November 22, 2018 / 12:05 AM / 21 days ago

COLUMN-Central banks stuck with 'ZIRP' for years, maybe decades: McGeever

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jamie McGeever

LONDON, Nov 22 (Reuters) - The window for some of the world's biggest central banks to follow the Federal Reserve and start "normalizing" monetary policy is closing fast, meaning they may be stuck in a "zero interest rate policy" world for years, or even decades.

The European Central Bank, Bank of England and Bank of Japan are all expected to tighten policy next year by raising interest rates, phasing out asset purchases, or allowing long-term yields to rise.

At least, more than a decade after the Great Financial Crisis forced most major central banks to adopt "ZIRP", that's the plan. But it will be difficult to execute if the global economic and market cycles roll over.

The evidence is building, and certainly there's a growing feeling in financial markets, that the economic and market expansions since 2009 are losing steam, and could grind to a halt in 2019.

Policymakers are starting to get twitchy, too.

Take the ECB. Its 2.6 trillion-euro ($2.96 trillion) bond-buying programme ends next month, and the central bank has indicated it will raise interest rates after next summer. Mario Draghi's eight-year term as president ends in October 2019, and it looks like he wants normalization to begin on his watch.

But ECB policymakers are striking a subtly more dovish tone in their public pronouncements. ECB Executive Board member Jens Weidmann said this week policy normalization will take "several years". This, remember, coming from the Bundesbank president.

Investors increasingly believe the ECB won't raise rates next year at all. And we're not talking big rate hikes here - even a paltry 10-basis-point increase, which would take rates to a still deeply negative 0.3 percent, is no longer fully priced in, as it was a couple of months ago.

If anything, the debate is now shifting to whether the bank should ease policy further, perhaps through another round of cheap, long-term loans to banks.

THROW IN THE TOWEL That was one of the main takeaways from the money managers, who collectively manage more than $4 trillion worth of assets, participating in the Reuters annual investment summit in London earlier this month.

Didier Saint-Georges, who helps manage over 50 billion euros at Carmignac, says a major central bank will "throw in the towel" next year. "Who between the ECB and the Fed blinks first is going to be a major issue."

The Fed may be blinking already. Vice Chair Richard Clarida said on Friday that further rate hikes will be more data-dependent than the eight so far in the current cycle, a sign the Fed's idea of "neutral" is lower than previously thought.

Another increase next month is widely expected, but money markets are only fully pricing in one quarter-point hike next year. Hedge funds and speculators are adjusting their views accordingly.

Last week, they cut their short 10-year Treasuries position by the third largest amount since the Commodity Futures Trading Commission began compiling data in 1995. Will the 10-year-high yield of 3.26 percent last month turn out to be the cycle top?

Respondents in Bank of America Merrill Lynch's latest fund manager survey were the gloomiest on global growth in a decade. If growth and stock markets lose steam next year, investors will look back at yields of 3.00 percent or more with wistful longing.

Wall Street and other major stock markets may well go up next year, but there's little doubt the bar to further gains is rising. U.S. earnings growth this year is running at around 30 percent, the highest in eight years, but will slow next year. The housing market is showing signs of turning already, a classic precursor to a broader economic roll over.

When the economy turns, policymakers' room for maneuver will be limited, even at the Fed. Central bank policy rates are low, balance sheets are bloated and, with the possible exception of Germany, capacity to ramp up government spending looks limited. At least, their appetite to do so is limited.

Once again, Japan is a useful guide. The BOJ has been stuck with ZIRP for 20 years, despite various attempts over the years to exit it. To varying degrees deflation, sluggish growth, an ageing population and a stock market that failed to recover from its post-1990 slump have all tied the BOJ's hands.

Interest rates in Japan are currently -0.1 percent and haven't been above zero since 2010. The last time they were any higher than 0.5 percent was 1995. With the U.S. and global economic cycle getting closer to rolling over, they almost certainly won't be rising above 0.5 percent for years to come.

Where Japan has led on ZIRP, others have usually followed. ($1 = 0.8790 euros)

By Jamie McGeever, editing by Larry King Editing by xxxxxxxx

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