November 20, 2014 / 11:50 PM / 3 years ago

Money managers see Fed struggling to raise rates in 2015

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Big money to the Fed: You're going nowhere next year.

That is the consensus view emerging from top money managers appearing at this week's Reuters Investment Outlook Summit, most of whom doubt the Federal Reserve will be able to start lifting interest rates from near-zero in mid-2015 or even by year end.

To do that, the Fed needs solid U.S. economic growth, an acceleration in inflation and better job market dynamics including higher wages and those are simply unlikely to materialize in 2015, these asset managers say.

Add in the risk of a recession in Europe, renewed recession in Japan and disappointing growth in China, and it all adds up to "later, lower, longer," says Prudential Investment's Greg Peters, effectively summing up the Fed outlook from the buy side.

That is where fund managers are at odds both with the Fed's own forecasts and their sell-side banking colleagues, who are more aligned with the Fed's view.

Twenty-four of 43 bank economists polled by Reuters this month believe the Fed will start raising rates in June and only about a quarter of them expect the Fed to wait until September or later.

That is in tune with the latest Fed forecasts where 11 out of 17 its top officials saw the Federal funds target rate rising above 1 percent by the end of 2015 from 0.1 percent now.

Compared with economists and Fed officials, fund managers are considerably less optimistic about next year's growth. Many expect expansion of just over 2 percent, below the Fed's 2.6 to 3 percent range and economists' 3 percent consensus forecast.

Peters, who oversees more than $534 billion of fixed income assets, said the earliest the Fed could raise rates for the first time since 2006 was the third quarter, and it could easily slide into 2016.

"We are in this slow-growth world," Peters said. "The U.S. looks solid relative to everyone else, but the global construct is slowing. That serves as a cap for growth here."

Tom Metzold, a senior portfolio manager in Eaton Vance's municipal bond division, was more blunt. When asked what the Fed would do next year, he replied: "Nothing. 2016."

"They're more afraid of dumping us back into a recession than they are of inflation," Metzold said.

And it is not just a view among U.S. asset managers.

Pascal Blanque, chief investment officer at the $1.2 trillion Amundi Asset Management in Paris, said: "I am not convinced at all that the Fed will deliver any tightening in the foreseeable future."

WHAT INFLATION?

The measure of inflation favored by the Fed has stayed half a percentage point or more below the Federal Open Market Committee's 2 percent target every month since January 2013 and has not hit the target since the spring of 2012.

Recent developments, such as the plunge in oil prices, while generally excluded from the Fed's calculus, indicate that the overall trend in prices is not tilted toward accelerating inflation.

And there is no evidence yet of appreciable wage gains for U.S. workers, a central concern for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Average hourly earnings are growing at just 1.8 percent on an annual basis, half the rate seen before the recession.

Still, many Fed policymakers sound determined to press ahead with interest rate increases next year, wary of the lasting effects of leaving rates close to zero for so long. The Fed cut its benchmark rate to a range of 0.0 to 0.25 percent in December 2008. It followed through with $3.7 trillion of bond purchases aimed at suppressing longer-term rates and stimulating credit growth, only ending the purchases last month.

Market-based measures of the timing of the first rate hike have been slipping further into 2015. Fed funds futures prices indicate September 2015 is the first month with a better than 50 percent probability of a Fed hike. That compares with June several months ago.

One top asset manager, however, expects the Fed to act sooner.

Rick Rieder, Blackrock Inc.'s (BLK.N) chief investment officer for fixed income, was the only money manager at the Reuters summit predicting the Fed would move in June.

In fact, he would prefer the Fed to act even sooner to help normalize savings conditions.

Still, the great majority of money managers remains skeptical that the Fed will raise rates anytime soon.

"I just don't see what the justification would be," said Margie Patel, who oversees $1.4 billion at Wells Capital Management in Boston.

"I think sometimes that's why the Fed governors do so much talking because they would like things to go back to normal, just like we all would, but as far as seeing a clear path on how to get there it just isn't clear."

(This version of the story was refiled to correct the date)

Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan, Sam Forgione, Luciana Lopez, Svea Herbst, David Gaffen, Jonathan Stempel and Jessica Toonkel in New York and Mike Dolan in London; Editing by Tomasz Janowski

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