May 19, 2014 / 11:38 AM / 4 years ago

Any ECB bond-buying could halt slide in euro zone debt yields

LONDON (Reuters) - Any European Central Bank move to print money could raise investors’ expectations for euro zone inflation and growth, pushing German Bund yields higher and potentially halting a two-year-old rally in peripheral debt.

The construction site of the new headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) is seen from the observation deck of the "Maintower" in Frankfurt, April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Euro zone bonds have gained in recent weeks on growing expectations the ECB will eventually start buying government debt with new money to help bring inflation back to its target of just under 2 percent from 0.7 percent in April.

The central bank would have to pay a high price for those bonds and investors are buying them now with a view to selling them to the ECB for a profit later.

But if the ECB embarked on a programme of quantitative easing, or QE, investors would then have to consider that it was intended to boost longer-term inflation and growth and yields on benchmark 10-year bonds would have to adjust higher.

“If you start credible QE the market has to price a non-zero probability it would work, and that means Bund yields would rise,” said Laurence Mutkin, global head of G10 rates strategy at BNP Paribas.

He said any QE would also raise the floor for yields on debt issued by fragile euro zone economies. While the gap between Bund yields and peripheral yields could narrow, outright peripheral yields “had less scope to fall”.

Marco Brancolini, rates analyst at RBS, said bond yields also rise when central banks launch bond-buying programmes because investors tend to see it as the final act in a monetary policy easing cycle.

“Once the easing cycle bottoms down, the market has no more easing information to price in and starts looking forward to the hiking cycle,” he said.

ECB policymakers have said QE is a possibility but that any programme remains far off and could be tricky to design given the peculiarities of the currency union.

Reuters reported last week that the ECB is preparing a package of policy options for its June 5 meeting, including cuts in all its interest rates and targeted measures aimed at boosting lending to small- and mid-sized firms.

YIELD OUTLOOK

In the United States, the Federal Reserve has launched three QE programmes in the past six years. Each time U.S. 10-year T-note yields rose by roughly 1 percentage point from the moment QE was announced before pausing.

Analysts say a rise of 1 percentage point in Bund yields from the current 1.30 percent is unlikely, given that growth prospects in the euro zone are weaker than in the United States.

Gerard Moerman, head of rates and money markets at Aegon Asset Management, said he would probably be a seller of Bunds if the ECB launched QE, but he would be a “happy” buyer once yields hit 2 percent.

Brancolini at RBS said Bund yields could fall towards 1.10-1.15 percent in anticipation of QE, then bounce.

“We see fair value nearer 1.50 percent. In the event that QE is actually undertaken, we would tell investors to sell after the announcement,” he added.

Mutkin at BNP Paribas looks at the difference between the yield on a conventional bond and that on a similarly-dated inflation-linked bond - the so-called breakeven rate, which is a measure of the market’s inflation expectations.

In the United States, after each QE programme, 10-year breakeven rates moved back to their pre-crisis average. Assuming a similar phenomenon would arise in Europe, Mutkin estimates breakeven rates could rise by 60 basis points.

This means investors would have to add 60 bps to nominal 10-year Bund yields to account for the change in inflation expectations. The actual rise in yields would be slightly smaller, however, because the amount of Bunds available in the market would shrink once the ECB starts buying.

Mutkin expects QE to tighten the yield spread of Italian and Spanish bonds over Bunds by 40-50 basis points, with most of the narrowing driven by the rise in Bund yields.

ECB CREDIBILITY

The validity of such forecasts depends on “how credibly” the ECB implements any QE programme, Mutkin said.

Whether markets perceive an ECB QE programme to be credible or not mainly relates to its size. Analysts at major banks work with scenarios ranging from the ECB spending a few hundred billion euros to more than 1 trillion euros on government bonds and other assets.

Taking the third U.S. QE programme as a benchmark and adjusting it for the smaller euro zone economy, the Bruegel think-tank proposes the ECB should start with a 35 billion euro a month programme, which should be revised every three months.

Anything smaller may be seen as "too timid" by the market, Bruegel said in a research paper. r.reuters.com/keh49v

Michael Krautzberger, who heads the euro fixed income team at BlackRock, also said size matters.

“The stronger the stimulus is and the more credible the ECB is viewed by market, the higher the chance that longer dated inflation expectations pick up and Bund yields rise modestly.”

Reporting by Marius Zaharia; Graphics by Vincent Flasseur; Editing by Catherine Evans

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