(Bloomberg) — Bond investors may not wait long to start pushing back against Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s efforts to delink the start of asset-purchase tapering from the countdown to eventual policy-rate hikes.
Since Powell last week said the central bank could begin reducing its monthly bond buying this year, traders have stuck with early 2023 as the likely timing for the Fed’s liftoff from zero interest rates, and Treasury yields have barely budged.
But that calm faces a test starting Friday. The potential for volatility comes from the fact that when Fed officials gather this month, they will release fresh projections for the fed funds rate for the next few years. And with the labor market pivotal for Fed policy now, Friday’s August jobs report is seen as laying the foundation for these forecasts — collectively known as the dot plot — especially as some Fed officials have already been pushing for an early taper.
The upshot is that a robust reading Friday could have investors pulling forward tightening bets regardless of Powell’s efforts last week in his virtual speech at the Fed’s Jackson Hole symposium. The risk is traders will prepare for a repeat of June, when a hawkish signal via the dot-plot took markets by surprise and triggered an abrupt unwinding of wagers on a steeper yield curve.
If the employment report is “even deemed acceptable, regional presidents will be back on the tape in a flash,” sounding hawkish again, said Jim Vogel, an analyst at FHN Financial. “And you may have more officials penciling in a 2022 hike. And that would have to flatten the yield curve.”
Expectations for a hawkish shift would lift 5-year Treasury yields in particular, shrinking the gap with 30-year rates, Vogel said. That spread is now around 114 basis points, down from about 140 just before the Fed met in mid-June.
Officials’ June quarterly forecasts not only showed a median funds rate projection of two hikes in 2023 — after the March dot plot indicated no tightening until at least 2024 — but that seven participants saw at least one increase next year. This time around, it will take just three officials to raise their dots for 2022 for a full hike to be the new median for next year, assuming everyone else keeps their projections where they were.
Traders responded to the Fed’s June rate projections by driving 5-year yields up the most in almost four months. That was even as Powell said in his press conference that the dot plot should be taken with a “big grain of salt” and discussion about raising rates would be “highly premature.”
Powell last week said “the timing and pace of the coming reduction in asset purchases will not be intended to carry a direct signal regarding the timing of interest rate liftoff, for which we have articulated a different and substantially more stringent test.”
But the leadup to the Fed decision on Sept. 22 may culminate in a dot-plot unveiling that yet again presents a communication challenge for policy makers, as has been seen several times since the Fed introduced the projections in 2012.
“There’s information in the dots, and generally it’s good information,” said Shahid Ladha, head of Group-of-10 rates strategy for the Americas at BNP Paribas SA. It makes sense for the Fed, regarding tapering and rate hikes, “to try to separate them, but I don’t think they’ll be ultimately successful in separating them.”
Even some Fed officials are wary of being able to disentangle the tapering from rate hikes, minutes from the July Fed meeting showed.
Kevin Flanagan, head of fixed-income strategy at WisdomTree Investments Inc., which runs exchange-traded funds with assets of $75 billion, sees trouble for the Fed.
His view is that the labor market will keep gaining ground in its rebound from the pandemic, and that the median September dot may show a hike in 2022. That bodes for higher yields, a flatter curve and makes floating-rate notes appealing, he said.
The median of economists’ projection is for a gain of 725,000 jobs in August, a slowdown from June and July but well above the average for 2021. Of course, with millions still out of work relative to pre-pandemic levels, the Fed may prove to take longer to lift rates than traders expect, especially given the central bank’s “broad and inclusive” maximum-employment goal. But the market may be about to challenge that approach.
“We are going to be all of a sudden talking about rate hikes potentially next year, and that is where the focus of the bond market is going to go,” Flanagan said. “The dot plot will be the Fed’s initial message for its forward guidance on rates. And then it will begin to come from Fedspeak — which is when the rubber will really meet the road.”
(Updates Treasuries spread level.)
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