LONDON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - The great unwinding of bloated
central bank balance sheets could start as soon as next week.
While investors have been in thrall to the U.S. Federal
Reserve's hawkish anti-inflation twist in 2022, the Bank of
England is widely expected to hike UK interest rates for the
second time in less than three months next Thursday and double
its main policy rate to 0.5% in the process.
In August, the Bank announced it would start reducing its
balance sheet once base rates hit 0.5% - much lower than the
1.5% threshold it had flagged previously.
Unlike other central banks, there's more pressure on the
Bank of England to run down its balance sheet once rates rise
because its main policy rate is the very rate it pays commercial
banks for the central bank reserves created via bond buying.
The resulting maturity mismatches on BoE assets and
liabilities means sharply rising interest rates and a flattening
yield curve could see the BoE incur losses the Treasury
ultimately has to cover.
The government's budget watchdog - the Office for Budget
Responsibility - estimates that a percentage point increase in
rates could lift consolidated public sector liabilities by as
much as half a percent of gross domestic product in just 12
But the combination of higher policy rates and stepping back
from the bond market at the same time could be quite a squeeze
for financial markets and the wider economy.
Much like the Fed, the process of so-called 'quantitative
tightening', or QT, will be passive at first -- the Bank will
simply stop re-investing coupon payments and maturing gilts and
reduce its holdings as they come due. Outright selling of
securities is probably some distance off and will probably
depend on how markets react to passive QT first.
And its this last bit makes it all feel like a laboratory
experiment for the central banking community as a whole.
They have been here before with the Fed in 2018 and it was
far from smooth. Markets wobbled badly by the end of that year.
But this BoE move will mark the first balance sheet retreat
since the massive government borrowing explosion everywhere
around the pandemic - and will be an important marker in
assessing just how sustainable those outsize debts will be.
For the Bank it leaves a sizeable additional hole in the
government bond market for private investors to fill. And
economists are unsure about just how well the UK economy will be
able to absorb a whole host of policy reversals this year - from
higher borrowing and mortgage rates to higher taxes and soaring
household energy costs.
For other markets, much hinges on how the already aggressive
BoE tightening currently priced covers all that.
HSBC's Dominic Bunning reckons the first rundown of the
Bank's balance sheet - which ballooned to more than 40% of UK
gross domestic product during the pandemic - will be a "big
step" but won't see a "sudden jolt" in debt yields or sterling.
HSBC estimates that the run off will be relatively gentle at
first, with the 72 billion pounds ($96 billion) that passive QT
will pare off the balance sheet by the end of next year less
than 10% of the Bank's total holdings.
Bunning adds that although the Fed will start later, its
passive QT will be much faster over that period - with almost
15% likely to go by the end of 2023.
What's more, he reckons already aggressive pricing of UK
rates markets probably covers this "double tightening" effect
right now and the so-called 'terminal rate' for Bank of England
hikes will remain below the Fed's. There was little historical
evidence that switching foreign investor gilt buying for the
BoE's absence will lift the pound, Bunning added.
Sterling's steep slide against dollar this week even as
markets braced for next Thursday's BoE meeting and two-year gilt
yields hit their highest in 10 years speaks to that. The UK
yield curve from two to 10 years remains at its flattest since
the early stages of the pandemic - a third of where it was in
the middle of last year.
Deutsche Bank's Sanjay Raja says the Bank is clearly more
worried that accelerating wage rises will entrench the hottest
UK inflation rate in decades as labour and goods supply problems
persist well into the new year.
Even one of the more dovish Bank policymakers Catherine Mann
last week acknowledged the Bank now had to "lean against" these
But Raja says the early tightening moves - combined with the
hit to UK demand from energy prices and tax rises - should allow
the Bank to slow the pace of policy rate hikes even if it were
to more actively sell down its balance sheet as rates hit 1.0%.
Deutsche expects another rate hike in August, with two more
six months apart in 2023 - taking the terminal rate to 1.25%.
But there are clearly risks to this, given the way the
market is already priced. Futures markets already see rates at
1.25% by March next year and a terminal rate about 1.5% in June.
"While not our base case at this stage, a slightly more
aggressive wind down of the Bank's balance sheet should not be
discounted and indeed looks a little more likely than before,"
The author is editor-at-large for finance and markets at Reuters
News. Any views expressed here are his own
(By Mike Dolan, Twitter: @reutersMikeD; Editing by Edmund