Central Banks No Longer Cushion Economies and Markets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If governments, companies and markets needed any further reminders that their operating environment is changing, they got it last week. Despite weakening economic momentum and volatile financial markets, a second systemically important central bank, the European Central Bank, reiterated its intention to stop using large liquidity injections to support economic activity and asset prices. The change in this “global factor” is translating into a volatility “regime change” in markets, requires an evolution in investment strategies, and calls for compensating pro-growth policy measures on the part of many individual countries.

The ECB’s Oct. 25 announcement that its governing council still intends to stop large-scale asset purchases, known as quantitative easing or QE, at the end of the year occurred in the context of what central bankers acknowledge is an increasing list of threats to their economies. At a news conference after the central bank’s policy meeting, ECB President Mario Draghi said the risks include an uncertain trade regime, pressures in emerging markets, politics, and the budgetary confrontation between Italy and the European Union. And by stating that the “ECB mandate does not involve financing government’s deficit,” Draghi emphasized the implicit message that neither governments nor markets can continue to rely on regular, large and predictable liquidity injections to offset their own problems.

The ECB’s signals reinforce those that the Federal Reserve has been sending for a while now. Despite weakness in housing, historically an indicator of cyclical trends for the U.S. economy, and notwithstanding complaints by President Donald Trump, top Fed officials continue to leave no doubt of their intention to further hike interest rates while reducing the bank’s balance sheet. Moreover, this Fed team, unlike its predecessors, is less inclined to resort to soothing words to calm unsettled markets.

The increase in market instability should come as no surprise. It was clear from early in this (now-ending gradually) exceptional monetary-policy phase that central banks’ “unconventional policies” were aimed at repressing volatility as a means of promoting economic activity. Also, central banks have been consistent and clear about their intentions to exit this phase as economic conditions allow.

The resulting journey away from the prolonged implementation of unconventional policies inherently involves more financial and economic volatility. This is especially true given how much market participants have downplayed liquidity risk in certain segments and how many governments have been slow in implementing pro-growth structural reforms. What the destination will look like remains an open question, however. The outcome essentially depends on the orderliness and comprehensiveness of the hand-off to better economic and corporate fundamentals, as well as the reset of market technicals.

As I have argued, this transition is made more uncertain by the divergent economic performances within the advanced world, as well uncertainty about trade policy. It will also be tested by two elements:

  1. Pockets of excessive risk-taking that emerged during the prior period of ample liquidity (from the excessive reach for yields, including through off-benchmark investor exposures, to the spread of products that implicitly promise immediate liquidity at reasonable bid-off spreads notwithstanding the inherently structural illiquid nature of the underlying assets).
  2. The extent to which certain governments and corporates used the period of unusually low interest rates to pile on too much debt and allow excessive currency mismatches to emerge.

The message to governments, corporates and market participants is clear: Central banks are dead serious about getting out of the business of suppressing volatility, and the process could be approaching critical mass. Much like what happens to you when you take off those fancy noise cancellation headphones in midflight on a plane and notice all sorts of noises around the cabin, markets and economies are becoming more sensitive as QE and guidance on low rates decay.

Economic actors and market participants need to get ready for greater environmental instability as monetary policy transitions away from unusual and experimental measures to historically more recognizable ones. This change has the potential to place both the global economy and markets on a more solid fundamentally based foundation over the longer-term. But it also requires timely adaptations in both, or the possibility of the better could give way to the agony of the worse.

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

Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE, the parent company of Pimco, where he served as CEO and co-CIO. His books include “The Only Game in Town” and “When Markets Collide.”

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