The New York Federal Reserve established under the Dodd-Frank law an Investment Advisory Committee on Financial Markets. The committee, composed of a lot of well-known leaders from hedge funds and major investment firms, tells the Fed what they see in the markets and economy. They last met in April, and the minutes were released around May 18.
What’s interesting is that the committee members apparently complained a lot about the negative effects that zero interest rates are having on the markets. The members said that the markets were not pricing in an earlier-than-expected tightening of Fed policy and that many investors and especially certain market sectors were vulnerable to an unexpected change in policy or increase in interest rates. In other words, investors are reaching for yield and leveraging.
Is it a coincidence that shortly after the meeting interest rates began rising, culminating in a very bad month of May for bond investors? Did this discussion cause Ben Bernanke to change his testimony to Congress in May, testimony that caused a number of market observers to worry that the Fed soon would end quantitative easing? Did some of these committee members begin selling bonds are this meeting?
The meeting concluded with a discussion of the current state of investor positioning for a potential rise in interest rates. The business model of agency REITs was viewed as vulnerable to any sharp rise in rates, given relatively high leverage and perceived duration mismatch between assets and liabilities. Regional banks were also cited as having some sensitivity to losses in the case of a sharp rise in rates, particularly as banks have added higher-yielding assets to their portfolios in the low rate environment. Finally, members discussed risks associated with the potential reaction of ret ail investors to a sharp rise in rates. Note was made of the larger footprint of retail accounts in credit markets given rising allocations to fixed income instruments over recent years.
The Fed also has a Federal Advisory Council composed of bankers from around the country. The minutes of its recent meeting also are very interesting and provide a great deal of detail about the economy, though the information is anecdotal.
There are potential risks associated with current policy. The Fed’s securities purchases have reduced mortgage yields and, to a lesser extent, Treasury yields. Current low bond yields are disruptive to management of fixed-income portfolios, retirement funds, consumer savings, and retirement planning. They may encourage unsophisticated investors to take on undue risk to achieve better returns. MBS purchases account for over 70% of gross issuance, causing price distortion and volatility in the MBS market. Fixed-income investors worry that attractive mortgage-backed securities are in very tight supply. Higher premium coupons carry too much exposure to prepayments, potentially led by new government support programs for housing. Many are concerned about the Fed’s significant presence in the market. They have underweighted MBS in favor of corporate, municipal, and emerging-market bonds. There is also concern about the possibility of a breakout of inflation, although current inflation risk is not considered unmanageable, and of an unsustainable bubble in equity and fixed-income markets given current prices.