Fed Balance Sheet Primer, April 11, 2016

Fed Balance Sheet Primer

An excerpt below from today’s subscriber edition of Sevens Report.

Fed Balance Sheet Primer

Markets remain consumed by politics and geopolitics, but really the biggest macro surprise so far for 2017 came from the Fed last week, with the realization that they could begin to shrink their balance sheet in 2017. That event has potentially hawkish implications for bonds (bonds lower, yields higher), the dollar (higher) and stocks (increased headwind).

We initially warned about this possibility back in mid-March in our FOMC Preview. And, as we said back then, you’re going to be reading a lot more about this in the coming weeks, so I want to cover this topic more fully so that everyone has proper context.

Why Is The Fed Balance Sheet Important? The Fed balance sheet has ballooned over the past eight years given all the bonds it has purchased through the various QE programs. Unwinding that balance sheet without up-setting asset markets is quickly becoming the Fed’s highest priority.

To get specific, right now the Fed reinvests all the proceeds from a matured bond on its balance sheet—but that’s going to change. If the Fed gets $100 million in short-term Treasuries redeemed, right now it simply buys $100 million worth of new Treasuries. But when the Fed stops that reinvestment, that $100 million wouldn’t go back into the bond market, removing a source of demand.

The point is that when the Fed stops reinvesting principal, that will be potentially bond negative/yield positive, and that process needs to be managed very carefully considering the size of the balance sheet ($2.4 trillion in Treasuries, $1.7 trillion in mortgage backed securities).

When Will the Fed Stop Reinvesting All Bond Proceeds? Until last Wednesday, the unanimous answer would have been “2018.” But, following the Minutes, it’s looking more likely that the Fed could begin to end reinvestment of proceeds in December 2017.

Very Hawkish If:… Hawkish If:… Neutral If:… Dovish If:…

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What Will the Fed Stop Buying? Right now, the Fed rein-vests proceeds from both Treasuries and Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS), so the question facing markets is whether the Fed will stop reinvestments in just one of these two securities, or whether it will stop reinvestments in both. Until the Minutes, it was assumed the Fed would only begin halting reinvestments in MBS (that way they could further support Treasuries, the more critically important market).

Hawkish If: … Neutral If: …

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How Will the Fed Stop Reinvesting Proceeds? The major question here is whether the Fed will slowly reduce the amount of reinvestment gradually, or whether it will just halt reinvestments all together. To illustrate the point, if one week the Fed has $100 million in bonds paying off, will they reinvest $50 of the $100 and reduce that number gradually over time, or will they just not reinvest any of the $100?

Given Fed history, a gradual reduction is what everyone expects; however, in the Minutes they talked about zero reinvestment, and it seems like the Fed is getting a bit antsy to get policy closer to normal.

Hawkish If:… Neutral If:…

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Bottom Line

This topic isn’t exactly exciting, and it won’t grab the headlines, but it is shaping up to be one of the bigger market influences in 2017. The reason why is simple: No one knows what’s going to happen to the bond market once the Fed begins to remove itself. On a percentage basis, it’s not like the Fed dominates the daily trading in Treasury markets. Yet sentiment is a funny thing, and the Fed needs to manage the unwind of a $4.1 trillion balance sheet successfully, because the potential for some sort of a market dislocation (especially in the age of algorithms and HFTs) isn’t insignificant. So, please keep this primer as a reference point, because I would be shocked if the Fed balance sheet doesn’t cause some sort of volatility in 2017 (beyond just the Wednesday reversal the news caused last week).

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