Emerging Markets, US Yields, Yellen and the ECB
Currencies and asset prices in the EM world have responded strongly and favorably during the past ten days to dovish Fed signals, sharply declining UST yields, and a string of predominantly helpful data releases out of the US and China. The ECB president, Mario Draghi, will have an opportunity to put an end to the party at his press briefing tomorrow, but we do not think he will. If anything, he may be slightly inclined to help halt the euro rally by conveying a dovish message, though we think he is more likely to be neutral. With uncannily poor timing we warned on these pages a week ago (12 July) of possible negative consequences for EM investors of the Fed’s and the ECB’s pending tightening of their balance sheet policies; but a few hours later those concerns were moved to the sidelines by the Fed Chair, Janet Yellen, as she offered Congress and the market new and soothing commentary on the recent low US inflation numbers. Her wording persuaded the broad investor community (and us) that she and her FOMC colleagues feel only halfheartedly committed to their plans for monetary policy tightening.

EM investors responded with enthusiasm. Yellen’s testimony set off a fall in yields on US Treasuries, depreciation of the dollar against most other currencies, and a bounce in the dollar price for EM assets across most of the world. Yesterday’s decision by Republicans in the US Senate to abandon their health care reform plans has further fueled the down move in US yields and the dollar. We still think investors will eventually switch their focus back towards concerns about the ECB’s and the Fed’s pending balance sheet reduction, but this month’s muted inflation data, Yellen’s soothing choice of words, the dwindling chances of US tax reform, and ECB President Draghi’s likely reluctance to push up bund yields (and the euro) at his press briefing tomorrow will probably ensure that investor concerns about potential eventual global monetary policy tightening stay on the sidelines for at least another couple of weeks, as the market waits for the release of further US inflation data that may (or may not) upset the apple cart.

In Yellen’s testimony on 12 July she used the word “partly” to describe the contribution to low US inflation that reflects one-off declines in certain price categories. Four weeks earlier she had used to word “significantly” in the same context. Though the distinction between the two words is subtle, the change of wording is likely to reflect a wish on the part of Yellen to send a signal to the market. In the prepared text for her Congressional testimony, Yellen used text that she had previously published. Text from her last FOMC press briefing was copied wordby-word, except for the replacement of “significantly” by “partly”. The switch of words suggests an increase in her doubt about the likelihood that inflation will really bounce back. US Treasuries rallied strongly in response to the word-switch.

A few days earlier, a batch of US labor market data had conveyed a picture of still-muted wage growth alongside still-strong employment growth. On Friday 7 July, when the data were released, UST yields initially rose by a couple of basis points as investors responded with greater force to the strength of the employment figures than to the muted nature of the wage numbers. However, yields began to drop slowly the following Monday and continued to do so Tuesday as investors swung their focus in the direction of the soft wage data. Thus, bond investors were already primed to question Yellen’s confidence in the prospect of an inflation bounce when she initiated her testimony to Congress. Once she delivered her dovish linguistic innovation (the switch from “significantly” to “partly”), UST yields dropped in earnest. By the end of Wednesday (12 July) ten-year yields were 7 bps lower than they had been by the end of the preceding Friday (7 July).