Uncertain Fed support sinks bonds
The bond market’s adverse reaction after the Fed announced no new asset purchase facilities or bond buyback programs highlights the fundamental difference between interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).
Rate cuts provide ongoing support for an indefinite period until the Federal Open Market Committee chooses to reverse them. In contrast, QE programs provide a one-off, time-limited boost that has to be continually reapplied to have the same effect.
With interest rates a decision to leave rates alone represents “no change” in policy; with QE, a decision to leave the scale and duration of the buyback program unchanged is a “tightening”.
QE is time-limited because it drives up bond prices and cuts yields only as long as buybacks continue, or are expected to do so. Once planned buybacks have been completed, or are not expected to be extended, the market will revert to its natural clearing equilibrium. Repeated doses of QE are needed just to keep yields unchanged.
This creates something of a dilemma for policymakers in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The Bank of England’s program to buy 75 billion pounds worth of government and corporate bonds will be completed in mid-June. The Fed’s program to buy $300 billion of medium and long-term U.S. Treasury securities finishes in September.
Once the current round of purchases are complete, both central banks will have to decide whether to embark on another one (intensifying criticism about inflationary financing of public debt) or end it (triggering a sharp yield increase).
In fact, yields will start rising well ahead of the formal end of the programs, unless the Bank and the Fed give a clear signal they will undertake further purchases.
The dilemma is especially pressing for the Bank of England given the imminent expiry of the current round. Officials will come under pressure to clarify their intentions at next week’s Monetary Policy Committee meeting. But the Fed too will face growing pressure over the summer to signal whether the existing programme will be extended beyond September.
It was the Fed’s failure to announce new and larger QE programs yesterday, and the implication that current support might expire in a few months, that caused the bond sell off overnight. Yields on 10-year U.S. Treasuries jumped to 3.16 percent, the highest since Nov. 2008 on Thursday, undoing all of the gains since the Fed announced its QE programme last month.
Terminating QE programs and not replacing them would amount to a sharp tightening of policy and trigger a large, destabilising rise in yields. So the central banks might opt to scale them back instead — continuing to buy debt, but in progressively smaller quantities — as a smoother way to withdraw exceptional support.
The problem is that if QE programs are not withdrawn fairly soon, they risk breaking down anyway under the weight of their own internal contradictions. Because the longer programs run, the more debt central banks will monetize, and the more fears of an eventual inflationary breakout will grow.
Eventually upward pressure on yields caused by increased fears about inflation will offset the downward pressure from QE purchases, neutering the programs’ effectiveness. At that point, ever larger quantities of QE will be needed to achieve the same degree of yield reduction or stabilization.
QE may have bought the central banks a little time but returns will diminish later in the year. The sooner they can articulate a managed retreat the more likely they are to retain some influence over the back end of the yield curve.