Maybe the U.S. economy has improved to the point where further quantitative easing isn’t as critical to the Federal Reserve’s policy of “accommodation.” It certainly looks like the Fed has some further work to do on the portion of its mandate that relates to price stability, given the overshoot of its inflation goals. Fed Chairman Jay Powell said as much as early as this August, when he commented that “substantial further progress” has been achieved, and a month later stated that “moderation in the pace of asset purchases may soon be warranted.”
Such unvarnished comments are not just welcomed by bond investors, they also have a specific purpose: to give clear indications of “forward guidance” so as to not throw the financial markets in the kind of chaos they experienced the last time we entered this phase of monetary policy. Remember the Great Taper Tantrum of 2013?
Then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke surprised the market in a May 2013 speech whereby he mentioned the wind-down of bond purchases, in which he didn’t give any timelines. The longer end of the Treasury market was spooked to the point that 10-year yields rose by more than 100 basis points that year. To put this into perspective, the price of the 10-year note that was auctioned in May 2013 fell by more than ten full points by the end of the year.
What made the sell-off harder to explain is that the Fed actually continued to be a net buyer of bonds all the way until October 2014, when it began a policy of replacement investing. Its balance sheet basically ran in place at about $4.5 trillion until late 2017, at which point it began to let some maturities of both Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) roll off.
The reason it’s worthwhile revisiting some of these events should be obvious: This time around, the Fed is sitting on double the amount of bonds it owned in 2017. The numbers can boggle the mind: even with the mountain of debt that Treasury has issued over the last five years, the Fed still owns more than 20% of it. The upshot of this is that various Federal Reserve members, from the chairman to the governors to the regional presidents, will likely choose their words very carefully, and exhibit transparency and consistency, when discussing the great unwind–whenever that begins.
Been there, done that
While the pay-down looks like a daunting task at the present, there are some positive historical data that likely are giving some support to bond prices currently. Lost in the big build-up of inventory in the last 20 months is that the Fed had been very successful in shrinking its balance sheet between 2017 and 2019.
There were really three separate, but related, stages to the removal of policy accommodation during this five-year period. First, the Fed gradually got out of the bond-buying business (the “taper”). Secondly, beginning in 2017 it stopped replacing some of its maturing investments, following a well-documented schedule of roll-offs. Thirdly, it raised Fed Funds nine times from 2015 through 2019.
When all was said and done, the interest rate curve from “2’s to 10’s” flattened by 125 basis points, and the Fed chased off $750 billion in assets, or about 17% of its balance sheet. Perhaps most impressively, long-term rates actually fell during this tightening-and-paydown phase. This speaks to the Fed’s success in its forward guidance campaign, and also that it let portions of its balance sheet disappear slowly enough so as to not disrupt the bond market.
Fasten your seat belts
The stakes may be higher this time, as this wind-down is going to start at a much higher baseline than in 2019. But there’s this: more than 30% of the Fed’s balance sheet will mature in the next four years, so there will be plenty available to let run off. And there isn’t any mandated timetable to get to a normalized balance sheet level, so assuming that inflation stays within tolerable bands, the Fed can be relatively patient in its pace of unwinding its positions.
Still, it will be critical to the stability of the bond market for the Fed to be clear in its words and actions in the coming months and quarters. This forward guidance may replace “transitory” as the Fedwatch buzzword for 2022. The market values of a lot of fixed-income securities residing on community bank balance sheets will depend on it.
Jim Reber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president and CEO of ICBA Securities, ICBA’s institutional, fixed-income broker-dealer for community banks.
Quarterly bank industry update
Vining Sparks’ Marty Mosby presents his quarterly Bank Advisory and Strategic Services webinar on Dec. 9 at 10 a.m. Central. Bank profitability, industry risk and the M&A environment will be discussed. One hour of CPE is offered. Visit www.viningsparks.com to register.