Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Managing expectations as part of monetary policy

In trying to ease concerns about higher interest rates through forward guidance, central banks have ended up doing the opposite.

Managing expectations when you work with people in an office environment can be tough but imagine dealing with the multitude of global investors as well as the international press.  This is what central banks have to cope with.  Central banks have tried to provide greater clarity regarding the direction of monetary policy using forward guidance – linking changes in policy to improvements in economic data.  The plan was to ease concerns that monetary policy would be tightened too soon through fewer bond purchases and eventually higher interest rates.  But forward guidance instead triggered the selling of government bonds with investors now expecting tightening of monetary policy sooner than central banks are suggesting.  Why have investors reacted in this way and what might central banks do in return?

A change in monetary policy was always going to be a tricky proposition considering the influence that the central banks have built up over the markets due to their purchases of billions in bonds as part of quantitative easing (refer to Caution - Windy Road Ahead).  It all started with a statement by the Federal Reserve in the US in June that it was considering tapering off its bond purchases which currently amount to US$85 billion.  Any new policy initiatives in the US are predicated on the pledge by the Federal Reserve that interest rates will remain at their current low levels until there is substantial improvement in the labour market.  This is one version of forward guidance that has also been adapted by Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, who also linked future decisions on monetary policy to the unemployment rate in the UK (for more, see Same low interest rates but for longer).  The reasoning behind forward guidance is twofold – to assure potential borrowers that interest rates will stay low for a few years yet and to placate fears that tightening of monetary policy will hurt the nascent economic recovery.

Not much of a market reaction was expected from these announcements as central banks were signalling that changes to the status quo would be gradual depending on the state of the economy.  However, investors have reacted in a way that seems to suggest that tightening of monetary policy is imminent, that is, by selling off government bonds.  The interest rates on government bonds have risen from record lows and 10-year bonds issued by the US and UK governments have both reached close to 3% (lower bond prices due to selling results in higher interest rates on bonds).  Why did the markets respond in this way to seemingly innocuous comments?

Cautious investors had been big buyers of safe assets such as UK and US government bonds due to the weak state of the global economy coupled with the sovereign debt problems in Europe.  This had capped off a period where bond prices had followed an upward trend for a few decades, which is a long time in investment markets.  Higher bond prices had pushed interest rates to painfully low levels so the timing was ripe for investors to move their money somewhere else.  All that was needed was a trigger and this ended up being the statements on forward guidance.  It is as if the mere mention of the end of the current loose monetary policy got investors thinking that a bond sell-off was coming and that it would be better to beat the rush.

For holders of UK government bonds, data on the economy has added to the reasons to sell.  The OECD released economic forecasts in early September which predicted that the recovery in the UK would pick up pace faster than in other countries.  A potential housing bubble in the UK adds to concerns that the Bank of England will have to increase interest rates earlier than planned.  Mark Carney also left plenty of escape clauses in the forward guidance pledges which allows the central bank the freedom to act but gives rise to worries that interest rates will not stay low for as long as has been suggested.

The rebellion of the markets against the careful planning of the central banks does throw up a few issues.  Considering that both the US and UK have mountains of government debt, higher interest rates will translate through to greater limitations on government spending which, in turn, will hurt the economy.  The fortunes of the global economy have also taken a hit with higher returns on bonds prompting investors to repatriate money invested in emerging markets over the past few years when there were few other investment options.  But the rush of money leaving places such as India and Turkey has brought howls of protest as well as fears about the ramifications of the end of quantitative easing on international finance.

It is central banks that now have to make the next move.  Yet this could involve doing nothing.  The tightening of monetary policy was never going to be easy and the recent jumpiness of investors could be just seen as collateral damage.  This would be a prudent option if central banks believe that there is nothing else that they could do to dictate the directions of the market.  But, on the other hand, central banks may decide to wrest back control of the expectations of investors.  Such a course of action could be prompted by fears that interest rates on government bonds, which act as a benchmark for interest rates throughout the whole economy, are too high at a time when the economic recovery is just starting in earnest.  Since forward guidance has shown that mere words are not enough, central banks may have to act, possibly with more bond buying.  Such a shock would bring investors back into line and serve as a reminder not to second-guess central banks.  However, with central banks likely to be keener to step out of the limelight (for What's the rush?), investors are likely to be left to their own devices.

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