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Money Moves Markets

Fed tapering: why the 2013-14 playbook could be misleading

September 29, 2021 by Simon Ward

US Treasury yields have risen sharply since Fed Chair Powell’s signal last week of a likely tapering decision at the November or December FOMC meeting. The move higher mainly reflects an increase in real yields, with inflation break-evens range-bound – see chart 1.

Chart 1

The reaction recalls a surge in nominal and real yields when former Chair Bernanke signalled that the Fed was considering tapering in Congressional testimony on 21 May 2013. Inflation breakevens, which had been falling into the announcement, declined further before recovering – chart 2.

Chart 2

Bernanke’s signal was a catalyst for real yields – which had reached negative levels similar to recently – to return to positive territory. The yield surge triggered a short-lived “risk-off” move in markets, focused on emerging markets and credit (the “taper tantrum”).

The market response spooked the Fed, causing the taper decision to be delayed until December 2013. When tapering finally started in January 2014, nominal and real yields embarked on a sustained decline. Inflation breakevens moved sideways but also fell later in 2014.

Cyclical sectors of equity markets outperformed defensive sectors between Bernanke’s May announcement and the start of tapering in January.

The view here, though, is that investors should be cautious about drawing parallels between 2013-14 and now.

The economic backdrop is a key difference. The global manufacturing PMI new orders index was about to embark on a significant rise as Bernanke gave his taper signal in May 2013 – chart 3. So it is difficult to disentangle the taper effect on yields from the usual correlation with cyclical momentum.

Chart 3

Economic momentum is slowing currently, with money trends suggesting a further PMI decline into early 2022.

This suggests that 1) the yield increase won’t mirror 2013 because the taper announcement effect is offset by a weakening cyclical backdrop, and 2) any rise in real yields could be dangerous for cyclical assets because – in contrast to 2013 – a higher discount rate is unlikely to be balanced by positive economic / earnings news.