Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz, parent company of PIMCO, is one of the most well-known economists today. He’ll be sharing some of his keen insights into the markets at InsideETFs next month in Florida, and here, offers some of his thoughts on the economy and on the biggest challenge facing financial advisors. (But don’t hold your breath for a major scoop: He’s still not talking about whether he’s interested in the role of Federal Reserve vice chairman—a position he’s said to be in the running for. We’ll just have to wait and see.)
ETF.com: Most economic outlooks seem to suggest more earnings growth, more global expansion in 2018. But what does the relatively flat yield curve say about the macroeconomic environment?
Mohamed El-Erian: It says less about the macroeconomic environment than it did in the past. I'm not with those who are worried the curve has flattened so much this year, because technical influences are playing a very large role—and two in particular are dominating.
One is a spillover effect of continued large purchases of securities by the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. And two is a pickup in liability-driven investing, in which investors who’ve done very well on their stock holdings are de-risking their portfolios. They’re selling their stocks at record levels and covering or immunizing their liabilities by buying bonds. This isn’t about maximizing return; it’s about prudently covering your liabilities.
These two technical influences are really important, and they explain why the curve has flattened even though the economy and its prospects have improved.
ETF.com: Why is this happening? Is it unusual to see a focus away from maximizing returns?
El-Erian: No. Different investors have different risk preferences and risk appetites. And for those who have long-dated liabilities, if they don't fund it well enough, doing an LDI [liability-driven investing]-type approach is the right thing to do. And one thing the stock market has done is improved the funding levels of several institutional investors.
ETF.com: Do you expect this to continue in 2018 to the point where we should fear an inverted curve next year?
El-Erian: I don’t, because I think a few things are going to happen in 2018. First, the pace of securities purchases is coming down. We know the ECB is going to start halving its monthly purchases of securities from 60 million to 30 million euros a month. I suspect it will also signal a further reduction will happen later in the year. So, the first thing that's going to happen is less buying.
The second thing that's going to happen is I expect a pickup in the issuance of government bonds. So, technicals will slowly evolve. You're going to have a change in the balance. And the price is going to have to adjust accordingly.
ETF.com: In the U.S., will the automatic roll-off of bond positions and the shrinking balance sheet actually happen? Do you think the market can absorb the implied extra $50 billion a month of Treasuries if the Fed isn't going to be an indiscriminate buyer anymore?
El-Erian: Yes; I call this a beautiful normalization. And I'm adapting here a phrase that Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, used in a different context. A few years ago, he talked about beautiful deleveraging. I think the Fed is well-embarked on a beautiful normalization.
By that, I mean it's slowly raising interest rates. It will very slowly reduce its balance sheet. And importantly, it will do so without disrupting markets or derailing the economy.
I expect that to continue in 2018. And what will it look like? I suspect it would look like two to three more interest rate hikes. And they will stick to the timetable that they have set out for reducing their balance sheet.
The biggest risk from a central bank perspective is that we don't know what happens when four systemically important central banks start taking their foot off the accelerator. We know that the Fed can do it, and that the Fed has been doing it well. What we don't know is what happens if the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of Japan and the People's Bank of China all try to do it.
If you're looking for risk factors, it's less to do with the Fed and more to do with simultaneously having more than the Fed normalize at the same time. Now, that is a risk factor, not the baseline.
The other thing that's happening that very few people are talking about is that the tax bill allows for a handoff or for a rebalancing between fiscal and monetary policy. And that is a window of opportunity for the Fed to continue normalizing without disrupting markets and without derailing economic growth.