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Inflation and the bond market

23 February 2018

William Hobbs, Barclays’ Head of Investment Strategy, explores the prospects for inflation and capital markets, amidst diminishing economic slack and a surprisingly timed dollop of fiscal largesse in the US.

The value of investments can fall as well as rise and you could get back less than you invest. If you’re not sure about investing, seek independent advice.

What you’ll learn:

  • What to expect from US inflation over the coming months.
  • The view from central banks.
  • The outlook for the bond market.

The merest whiff of inflationary pressure, emitted by the US labour force, sent markets into a frenzy over the last couple of weeks. Last week’s US inflation data seemed to calm nerves a little, despite being above expectations.

What can we expect from inflation over the coming months? Further out, should investors sweat about a US administration busily throwing more logs on to a fire that doesn’t seem to need it? Will central bankers be forced to slam on the brakes before too long?

Remember that whatever happens in the weeks, months and years to come, the value of investments can fall as well as rise, and you could get back less than you put in.

Overreaction

The latest US wage data is in some senses a curious trigger for this so-far contained bout of inflation hysteria. True, headline wage growth surprised economists. However, this surprise came from a minority subset of the sampled workforce (supervisory employees), whose wage growth tends to be volatile anyway. Excluding this group, gains were more muted, in line with previous trends.

Wage gains would need to broaden materially over coming months for us to declare a breakout in employee compensation. Such a breakout should not come as a shock when and if it does occur - current levels of unemployment have historically been consistent with unevenly rising employee bargaining power. However, so far the data is too flimsy to make this call. Furthermore, history also tells us that the translation of that higher employee compensation into actual economy wide rising inflation is itself a slow and uneven process. Those trying to link this week’s Consumer Price Inflation (CPI) figure to the wage increases of two weeks ago should be ignored.

That is not it of course. The recently passed Republican tax cut, allied to last week’s bipartisan deal to raise US government spending, will add a hefty dose of stimulus to an already healthy economy. The combination of declining economic slack and a soaring fiscal deficit could certainly stoke price pressures, but likely further down the line.

On the flipside, some are suggesting that central bankers might even be deterred from their mission to normalise interest rates by these more unsettled markets. Our point would be that if policymakers were to allow market sentiment to dictate their actions, we would be unlikely to see the interest rate rises the economy increasingly needs (particularly in the context of the approaching fiscal expansion). Central banks should only care about market volatility to the extent that it feeds into the real economy. The pull back in risky assets so far is surely not helpful to short term investor returns, but the effect on investor wealth is not sufficient to dent consumer spending. Neither will it materially alter the appetite for private capital expenditure.

Conclusion

All in all, we do not yet see the signs of the kind of rise in inflationary pressure that would force central bankers to raise interest rates sharply. Nonetheless, the forces of inflation should slowly gather in coming years, amidst diminishing economic slack and that somewhat surprisingly timed dollop of fiscal largesse in the US. This should allow the various central banks in the developed world to slowly but surely wean their patients from the emergency monetary care which they have long since needed.

The bond market, which until six months ago seemed still transfixed by the threat of deflation, now looks better equipped to handle the reality of more rate hikes. Yields across all maturities likely have further to rise still; an era (of sorts) is ending. As with all such moments, investors can take a while to find their feet as perceived norms are upended. However, with the prospects for economic growth still looking firm, and signs of overheating still substantially absent, in our view shares continue to offer the most attractive returns. It’s important to remember though, that there are no guarantees, so there is always the possibility of a different outcome.

Some investments are cyclical, producing returns at particular times in the economic cycle, often faring better when the economy is doing well, and suffering when there is a downturn.

The most interesting cyclical sectors continue to be industrial, technology and financial businesses, and those regions most heavily dominated by those types of businesses. That leaves us leaning towards Asia within our Emerging Market allocation, and to Europe ex-UK as well as the US within our Developed equity exposure. Within fixed income investments, we continue to have a lower allocation to both high quality government bonds, known as gilts in the UK, and investment grade bonds, which are bonds considered by credit ratings agencies such as Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s to be lower risk. Bonds which are rated from AAA down to BBB are classified as ‘investment grade’ and are deemed to be lower risk.. For the moment, we continue to recommend taking a carefully measured approach to the risk of defaults from bonds to boost real returns in this space.

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