Central Banks to Stay Looser Longer Than Markets Expect

(Bloomberg View) -- This is a busy time for major central banks. The Bank of Japan and European Central Bank met last week, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Federal Reserve meet this week, and the Bank of England meets next week. Although most major central banks are deciding not to make big changes to monetary policies, global interest-rate expectations among investors have shifted to a tightening bias driven almost entirely by the anticipation of expansionary fiscal policy. The reality is that central bank policy on average is likely to stay looser than generally assumed by markets.

To understand why, you need to first consider the stark divergence between economic data that is based on sentiment and data that is based on actual activity. The sentiment-based, or “soft,” data has consistently surprised to the upside, creating a strong correlation with higher interest-rate expectations. The actual, or “hard,” data such as measures of gross domestic product or factory production has been relatively weak. This divergence may drive central bank policy expectations in opposite directions with consequences for different markets. 

Figure 1: Global Data Surprises

Central Banks to Stay Looser Longer Than Markets Expect
Source: Bloomberg, Global tightening = average Spread of December 2017 and December 2018 Eurodollar, Euribor, Short Sterling and Euro-Yen futures.

One consequence is that inflation expectations as seen in the markets for bonds and derivatives are becoming increasingly volatile. Respondents to surveys suggest that they see faster inflation and some central banks, such as the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan, say they need to take a cautionary stance when it comes to inflation. But despite an uptick in actual inflation data, market based long-term inflation expectations suggest investors are skeptical central banks can meet their inflation targets. This difference isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, forcing central banks to maintain a bias toward tighter policies even if they don’t tighten.  

Figure 2: Global Inflation Expectations

Central Banks to Stay Looser Longer Than Markets Expect
Source: Bloomberg. Inflation expectations from inflation swaps and surveys is the average of U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan.

Also, financial conditions have begun to tighten in some critical places around the world as a result of geopolitical tensions on the Korean peninsula, election uncertainty in Europe, and challenges to U.S. domestic fiscal policy. The ability to tighten monetary policy based on financial conditions can really only be seen in the U.S., whereas those in Europe and Asia are too tight to remove policy accommodation.

The divergence in financial conditions can be a boon to equities and credit -- high yield in particular -- as investors continue to seek higher returns in a world of zero or even negative interest rates. Even a gradual adjustment higher in the U.S. federal funds rate is not likely to derail the positive run in equity markets as global financials conditions remain loose.      

Figure 3: Global Financial Conditions

Central Banks to Stay Looser Longer Than Markets Expect
Source: Bloomberg

Then there is capital flows into emerging markets, where some central banks are easing, such as Russia and Brazil, and others are tightening, such as Mexico, Turkey and China. The diverging policies among emerging-market central banks are visible in real interest rates. The gap between emerging and developed market real rates has become the widest in more than five years. That can continue to put upward pressure on emerging-market currencies, bonds and equities, bolstering growth in places such as Brazil that suffered significant economic contraction in recent years.     

Figure 4: Global Real Rates

Central Banks to Stay Looser Longer Than Markets Expect
Source: Bloomberg

So, divergences in inflation expectations, financial conditions and real interest rates will continue to shape global central bank policy. For markets, that means the Japanese yen comes under pressure as a global funding currency for carry trades, interest rates stay negative in Europe, asset prices get pushed higher, and allows the Federal Reserve to continue to tighten. Central bank divergence is now driven by differences between sentiment and actual data. Until those two data sets converge, global central bank policy is likely to stay looser for longer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Emons is chief economist and head of credit portfolio management at Intellectus Partners LLC. The opinions expressed are his own.

To contact the author of this story: Ben Emons at bemons8@bloomberg.net.

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