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Mnuchin defends ending crisis lending tools amid split with Fed

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Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury secretary, was on Friday battling accusations that he had made America more vulnerable to a financial crisis, after breaking with the Federal Reserve and refusing to renew some of its crisis lending facilities.

The move by Mr Mnuchin, in defiance of the central bank’s wishes for a full extension of its emergency credit programmes, unsettled investors already worried that the surge in coronavirus cases and fading fiscal support has weakened the recovery.

The Treasury secretary’s decision also fuelled criticism that US President Donald Trump is seeking to constrain the incoming Biden administration’s capacity to tackle the economic fallout from the pandemic, as part of a broader effort to delegitimise and damage the future Democratic presidency.

In an interview with CNBC, Mr Mnuchin defended the step to wind down the facilities at the end of the year, saying it was “not a political issue” and there was “a lot of firepower left” to respond to financial trouble.

“We said: ‘these are emergency tools, and when the emergency is over let’s put them away’,” Mr Mnuchin said. “Well, the medical emergency may not be over but . . . financial conditions are in great shape,” he added, citing the strong performance recently of corporate and municipal debt as well as equities.

Mr Mnuchin announced that he would cut some of the crisis facilities — which helped prop up financial markets since the start of the pandemic — in a letter to Jay Powell, the Fed chair, on Thursday night.

While the Treasury secretary supported the renewal of schemes to help short-term debt markets like commercial paper and money market mutual funds, he called for the termination of facilities to buy corporate and municipal debt, extend loans to medium-sized businesses and support asset-backed securities.

The Fed immediately fired back by saying it would prefer that the “full suite” of its tools “continue to serve their important role as a backstop for our still-strained and vulnerable economy”. The statement marked a rare public split between Mr Powell and Mr Mnuchin, who have generally had good relations throughout the crisis.

On Friday morning, Charles Evans, the president of the Chicago Fed, added to the criticism of the Treasury department from the central bank. “I think that backstop role might be important for quite some time, so it’s disappointing,” Mr Evans told CNBC in reaction to the decision.

Kate Bedingfield, Mr Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, slammed Mr Mnuchin in a statement on Friday afternoon, calling his actions “deeply irresponsible”.

“We should be reinforcing the government’s ability to respond and support the economy — not undermining it. This follows a disturbing pattern of this administration putting petty grievances ahead of the health and safety of the American people,” she said.

Federal Reserve's alphabetti spaghetti of emergency measures updated as of November 18th.

Mr Mnuchin was also criticised by Larry Summers, one of his predecessors at the helm of the US Treasury under Bill Clinton. Mr Summers said Mr Mnuchin’s action was “just the opposite” of how Hank Paulson, the Treasury secretary under George W Bush, handled the White House transition during the financial crisis after the 2008 election.

He said Mr Mnuchin had allied himself with Mr Trump’s “burn the house down” approach, and Treasury officials should consider resigning.

“We cannot predict when or if a panicky cascade will happen in credit markets,” Mr Summers wrote in a tweet. “Aftershocks after financial crises (and earthquakes) are not uncommon. Removing a capacity to respond as Steven Mnuchin has sought to is wrong.”

Mr Mnuchin said fears that markets were being left without a backstop were overblown because the Fed’s short-term funding facilities would remain in place and others could be reactivated from existing Treasury resources without congressional approval. “I consider that to be a pretty good bazooka,” he said.

Line chart of Year-to-date performance (%) showing US stocks have rebounded from their March lows

The Treasury secretary did not concede that he would be passing the department’s baton to the Biden administration in January, reflecting Mr Trump’s own refusal so far to accept the election result. Mr Mnuchin also said the unused funds from the lapsing programmes should be used for a new round of stimulus.

“We don’t need this money to buy corporate bonds, we need this money to go help small businesses that are still closed, or hurt through no fault of their own. For people who are going to be on unemployment, and unemployment is running out,” he said.

Mr Mnuchin said he and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, would be discussing the possible stimulus options with Republican leaders in Congress, though no negotiations are set yet with Democrats.

US equity futures dropped after Mr Mnuchin’s letter was released on Thursday, but markets regained their footing on Friday, although economically-sensitive stocks lagged. The benchmark S&P 500 was 0.2 per cent lower by lunchtime in New York, as shares of industrials goods behemoths like Raytheon and Boeing and banks including Wells Fargo fell. Junk bonds also weakened marginally.

“This is a very unusual show of public discord between the Fed and Treasury,” said Gershon Distenfeld, the co-head of fixed income at AllianceBernstein. “Obviously there is some risk the withdrawal of this backstop spooks [investors].”

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Bond spreads collapse as investors rush into corporate debt

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The premium above super-safe US Treasuries that investors are demanding to buy corporate debt has dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade.

The collapse in the difference between yields — or spread — is a sign that investors are growing increasingly confident that recent rises in inflation will not hinder the booming economic recovery.

The spreads between US Treasury and corporate bond yields have tightened markedly this year, as investors gained confidence and clamoured to own even marginally higher yielding assets in a low return world.

That spread compression, which indicates the level of risk investors see in lending to companies compared to the US government, had come under pressure from the spectre of higher inflation from mid-April to May.

However, an increasing number of investors are coming around to the Fed’s mantra that price rises will prove transitory as the economy reopens after the pandemic, pushing measures of expected inflation lower.

“The Fed has been controlling the transitory narrative which has provided confidence to corporate bond investors,” said Adrian Miller, chief market strategist at Concise Capital Management. “After all, corporate bond investors are more focused on the expected strong growth path.”

Line chart of Spread on US corporate bonds, by rating (percentage points) showing Investors are demanding less yield to lend to US companies

Confidence in the economic recovery was further bolstered on Wednesday as Fed officials signalled a shift toward the eventual repeal of crisis policy measures, embracing a more optimistic outlook of America’s rebound. The more hawkish tone from Fed chair Jay Powell — including comments that “price stability is half of our mandate” at the Fed — has helped to mollify concerns that inflation could run out of control, forcing a more abrupt response from the central bank.

The spread between US Treasury yields and investment grade corporate bond yields fell 0.02 percentage points to 0.87 per cent on Wednesday, according to ICE BofA Indices, its lowest level since 2007, and was unchanged on Thursday. For lower rated — and therefore riskier — high-yield bonds, the spread fell 0.05 percentage points to 3.12 per cent, below a post-crisis low last set in October 2018. It widened modestly to 3.15 per cent on Thursday.

The slide in spreads has been buoyed by the central bank’s accommodative policies through the pandemic crisis as well as the federal government’s multitrillion-dollar pandemic aid package. Financial conditions in the US are close to their easiest on record, according to a popular index run by Goldman Sachs, which has spurred a wave of corporate borrowing by riskier junk-rated businesses.

Some 373 junk-rated companies have borrowed through the nearly $11tn US corporate debt market so far this year, including companies hard hit by the pandemic like American Airlines and cruise operator Carnival. Collectively the risky cohort has raised $277bn, a record pace and up 60 per cent from year ago levels, according to data provider Refinitiv.

Column chart of Annual proceeds from high-yield US corporate bond sales ($bn) showing Risky junk-rated US companies are issung debt at a record pace

However the fall in spreads and investors’ perception of risk has not been enough to outweigh an overall rise in yields, which have been jolted higher by the prospect of rising interest rates as investors adjusted to a quicker pace of policy tightening from the Fed.

Higher rated debt, which is safer but offers less of a spread to cushion investors against a jump in Treasury yields, tends to suffer more in high growth, rising interest rate environments. High-yield bonds on the other hand tend to benefit, with the booming economy making it less likely that companies will go bust.

“For the time being people are not at all fearing the price action of a move higher in yields,” said Andrzej Skiba, head of US credit at BlueBay Asset Management. “Companies are doing really well and we are seeing a meaningful recovery in earnings.”

Investment-grade bond yields have moved 0.3 percentage points higher to 2.08 per cent since the start of the year, compared with a decline of 0.27 percentage points to 3.97 per cent for high-yield bonds.

Bank of America analysts expect the two markets to keep coming closer together, projecting that investment-grade spreads will widen to 1.25 per cent and high-yield bond spreads will continue to decline to 3.00 per cent in the coming months.

However, while optimism about the US recovery abounds the continued zeal for lower-quality corporate debt has caused consternation in some quarters. Investors worry that precarious companies are being offered credit at interest rates that don’t account for the high levels of risk involved.

“It’s very important for us that the yield we receive on a high-yield bond offers an appropriate level of compensation for the credit risks of investing. When yields are as low as this, that naturally becomes harder to say,” said Rhys Davies, a high yield portfolio manager at Invesco. “It’s quite simple — the lower the yield on the high yield market, the more carefully investors need to navigate the market.”



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Global stocks slip and bonds weaken after Fed signals tighter policy

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Global stock markets dipped, European government bonds dropped and the dollar strengthened sharply after US central bank officials brought forward the anticipated timing of the Federal Reserve’s first post-pandemic interest rate rise.

The FTSE All-World index of developed and emerging market stocks, which hit a closing record on Monday, headed for its third session of losses on Thursday, falling 0.6 per cent.

The Federal Reserve said on Wednesday that most of its officials expected a rate rise in 2023, against earlier predictions of 2024, as the US economy recovered strongly from the pandemic and consumer price inflation hit an annual rate of 5 per cent in May.

Fed chair Jay Powell also said the world’s most influential central bank was “talking about talking about” reducing the Fed’s $120bn-a-month asset-buying programme that has boosted financial markets since March last year.

The announcement rattled the US Treasury market on Wednesday, as the prospect of higher interest rates on cash lowered expected returns from fixed interest securities such as bonds, with traders in Europe following those moves in the next session.

“It was a hawkish surprise,” said Keith Balmer, multi-asset portfolio manager at BMO Global Asset Management. “Markets now see the Fed as stepping in to control inflation earlier than expected,” he added, following previous comments from Powell that suggested price rises above the central bank’s long-term 2 per cent target would be temporary.

Line chart of FTSE All-World index  showing Global stocks dip from record high

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against trading partners’ currencies, jumped 0.7 per cent after gaining a similar amount on Wednesday as traders anticipated higher returns from holding the world’s reserve currency. The euro lost 0.5 per cent against the dollar to $1.193.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which jumped 0.09 per cent on Wednesday evening to 1.58 per cent following the decision from the US central bank, moderated slightly in European trading hours to 1.558 per cent.

European bond yields, which move inversely to prices, raced higher as traders bet on other central banks following the Fed to rein in their crisis-era stimulus spending. The UK’s 10-year gilt yield rose 0.09 percentage points to 0.828 per cent. Germany’s equivalent Bund yield added 0.04 percentage points to minus 0.164 per cent.

Stock markets were less affected by the rate increase forecast as investors focused on the strength of the post-pandemic economic recovery and bought up shares in businesses expected to benefit from higher borrowing costs.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index, which rallied to an all-time high on Wednesday, fell 0.3 per cent on Thursday. Shares in European banks, which benefit from higher interest rates that enable lenders to make wider profit margins, gained 1.2 per cent.

The next US rate rise “will be happening at a time when the [global] economy is able to stand on its feet”, said Zehrid Osmani, manager of Martin Currie’s global portfolio trust.

Futures markets signalled the S&P 500 index would slip just 0.2 per cent at the New York opening bell after declining 0.5 per cent on Wednesday, while the top 100 stocks on the technology-focused Nasdaq Composite would lose 0.3 per cent.

Elsewhere in markets, the Norwegian krona rose 0.1 per cent against the euro to €0.984 despite the Norges Bank saying it was likely to raise interest rates in September. Some traders had expected an increase on Thursday.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose 0.1 per cent to $74.48 a barrel.



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Hawkish Federal Reserve forecasts jolt Treasury market

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US equities slid and Treasury yields surged after policymakers at the Federal Reserve signalled that they expected to lift interest rates in 2023, a year earlier than previously thought.

The benchmark S&P 500 fell 0.6 per cent, led by a decline in the shares of technology companies including Oracle, Microsoft and Facebook. The Nasdaq Composite was also down 0.6 per cent.

The equity market decline accompanied a sell-off in the $21tn Treasury market, where the yield on the benchmark 10-year note rose 0.06 per cent to 1.56 per cent.

Among shorter-dated government bonds most sensitive to interest rate policy, there were even larger moves. The yield on the five-year note climbed 0.09 percentage points to 0.88 per cent, while the yield on the two-year note briefly hit its highest level in a year at 0.19 per cent.

“Just as the market was getting comfortable with a patient Fed and inflation considerably above target, the dot plot has shifted,” said Seema Shah, the chief strategist of Principal Global Investors, referring to the graph showing Fed officials’ interest rate predictions.

“Now it will be up to [Fed chair Jay] Powell and other Fed speakers to once again reassure markets that tightening in 2023 doesn’t need to be disruptive.”

The equity market rally over the past year has been in part predicated on rock-bottom interest rates, which the Fed has anchored near zero since the crisis began in March last year.

While policymakers at the US central bank showed that they could raise rates sooner than previously thought, they did not yet signal changes to the Fed’s $120bn-a-month asset buying programme, which investors are starting to expect will be tapered soon.

But markets have worried that signs of higher inflation, which Fed policymakers acknowledged in their economic projections published on Wednesday, could force the central bank’s hand.

“Given that the only takeaways from the Fed update involved higher rates, it follows intuitively that Treasuries are trading lower,” said Ian Lyngen, the head US interest rate strategist at BMO Capital Markets.

Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, added that the forecast for higher rates in 2023 meant that members of the Fed’s policy-setting committee “now are ready to talk tapering, so chair Powell is not going to be able to repeat his March/April stonewalling . . . We expect him just to acknowledge that the discussion is under way, but that a firm decision is a way off.”

The US dollar index climbed 0.4 per cent along with the uptick in Treasury yields. The pound fell 0.4 per cent against the dollar, while the euro slipped 0.7 per cent to $1.20.

European stocks finished at new records before the release of the Fed decision. The Stoxx Europe closed up 0.2 per cent for another all-time peak, the region-wide benchmark’s ninth session of back-to-back rises.

Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax rose 0.1 per cent, while both the CAC 40 in Paris and London’s FTSE 100 climbed 0.2 per cent.

Additional reporting by Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan in London

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