Commentary by Alexis Gray, M.Sc., Vanguard Asia-Pacific senior economist

The Covid-19 pandemic made it abundantly clear that central banks had the tools to counter a dramatic fall-off in global economic activity and were willing to use them. That economies and financial markets were able to find their footing so quickly after a few downright scary months in 2020 was in no small part because of monetary policy that kept bond markets liquid and borrowing terms super-easy.

Now, as newly vaccinated individuals unleash their pent-up demand for goods and services on supplies that may initially struggle to keep up, questions naturally arise about resurgent inflation and interest rates, and what central banks will do next.

Vanguard’s global chief economist, Joe Davis, recently wrote how the coming rises in inflation are unlikely to spiral out of control and can support a more promising environment for long-term portfolio returns. Similarly, in forthcoming research on the unwinding of loose monetary policy, we find that central bank policy rates and interest rates more broadly are likely to rise, but only modestly, in the next several years.

yield-rises

Notes: Lift-off date is the projected date of increase in the short-term policy interest rate target for each central bank from its current low. Rates for 2025 and 2030 are Vanguard projections for each central bank’s policy rate.

Source: Vanguard forecasts as at 13 May 2021.

Our view that lift-off from current low policy rates may occur in some cases only two years from now reflects, among other things, an only gradual recovery from the pandemic’s significant effect on labour markets. (My colleagues Andrew Patterson and Adam Schickling wrote recently about how prospects for inflation and labour market recovery will allow the US Federal Reserve to be patient when considering when to raise its target for the benchmark federal funds rate).

Alongside rises in policy rates, Vanguard expects central banks, in our base-case “reflation” scenario, to slow and eventually stop their purchases of government bonds, allowing the size of their balance sheets as a percentage of GDP to fall back toward pre-pandemic levels. This reversal in bond-purchase programmes will likely put some upward pressure on yields.

We expect balance sheets to remain large relative to history, however, because of structural factors, such as a change in how central banks have conducted monetary policy since the 2008 global financial crisis and stricter capital and liquidity requirements on banks. Given these changes, we don’t expect shrinking central bank balance sheets to place meaningful upward pressure on yields. Indeed, we expect higher policy rates and smaller central bank balance sheets to cause only a modest lift in yields. And we expect that, through the remainder of the 2020s, bond yields will be lower than they were before the global financial crisis.

Three scenarios for 10-year bond yields

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Sources: Historical government bond yield data sourced from Bloomberg. Vanguard forecasts, as at 13 May 2021, generated from Vanguard’s proprietary vector error correction model.

We expect yields to rise more in the US than in the UK or the euro area because of a greater expected reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet compared with that of the Bank of England or the European Central Bank, and a Fed policy rate rising as high or higher than the others.

Our base-case forecasts for 10-year government bond yields at decade’s end reflect monetary policy that we expect will have reached an equilibrium—policy that is neither accommodative nor restrictive. From there, we anticipate that central banks will use their tools to make borrowing terms easier or tighter as appropriate.

The transition from a low-yield to a moderately higher-yield environment can bring some initial pain through capital losses within a portfolio. But these losses can eventually be offset by a greater income stream as new bonds purchased at higher yields enter the portfolio. To any extent, we expect increases in bond yields in the several years ahead to be only modest.   

I’d like to thank Vanguard economists Shaan Raithatha and Roxane Spitznagel for their invaluable contributions to this commentary.

Investment risk information

The value of investments, and the income from them, may fall or rise and investors may get back less than they invested.

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

Any projections should be regarded as hypothetical in nature and do not reflect or guarantee future results.

Funds investing in fixed interest securities carry the risk of default on repayment and erosion of the capital value of your investment and the level of income may fluctuate. Movements in interest rates are likely to affect the capital value of fixed interest securities. Corporate bonds may provide higher yields but as such may carry greater credit risk increasing the risk of default on repayment and erosion of the capital value of your investment. The level of income may fluctuate and movements in interest rates are likely to affect the capital value of bonds.

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