Yet More Bumps on the Path to Normal
14 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2019
Date Written: December 1, 2018
Financial markets swung widely, eventually netting a sharp correction, during the period under review, which started in mid-September. Asset prices fell across the board and US government yields widened in October before retracing that increase and dropping further as the selloff of risk assets spread. Volatility and term premia jumped. A further round of turbulence, this time accompanied by lower yields, hit markets in December. The repricing took place amid mixed signals from global economic activity and the gradual, yet persistent, tightening of financial conditions. It also reflected the ebb and flow of ongoing trade tensions and heightened political uncertainty in the euro area. These bumps were a reminder of the narrow path that central banks are treading in their quest for policy normalisation, in a generally challenging policy environment.
Financial conditions became somewhat tighter in the United States. In October, US 10-year government bond yields consistently traded above the 3% threshold that had capped this benchmark during the past 12 months. Higher yields persisted through most of November, driven by real yields, before falling below 3% in early December. Risk premia, including the term premium, picked up and search for yield abated. Spearheaded by the technology sector, US equity valuations dived in October, despite good quarterly earnings announcements. Stock prices were volatile in November and fell again in December. Investors appeared unnerved by poor forward visibility of results, against the background of trade tensions, weakening global conditions and the Federal Reserve’s determination to move forward with gradual policy normalisation. Corporate spreads widened, particularly for segments of lower credit quality.
The repricing of risk assets was global. US stock markets dragged down those in other advanced and emerging market economies, in what turned out to be a widespread stock market rout. In Europe, corporate spreads also increased materially, especially for financial firms. In particular, bank valuations came under renewed pressure as political uncertainties grew, notably concerning the Italian budget and, to a lesser extent, Brexit.
After a summer marked by capital outflows and country-level stress, financial conditions remained tight but relatively steady in emerging market economies (EMEs). Currencies depreciated further vis-à-vis the US dollar early in the quarter, reflecting expectations of tightening by the Federal Reserve. But the sharp drop in oil prices provided some relief for oil-importing countries, after an unusual period when both oil and the dollar had gained strength. Portfolio outflows generally waned in EME fixed income, and local currency bond spreads eased.
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