The way forward: active quantitative tightening becomes preferrable over rate hikes
Despite being officially ended, quantitative easing and big central banks’ balance sheets remain the core issue to sticky inflation.
The joint balance sheet of the Federal Reserve and the ECB is above $15 trillion. Currently, both central banks are not actively selling their balance sheets as they have chosen not to reinvest part of their maturing securities. Calling such a strategy “Quantitative Tightening” is just a way for them to talk hawkish and act dovish. They know that to fight the inflation boogeyman, long term yields need to rise, and the way to do that is to actively disinvest their balance sheets, which are composed of long-term bonds. The outcome might be the opposite if central banks choose to hike rates beyond expectations. The higher the benchmark rate, the more likely long-term sovereign yields will begin to drop, as markets forecast a deep recession. Such a move would work against the central banks’ tightening agenda.
Thus, it’s safe to expect that the tightening cycle will come to an end in the second half of the year as more interest rate hikes than those expected by markets would just further invert yield curves rather than have a significant impact on inflation.
As the tightening cycle approaches its end, we expect Federal Reserve and ECB officials to begin to talk about balance sheet disinvestments. At that point, yield curves will begin to steepen, driven by the rise of long-term yields. The front part of the yield curve might start to descend, as markets anticipate the beginning of a rate-cutting cycle. However, if interest rate cut expectations are pushed further in the future, there is a chance that they will remain underpinned for a period. Yet, this path is less certain, as it depends on the ability of policy makers to keep rate cut expectations at bay and the capability of the economy to endure periods of higher volatility. It is at this point that we expect the market to rotate from risky assets to risk-free assets, bursting the bubble created by decades of QE.
We expect the first central bank to end the rate hiking cycle to be the Federal Reserve, while the ECB will need to hike a few additional times to bring the real ECB deposit rate further up. The Bank of England might need to hike into the new year, diverging further from its peers.
An alluring entry point for income seekers
Income-seeking investors should prepare to identify entry points as central banks’ policy tightening peaks. As we are entering into a volatile environment, balancing duration and credit risk will be pivotal. Moreover, as uncertainty keeps volatility in bond markets elevated, our preference is to keep duration at a minimum.
Short duration markets, which are the most sensitive to central banks’ policies, offer above-average income opportunities. Even if rates rise further in the near future, the yield offered by high-grade bonds is enticing for buy-and-hold-investors. The spread offered by investment-grade corporates with maturity between one to three years over the US Treasuries is 62bps, paying an average yield of 5.04%. According to the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index, that’s the highest yield paid by high-grade bonds with such short maturity since 2007. More strikingly, IG corporate bonds with one to three years’ maturity offered an average yield of 1.8% from 2007 to today.
Similarly, high-grade euro corporates with one to three years of maturity pay 4.43%, the highest yield since the 2011 European sovereign crisis, paying 280bps over the past fifteen years’ average.
The yield offered by corporate bonds in the UK is much higher than in the United States and Europe. Although for buy-and-hold investors further BOE rate hikes might not represent a threat, it’s important to note that credit risk in the UK is higher than anywhere in developed economies due to uncertainty surrounding inflation and future monetary policies agenda. Thus, cherry picking in this space is even more critical.