Jean Boivin, Head of the BlackRock Investment Institute together with Elga Bartsch, Head of Macro Research, Vivek Paul, Senior Portfolio Strategist and Scott Thiel, Chief Fixed Income Strategist all part of the BlackRock Investment Institute, share their insights on global economy, markets and geopolitics. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.
The prospect of another large U.S. fiscal package has fed debates about potential economic overheating. We believe central banks for now have strong incentives to lean against any rapid rise in nominal yields even as inflation rises, supporting our tactically pro-risk stance. Yet rising debt levels may eventually pose risks to the low-rate regime. This is part of why we strategically underweight government debt.
The policy revolution to cushion the Covid shock has driven a record surge in public debt. This is a huge fiscal impulse on its own – but even more so relative to the size and the nature of the shock. We assess that the ultimate cumulative economic loss – what we have long held matters most for financial markets – will be roughly a quarter of that seen after the global financial crisis (GFC). Yet the discretionary fiscal response today is about four times larger, we estimate. See the chart above. Not only is the policy response this time far more overwhelming, but a large part of economic activity will restart on its own once the pandemic is under control, in our view. This is a key difference with the GFC. The objective of the current policy response has been different: it is not to stimulate growth, but to provide a bridge to the post-Covid world. Policymakers, academics, taxpayers and markets have been surprisingly relaxed about the large increase in debt – also a stark contrast to the aftermath of the GFC, when the focus shifted to austerity.
Record-low debt servicing costs help explain more relaxed attitudes to high public debt levels. Public debt in the U.S. is set to reach a record 135% of GDP, according to IMF forecasts. This is twice as high as in the 1990s, but financing costs are only half what they were then. How long will the tolerance of high debt – and the low-yield regime – last? For now we see the new nominal theme in play: a more muted response in nominal government bond yields to rising inflation. Central banks have committed to look through above-target inflation for a while. They may find it politically fraught to raise rates, even if inflation starts to look more concerning. The scars from 2013’s “taper tantrum,” against a backdrop of even higher indebtedness, also create inertia. And if a tantrum were to occur, central banks would quickly be forced to lean against it, in our view. This is why we have conviction the new nominal regime will last for some time – and are tactically pro-risk.
We had stressed in 2019 the importance of clear guardrails around the joint monetary/fiscal policy action. Without them it would be politically challenging to put the fiscal genie back in the bottle and allow central banks to rein in inflation. Over time, this could challenge the demand for government bonds as safe and liquid assets. Investors today pay a premium for holding government bonds for these perceived benefits. We don’t expect central banks to raise rates any time soon. Yet government bonds’ perceived safety could eventually come into question if a narrative took hold that high debt levels and rising inflation make it more risky. Longer-term yields may then start rising as investors demand a greater term premium – the excess yield that compensates them for holding long- over short-term debt. Central banks would initially lean against any yield spikes, in our view, but their ability to sustain such policy would be limited. Issuance of low- or zero-coupon longer term debt – as governments lock in historically low rates – makes bond holders more vulnerable to losses. Example: A one percentage point rise in 30-year German bund yields would spark twice the price loss today than a decade ago, we estimate.
The bottom line: Recent events have strengthened our new nominal thesis: real yields have declined even amid the prospect of almost $3 trillion in additional U.S. fiscal support. This supports our pro-risk stance over a tactical horizon. Whether the low-rate regime lasts will depend not only on monetary policy but on the perceived safety of government bonds. Markets may eventually demand a higher premium for government bonds, even if central banks are more tolerant of higher inflation. This, and reduced ballast properties with yields near lower bounds, is why we strategically underweight the asset class.
U.S. 10-year Treasury yields hit fresh 11-month highs above 1.2% as crude oil prices extended their rally and optimism was running high on the U.S. vaccine rollout and looming stimulus. Treasury yields have been climbing since September, but the magnitude has lagged that of the rise in inflation expectations during the period. Inflation-adjusted yields have been stable in negative territory – in line with our new nominal theme. U.S. stocks reached new record highs as global equities saw record weekly inflows.
Sentiment data in the U.S. and Europe could shed light on the status of the activity restart amid tightened restrictions. The preliminary Philly Fed sentiment data will be key to watch for signs of a manufacturing boost following renewed fiscal policy support. We expect the vaccine-led economic restart to re-accelerate this year as pent-up demand is unleashed.
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