Jacquelyn Martin/APFederal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.By Jeff Cox
Investors avidly awaiting signs that the Federal Reserve is ready to reduce its monthly stimulus may find that the news already has passed them by.
Tapering, as the market calls it, easily has been the market’s main concern, and in fact only worry other than sustaining the modest growth in both earnings and gross domestic product.
That worry began in May of this year when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first raised the prospect during a congressional hearing, and speculation over when it may start has been a major market-mover throughout.
The Fed has been creating $85 billion a month that it uses to buy Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities, expanding its balance sheet to just shy of $4 trillion, in what is known as quantitative easing, or QE. It also has kept its target funds rate near zero since the financial crisis hit in 2008.
There’s reason to believe, though, that the reduction in the pace of monthly bond purchases — and that’s all it will be, a reduction, not a cessation — already has been mostly priced into market action and may not have such a monumental impact as is feared.
“Tapering may be a concern, but there are reasons why it may not be as much of one as many expect,” Citigroup (C) credit analysts said in a report for clients. “In fact, we have seen signs in recent trading that U.S. credit may be fairly immune to tapering headlines.”
“Immune” may be a bit strong considering that the market almost always has some reaction to Fed statements, however benign or substantial.
But recent rate movement suggests that while yields may well go higher, the yield curve — or the difference between rates of different maturities — shows that the market may already have had its big reaction to tapering.
Almost immediately after Bernanke’s initial tapering speech, the curve for investment-grade and the benchmark 10-year Treasury note jumped 0.8 percentage points while high yield rose 2.8 percentage points.
But the Citi team pointed out that spreads stayed stable during the most recent tapering scare as economic data improved in early December.
“One of our basic [tenets] is that the markets are efficient … maybe not perfectly, but at least reasonably,” Citi said. “In this regard, it’s important not to forget that the QE tapering topic has been in the news for over six months.”
There are also two significant facts worth remembering about tapering:
The Fed has had ample supply for its operations since the government doubled the national debt over the past five years to more than $15 trillion. That is changing, though, with the lowest amount of debt issuance, at just over $2 trillion, a low since Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. Government debt maturity is likely to be at its highest level ever at $1.4 trillion. Investors, then, may want to look beyond the headlines and knee-jerk market reaction when weighing the true substance of QE reductions.
“QE is obviously a huge source of direct demand in the rates space, and a large indirect source elsewhere. All else equal when tapering takes place demand in the rates markets will fall sharply, and of course a spillover effect will be felt among risk assets,” Citi said. “But all else is not equal.”
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