve (supporting share markets) or QE continues. It’s very different to the first two rounds of QE that automatically ended in March 2010 and June 2011, only to be followed by significant share market weakness.

Third and most importantly, the Fed reiterated that any decision to slow QE does not mean that interest rate hikes are any closer. In fact, 15 of the 19 Fed meeting participants don’t expect the first Fed Funds rate hike until 2015 or later. This is one more than in March. Moreover, the Fed continues to indicate that near zero interest rates will be justified at least as long as unemployment remains above 6.5% and inflation expectations remain low, with Bernanke pointing out that the 6.5% unemployment rate is a threshold, not a trigger. This suggests that the move forward over the last six weeks in money market expectations for the first Fed rate hike from mid-2015 to mid-2014 is premature. Expect rate hike expectations to settle down again and push back into 2015.

Our assessment

Our assessment is that while the Fed will likely start to slow quantitative easing later this year, this will actually be a good thing because it will only occur because the Fed’s mission has been accomplished. In other words, the US economy can start to be taken off life support. Moreover, by the time this occurs it will be a surprise to no one.

However, as the Fed keeps telling us, it is unlikely to want to rush into raising interest rates, given that:

  • Growth is still a long way from booming and is still relatively fragile as the private sector continues to reduce debt ratios. This is evident in bank loans growing at just 3%p.a and fiscal stimulus now being reversed. This is also evident by the mixed tone of recent economic indicators, with a solid housing recovery but soft readings for the ISM and most other manufacturing conditions indices.
  • Spare capacity remains immense as evident by a 7.6% official unemployment rate and double-digit labour market underutilisation and a still very wide output gap (i.e. the difference between actual and potential growth), as shown in the next chart.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

  • As the labour market continues to strengthen, labour force participation will likely start to bounce back, slowing the fall in the unemployment rate and achievement of the Fed’s 6.5% threshold.
  • Inflation is low and falling, currently just 1.4%.

So short of a sharp acceleration in the US economy, it’s very hard to see the Fed raising interest rates for the next year at least. This is important because the 1994 ‘bond crash’, which saw US 10-year bond yields rise nearly 300 basis points, was triggered and underpinned by an aggressive rise in the US Fed Funds rate (its official short term interest rate). See the next chart.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

Implications for investors

Despite an initially negative reaction, the message from the Fed remains reasonably market friendly. The pace of quantitative easing will only slow when the economy is stronger and rate hikes are unlikely any time soon.

The bottom line is that at this stage, a 1994-style bond crash still seems unlikely.1 US interest rates are unlikely to rise any time soon and in Japan, Australia and probably Europe, monetary conditions are still in the process of being eased.

However, we remain cautious of sovereign bonds, given that yields remain well below long term sustainable levels, for which potential nominal GDP growth provides a good guide. See the next table.

Bond yields are well below sustainable levels

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

After four years of record inflows, US bond funds are at risk of seeing big outflows as investors start to see lower or poor returns. In fact, they have started to see outflows in the last few weeks and this could have a long way to go if sentiment towards bonds really turns negative. And of course, this in turn will create upward pressure for bond yields.

Finally, periodic bouts of nervousness regarding the Fed will likely continue as the US economy continues to improve. As a result, we remain of the view that sovereign bond yields will continue to gradually trend higher, resulting in poor returns for bond investors.

Against this backdrop, the chase for yield will likely continue as interest rates will remain low, albeit with perhaps less enthusiasm than seen over the last year. However, returns from assets that have already benefitted immensely from low bond yields like credit and real estate investment trusts will likely slow.

Shares have also benefitted from lower bond yields, although it is worth noting that in relation to US shares, gains have been underpinned by record profits. Moreover, they still trade on relatively high forward earnings yields compared to bond yields. See the next chart.

Source: Bloomberg, AMP Capital

This suggests that earnings yields on shares still offer a reasonable buffer as bond yields normalise, albeit a too rapid or great an increase in bond yields will result in more short term volatility as we have seen over the last month.

One final point to note is that a move towards the end of quantitative easing in the US will further reverse the upward pressure seen on the A$ since 2009. This will be good news for the Australian economy as the stubbornly strong A$ has been a key factor holding the economy back recently. Expect the A$ to fall to around US$0.80.


1. See “What’s the chance of a bond crash?” Oliver’s Insights, Feb 2013.

 

Dr Shane Oliver
Head of Investment Strategy and Chief Economist
AMP Capital

Important note: While every care has been taken in the preparation of this article, AMP Capital Investors Limited (ABN 59 001 777 591, AFSL 232497) and AMP Capital Funds Management Limited (ABN 15 159 557 721, AFSL 426455) makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or completeness of any statement in it including, without limitation, any forecasts. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. This article has been prepared for the purpose of providing general information, without taking account of any particular investor’s objectives, financial situation or needs. An investor should, before making any investment decisions, consider the appropriateness of the information in this article, and seek professional advice, having regard to the investor’s objectives, financial situation and needs. This article is solely for the use of the party to whom it is provided.
Published in Investment Advice