One of the key themes that have emerged in the past year is that, having loaded up their balance sheets with tens of trillions in various assets, central banks are "running out of road." While it is a topic extensively discussed on these pages, going all the way back to 2014, a good summary of the practical limitations on central banks comes from the following series of charts from Deutsche Bank.
The first slide looks at the bond transmission mechanism, namely that central banks have become increasingly aware of the adverse impact of low bond yields on financial sector profitability; another aspect is that European pension liabilities as a % of market cap are at a 10-year high – and above the levels they reached in 2008, when the European market cap was at half the current level. This means that absent an independent rise in inflation expectations, central banks’ attempts to push up nominal bond yields (via less QE or faster hikes) risks leading to higher real bond yields as well; the implication is that equities tend to de-rate when real bond yields rise (i.e. the discount rate increases).
There is a limitation from the standpoint of markets as well: European 12-month forward P/E, at 14.9x, is around 20% above its 10-year average; DB notes that its P/E model suggests that this deviation is fully accounted for by the fact that real bond yields are 180bps below their 10-year average; more troubling is the admission that any removal of monetary accommodation would likely lead to a sharp rise in credit spreads to reflect the deterioration in fundamentals (with default rates now at 5.7%), while equity strategist note that accommodative monetary policy has driven aggregate bond and equity valuations to the highest level since 1800
In the third slide, DB points out that while equities would likely react positively to any rise in nominal bond yields driven by higher inflation expectations (rather than by higher real bond yields), underlying inflation is only likely to accelerate if growth accelerates to be clearly above potential (i.e. the output gap closes). Meanwhile, weakening growth momentum in the US points to downside risks for inflation, and that since the Chinese RMB is still around 10% overvalued – and any renewed devaluation is likely to weigh on DM inflation expectations.
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Ok fine, central banks are "running out of road", however at the same time they are terrified to rip (or even peel) the band-aid off. This has put the system in an unstable equilibrium: on one hand, central bankers - as even they admit - need to hand over the growth impulse over to governments, yet on the other hand, they terrified of even the smallest change to the status quo as they know they may undo some 7 years of "wealth effect" creation overnight.
How much longer can this charade continue?
While many would be quick to answer "indefinitely" that is not true, because with every bond, ETF or stock, purchased by central bankers they come to the point where they either monetize the entire lot, or they increasingly impair the functioning of the capital markets (just ask the dozens of marquee hedge funds that have shuttered in recent years).
Luckily, in a recent analysis, Ray Dalio's Bridgewater asked precisely this question, and even better, provided the answer to how much time is left until both the ECB and BOJ hit the limits on their existing programs.
As the chart below shows, assuming no changes to existing programs, the ECB and the BOJ, the two central banks most actively monetizing debt currently, have 8 and 26 months respectively, if they do no changes to their programs.
However, if incremental easing is layered on, like expanding the scope of their bond buying programs or purchasing equities even more aggressively, the total rises substantially. The final answer: 68 months, or just above 5 and a half years, in the case of the ECB, were it to steamroll all political opposition and monetize virtually every possible bond (and 20% of the equity market), and 48 months, or 4 years, in the case of the BOJ.
Which means for those market participants who have already torn most of their hair out from participating in a centrally planned "market" where nothing makes sense, get ready because, the insanity may last another 4 or 5 years longer...