Thursday, 6 April 2017

Fed Mountaineering

The US Federal Reserve has stopped so-called quantitative easing, namely the buying of US Treasuries and mortgage bonds. But it has not yet allowed the maturing assets to run off its balance sheet. Instead it has reinvested funds to keep the outstanding sum of assets pretty stable since 2014, at around $4.2 trillion. As recently as the end of March 2017, the Fed still had $2,464bn of Treasury notes and bonds plus $1,769bn of mortgage-backed securities on its books, totalling $4,233bn. In 2017, the Fed is likely to begin reducing this mountain, while trying to avoid an avalanche.

The following chart shows how the mountain grew after the 2007-08 crisis struck:

A Fed study in 2012 estimated that for every $300bn of Treasury bond purchases, yields fell by some 30 basis points. This was believed to be due to a 'stock effect' that lowered the supply of bonds in the market, raised their price and so reduced yields. This is only one influence on the market, but it is evident that there will be upward pressure on yields once the Fed starts selling off its accumulated stock.

The potential impact is widespread. It will run from higher US government borrowing costs and higher mortgage rates to higher corporate bond yields (since these have the government yield as a baseline). Interest rates in international markets will also be influenced by the level of US rates. This is especially so for the more vulnerable 'emerging market' economies. All of these have huge levels of debt that are likely to become more expensive to service.* Much of the latter's debt is also US dollar-denominated, which puts them at further risk if their currency values fall.

Tony Norfield, 6 April 2017

Note: * See the reviews of debt trends in a range of countries in the September 2016 articles on this blog.

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