Bond Traders Face Reflation Fight That Will Echo Around World

Bond traders searching for an opportunity to challenge central banks are starting to look Down Under, where a likely showdown over yield-curve control is set to test the power of policy makers to contain the next wave of reflation bets.

The global trading day for bonds begins in earnest in Sydney each morning, giving developments in Australia’s $600 billion sovereign debt market an out-sized impact on sentiment. It was the scene of a dramatic “flash crash” last year when the yield program was announced, illustrating the potential for turmoil.

While the Reserve Bank of Australia has largely tamed markets since then, as the economy’s recovery strengthens, wagers against the RBA’s ability to keep yields lower look poised to rise.

“If inflation expectations do start to un-anchor, then I think the RBA will be one of the first central banks to be tested by bond traders,” said Shaun Roache, an economist at S&P Global Ratings in Singapore. “The RBA is a canary in the coal mine for central banks as it is ahead in its labor market recovery.”

The RBA brought short-sellers quickly to heel when the global bond rout emboldened them to test its grip on yield control in February. After weeks of aggressive positioning by traders, the bank nudged up the cost of speculating on rising rates and the yield on benchmark three-year bonds fell neatly back into line with its 0.1% target.

But keeping the market at bay next time may prove more difficult, as vaccination campaigns gather pace in major economies and the U.S. recovery nears an “inflection point,” emboldening traders. Pressure is already apparent in Australia’s three-year swap rate, which is increasing the costs of managing interest-rate risks for corporate borrowers.