Business / Financial Markets

Christine Lagarde replacing bond angel Mario Draghi at ECB just as monetary policy nears limits

by Liz Capo Mccormick and James Hirai

Bloomberg

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has been the bond market’s best friend, but investors aren’t expecting the same support from his successor, Christine Lagarde.

Since Draghi took the helm of the ECB eight years ago, Europe’s sovereign bonds have surged, with German debt returning 27 percent and that of Ireland almost 90 percent, Bloomberg Barclays indexes show. It has been a dream trade. Draghi cut rates two days after his tenure began and went on to live up to his famous pledge in 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to hold the euro area together. He oversaw trillions in bond buying, the introduction of negative rates and measures to support banks.

Thursday’s gathering of the bank’s governing council will be Draghi’s last before his time as president ends on Oct. 31. Lagarde arrives just as monetary policy appears to be reaching its limits. The former head of the International Monetary Fund has praised the ECB’s stimulus but may ask governments for fiscal support to help energize the euro-area economy. While sweeping increases in public spending are doubtful, the prospect of greater supply that any such measures would bring could threaten the record-breaking rally for the region’s bonds.

“ECB monetary policy is probably reaching the point of diminishing effects,” said Tracy Chen, portfolio manager and head of structured credit at Brandywine Global Investment Management LLC, which oversees $75 billion in assets. “Lagarde prefers the use of fiscal policy more than Draghi did. There is room for a further sell-off in sovereign debt.”

The impact of Draghi’s expansive monetary policy has left an enduring mark on German government bonds, the region’s benchmark securities. The rate on 10-year bonds was around 2 percent when Draghi took up his role at the ECB and then tumbled to an unprecedented minus 0.74 percent this year as Germany’s entire yield curve turned negative. Italy’s bonds show an even more impressive trajectory, falling from almost 7.5 percent in 2011 to 0.75 percent this year. And so Lagarde takes the helm with bond yields near all-time lows, making it hard for any central banker to push them down further.

Optimism that the U.S. and China may reach an initial trade deal plus the diminishing risk of a hard Brexit have already helped lift government debt yields globally this month. Germany’s 10-year rate has risen to minus 0.37 percent. U.S. benchmark 10-year note yields hover at about 1.79 percent, up from lows last month of 1.43 percent.

At the ECB’s September gathering, the central bank announced the restart of asset purchases, cut its deposit rate to minus 0.5 percent and eased the terms of its program of long-term bank loans. But the decision also sparked a revolt on the governing council, with some policymakers seeing the resumption of bond purchases as excessive. After last month’s fresh dose of ECB monetary easing, strategists expect no further policy changes this week. Futures aren’t pricing in any further ECB rate cuts in the foreseeable future either.

“There might be a degree of reluctance to price further easing, even in light of increasing economic gloom, given the increasing awareness that monetary policy has reached the limits of what it can do and would like to pass on the baton to fiscal policies,” Antoine Bouvet, a senior rates strategist at ING Bank NV, wrote in a note.

Still, large-scale fiscal stimulus from Germany is a remote possibility, though officials in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government have some options in the pipeline. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has argued that the government is ready to act in the event of an economic crisis — which it doesn’t see as an imminent risk.

Of course, Draghi doesn’t get all the credit for the record-breaking rally in euro-area bonds. U.S. Treasury debt has gained about 18 percent during in the past eight years. Investors’ persistent search for safety has also been a reason for a fall in yields, with rates turning negative on around $13 trillion in global debt.

That has helped the longest-maturity government bonds lead the advance this year. In the Draghi era’s world of ultralow rates, they offer the highest returns for a safe asset, standing out to yield-hungry investors. And with little inflation to eat into returns and the global economy growing weaker by the day, yield curves have been flattening. That is a sign that the region’s economy could struggle to expand over the long term, leaving it stuck with low interest rates and a lack of inflation, a trend known as Japanification, after the country that is most associated with the trap.

Unlike the ECB, the Federal Reserve is seen as having plenty of monetary firepower remaining — with the third interest-rate cut this year likely when policymakers gather next week. In this context, U.S. Treasuries have outperformed their German counterparts this year.

According to forecasts from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., 10-year German bund yields will by the end of next year have risen to minus 0.2 percent. The firm’s strategists expect the yield gap in Treasuries over bunds to keep narrowing, given the Fed’s greater bandwidth to ease.

“With Mario Draghi, you really had the feeling at one point that he was master of the universe,” said Markus Allenspach, head of fixed-income research and a member of the investment committee at Zurich-based Julius Baer. “Central bank officials are now kind of moving to the second row, seeing their job as to not kill the expansion but that they alone cannot stimulate the economy. Lagarde enters the field now, with a lot of new ideas.”