Federal Reserve policymakers meet again next week. As we forecasted last year, it’s very likely that we’re about to enter Phase Two of the Fed’s path to normalization: the unwinding of its balance sheet. The Federal Open Market Committee’s most recent statement noted that the process could get under way “relatively soon.” The markets have interpreted this to mean that the Fed will announce its intentions at next week’s meeting and follow through with implementation in October.

Our anticipation that 2017 would mark the transition from Phase One (raising the federal funds rate from 0.00%–0.25% to 1.00%–1.25%) to Phase Two was based on a view that the U.S. labor market would continue to gradually tighten this year and financial conditions improve, even without a strong rebound in inflation. Generally, that outlook was on point.

Shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet

Most market observers now anticipate an appropriate, gradual, and smooth unwinding of the Fed’s balance sheet that is unlikely to give the financial markets pause. I agree with “appropriate and gradual.” It’s the third adjective, “smooth,” that worries me.

To be fair, the Fed has taken a number of steps to mitigate market impacts:

  • A transparent forward-guidance strategy.
  • A slow schedule for unwinding—initially by just $6 billion per month of Treasuries and $4 billion of mortgage-backed securities (MBS). This will eventually rise to $30 billion per month and $20 billion per month, respectively, compared with average daily trading volume of $500 billion in the Treasury market and $200 billion in the MBS market.
  • An intent not to sell securities but simply to decrease the amount it reinvests from maturing securities.
  • A likelihood of settling on an optimal size for the balance sheet that is significantly higher than precrisis levels (we expect it to be between $3.0 trillion and $3.5 trillion, up from $800 billion).

Phase Two risks

To be clear, we believe that the Fed’s course of action—beginning to taper its balance sheet—is appropriate given the state of the U.S. labor market and the strength in financial conditions. But I believe we should all be prepared for a potential uptick in volatility during this monetary policy phase. No major central bank has yet successfully reversed quantitative easing, or “QE” (the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet is higher today than a decade ago), so we shouldn’t take for granted that this will be easy and uneventful.

With the balance sheet at an unprecedented size (see chart above), passing this second milestone without materially affecting financial conditions or roiling the markets could well prove a bigger challenge for the Fed than starting to raise rates. Because the Fed’s QE programs helped to stimulate asset prices and the search for yield (sometimes clinically referred to as the “portfolio rebalancing effect”), I believe it is reasonable to expect some choppy waters in the months ahead as some of the oxygen is let out of the system.

Where we’re headed

Clearly, the Fed would like to return to more normal monetary policy conditions and has taken pains to lay out how it expects to get there. Phase Two is part of that plan. Most believe that the well-telegraphed tapering of the balance sheet will be a “nonevent.” Many economists, including those at the Fed, see Phase Three—resuming the course of rate hikes—occurring as early as December 2017.

Our view is different. For some time, we have felt that Phase Two would be followed by an “extended pause” in rate hikes, leaving short-term rates near 1.25% through the middle of 2018, if not longer. Whether our long-held view proves correct will depend on a range of factors, including the pace of future inflation, how quickly the unemployment rate declines below 4%, and how supportive financial conditions are to the economic recovery.

Our outlook

The Fed is unlikely to raise the federal funds rate as it begins tapering its balance sheet. Nonetheless, Phase Two should still be viewed as a “tightening” in monetary conditions because it will reduce total Fed balance-sheet assets following several rounds of QE. In my mind, QE has been a factor in the strong performance of various investments over the past several years, including stocks and bonds. Risk appetites, as measured by cash flows, have been strong across the globe, and investors have been rewarded for bearing that market risk.

But the combination of fully valued asset prices and low levels of market volatility has generally not been indicative of strong future returns. In a future blog post, I will address the question of whether (and if so, by how much) the U.S. stock market has become overvalued.

Needless to say, we continue to maintain a guarded market outlook at Vanguard, and we urge investors to stick to their balanced, long-run plan whether or not my worries materialize. Let’s hope I am wrong.

Notes:

  • All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest. Bond funds are subject to the risk that an issuer will fail to make payments on time, and that bond prices will decline because of rising interest rates or negative perceptions of an issuer’s ability to make payments.
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  • Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.