Has the ECB run out of monetary road?

Survey data has pointed to weaker global activity for some time now, notably in manufacturing, but the hard data surprised to the upside in the first quarter, with world growth an anualised 3.3% from 2.75% in the final quarter of 2018. Markets are  increasingly nervous , however, fearing that the deterioration in US/China relations will have a much more serious impact on global trade than seen to date. The flight from risk has seen chunky falls in equity and commodity markets while the 10-year German bond yield is trading at -20bp, with the corresponding yield on US Treasuries falling from 3% to 2.10%.

Part of that latter decline can be attributed to a substantial change in  expectations about monetary policy, with the futures market currently priced for a Fed Funds rate of 1.85% by year-end, from the current 2.40%. US growth appears to have slowed in the second quarter (the Atlanta Fed model is tracking an annualised 1.2%  from over 3% in q1)) but to date there is little to suggest that the States is slowing sharply enough to warrant that kind of easing. That could change, of course,  and some at the Fed are already concerned about inflation being a little low particularly given the strength of the labour market.The FOMC also appears to be giving more weight to global factors in its policy deliberations, despite the fact that the US is a relatively closed economy in terms of external trade, and to financial conditions, notably the stock market.

The Fed had already announced that it will stop reducing the size of its balance sheet and  clearly has some room  to cut short term rates, which contrasts with the ECB, as the latter has not been able to tighten policy despite a prolonged recovery in economic activity in the Euro area, and  facing into a possible downturn with  a zero refinancing rate and a negative deposit rate.

The Governing Council in Frankfurt was confident last year that the tightening labour market would push up wage inflation and ultimately price inflation but has been forced to consistenly revise down  forecasts of core inflation. Consequently, the first suggestion of  monetary tightening, based on forward guidance signalling a likely  rate rise around September this year, was  then modified to the end of 2019 but that too looks redundant given that market rates now  only imply a 10bp rate rise from current levels in early 2022. Indeed market rates are now priced to go modestly lower still over the next year.

The failure of the ECB’s various policy tools to generate underlying inflation anywhere near  target prompts the obvious question as to what the Governing Council can do now, particularly if growth slows sharply. Another round of cheap long term loans to banks is likely and forward guidance will no doubt be extended but banks are awash with liquidity as it stands, while the negative deposit rate is hurting bank profits, a fact acknowledged of late by the ECB, as well as sending a signal to the population at large that we are still in an economic crisis, despite tha fact that unemployment across the zone has just fallen to levels last seen in 2008. Another round of asset purchases is also a possibility, although that may face tricky issues around the Capital key and the Bank’s already high ownership share of some  government bond markets.

The  broader debate about whether monetary policy can be effective at or near the lower bound in rates, alongside scepticism about the impact of QE on consumer prices (as opposed to asset prices) has prompted renewed interest in fiscal policy , having fallen out of favour in mainstram economic thinking over recent decades.

Some economists now argue that the low rate environment changes the cost/ benefit equation in favour of expansionary fiscal policy. The case is that in many countries the average interest rate on the debt is now below the growth rate of GDP, so on standard debt dynamics a government could run a primary deficit and still put downward pressure on the debt ratio, A more radical strand, based on Modern Monetary Theory, argues that for any country with full monetary sovereignty ( i.e. it can print its own money)  a debt default can only occur as a policy choice and that there is no great reason why such countries should not run budger deficits to boost employment or to achieve  other socially useful goals, paid for by printing the money rather than through higher taxes or issuing bonds.

The latter approach has many mainstream critics but is not applicable anyway in  the euro zone ( no member state can print euros)  while the ECB will no doubt argue it has not run out of policy options. One  radical approach discussed in academic circles is for Central Banks to adopt a more flexible inflation target or even a range and Draghi himself has stated that the ECB’s inflation target is not a short term ceiling, implying a tolerance for above target inflation for a while. This emphasis on expectations in determining inflation perhaps puts too much weight on that component and low inflation may owe far more to structural factors such a globalisation, free trade (to date at least ) and a much lower  equilibrium real rate of interest, so rendering a 2% inflation target as unachievable anyway, let alone a higher inflation rate.

In fact fiscal policy in the euro area is already set to be a litle more expansionary this year anyway, but in the event of an outright recession we are likely to see much more aggresive fiscal expansion across the zone, albeit without a public acknowledgement that policy makers in the EA erred in recent years in making monetary policy, and hence the ECB, the only player in town.

ECB’s negative rates trap

June this year will mark the fifth anniversary of the ECB’s decision to cut its Deposit rate into negative territory, with three subsequent moves  taking it to the curent -0.4%. That, alongside excess liquidity of some €1,800bn, means that it is the deposit rate and not the  zero refinancing rate which drives short term money market rates, and these have also been negative for years now.

Three other European Central Banks have negative policy rates -Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland- as well as the Bank of Japan , while both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England chose to cut rates to very low but nonetheless  positive levels.

In theory, low interest rates are expected to boost economic activity and inflation by encouraging households to borrow and spend instead of saving, and to boost  capital investment by the business sector. Low rates relative to other economies may also lead to a currency depreciation, which , again in theory, is thought to boost exports and hence economic growth. Negative rates are therefore  merely an extension of lower rates, it is argued. Such  rates in the EA have certainly helped to lower the cost of funds for the banking sector, as often pointed out by the ECB, but one would have to conclude that the net effect has been disappointing; monetary growth has been limp, the growth in bank lending to the private sector has been modest ( annual growth slowed to 3% in January)  and core inflation has remained stubbornly anchored around 1%.

It is also apparent that negative rates have had negative consequences. It has been evident for some time from the ECB’s Bank Lending surveys that most banks report pressure on net  interest margins, given that rates payable by borrowers have fallen, as has the yield on bonds held by banks (many of which are also negative), but that zero is the effective lower bound for rates payable to retail depositors. Higher loan volumes might offer an offset but, as noted, credit growth across the zone has been tepid and very weak in some countries (Irish mortgage growth only turned positive in 2018 ). The knock-on effect is that European banks are generally trading well below book value , in contrast to their US peers, which may not be a concern to many but is of  concern to the ECB as it fears the consequences for future credit growth.

Negative rates are also a crisis measure, by definition,  and that signal is probably encouraging households to save more rather than less, despite or even because of the meagre returns, Similarly, it is the prospect of return rather than the cost of borrowing which drives business investment, so negative rates may well dampen the former because the of the message on the economic outlook they send.

When will rates turn positive? Last year the ECB grew increasingly confident that underlying inflation in the EA was picking up, helped by stronger wage growth, and  duly signalled that the first upward move in rates would occur from around September 2019. That forward guidance remains in place but the market is now only fully priced for a 10bp  increase in the Deposit rate in the summer of 2020, given  the recent weak data and the lack of any upward move in core inflation. The rhetoric from the ECB’s Governing Council has now changed and it would not be a surprise if the forward guidance was tweaked at the upcoming  policy meeting.

Market expectations change, of course, moving with the flow of data, but for the moment 3-month rates are not expected to turn positive  until the summer of 2021. The ECB may therefore be stuck in a rate trap, in that rates will only turn positive in response to a material pick up in core inflation, but that outcome is rendered less likely by negative rates.

ECB rates lower for longer , Redux

Last June the ECB had grown more confident that the ongoing economic upturn would eventually result in inflation rising to nearer their target and at that month’s press conference announced that net asset purchases would ease and eventually cease at the end of the year. The Governing Council also made a significant change to its forward guidance on interest rates, which were now expected to remain at existing levels until ‘through the summer of 2019’, so replacing the previous ‘extended period’ with a more specific date for the first upward move.

At the time headline inflation had risen to 1.9%, with the ex-food and energy measure at 1.3%. Euro area growth was  expected to moderate only marginally, to 1.9% in 2019,  so the idea that the monetary policy stance was likely to change seemed plausible, and the markets duly priced in a 10bp increase in the deposit rate  for around September 2019.

Events did not materialise as the ECB expected, however. Growth in the EA slowed to 0.2% in the third quarter, with Germany and Italy both experiencing contractions, and the high frequency data implies that the fourth quarter figure could be weaker still. Consequently, the annual growth rate in q4 may well slow to 1.1% and initial indications from the January PMIs imply an annual figure of well below 1% in the first quarter, which makes the Bank’s 1.7% average growth forecast for 2019 look very optimistic. Inflation, too, has disappointed the ECB, with the ex food and energy rate seemingly anchored at 1.1%, with a core figure of 1%.

Some observers, including many on the Governing Council, had expected the slowdown that emerged in the second half of 2018 to be short-lived, particularly as the US economy is still growing strongly, albeit at a less dynamic pace than earlier in the past year. It now appears that others on the Council have become more concerned that the slowdown could be more protracted, and at the latest  ECB press conference the risks to the outlook were now deemed to be on the downside. Indeed, Draghi actually used the term ‘recession’, albeit giving it a low probability.

The ECB prefers to announce policy changes against the backdrop of a fresh set of forecasts, and so it chose to leave its current forward guidance on rates unchanged. That ‘summer of 2019’ guide now looks redundant, however, at least as far as the market is concerned, with the first rate rise now pushed out to around June 2020.  Longer term rates have also fallen, with 10-year Bund yields back below 0.2%, while  the cost to a commercial bank with a good  credit rating of borrowing three year money is -7 basis points. The euro has also faltered , and is trading back below 87 pence sterling. In fact Draghi acknowedged the divergence and implied that the Bank might well have to change its guidance at the March meeting, when of course it will have an updated set of staff forecasts.

There is still an enormous amount of excess liquidity in the euro system (around €1,800bn) but there is also some speculation that the ECB may announce a further TLTRO, which  was introduced in 2016 and is currently providing over €700bn in long term funding to euro banks at negative or zero rates, with a high uptake from  Italian and Spanish banks. For a number of reasons a substantial repayment may take place in June, prompting talk of an additional tranche to maintain high liquidity levels.

The economic outlook can change, of course, and a combination of a managed Brexit alongside an easing of trade tensions could spark an upturn in activity, hence prompting a change in rate expectations. The ECB also seem more concerned than in the past about the impact of negative rates on bank margins, another argument for moving rates up. Against that, the data flow remains relentlessly negative and there must be a risk that the ECB may have to change stance again, and adopt  additional measures to support activity. A generalised slowdown or recession would also probably prompt a big EU rethink on the fiscal side as monetary policy has taken most if not all of the strain in recent years.

ECB rate rise next year not a done deal

In June, the ECB announced it was likely to end its net asset purchase  programme in December and that it expected to keep interest rates at their present level ‘at least through the summer of 2019‘ , albeit with a caveat relating to inflation developments remaining in line with the Banks expectation of a steady convergence to target. Some confusion ensued as to when the summer actually ends but the ECB has since indicated it is happy enough with market expectations of a rate rise at the September or October meetings next year.

Any change is more likely to initially  involve the  ECB’s Deposit rate rather than the Refinancing rate, and the latter is more significant for existing Irish mortgage holders as Tracker rates account for over 40% of the stock of mortgage loans.However,  it would then  only be a short period of time before a rise in the refinancing rate occurred if the ECB was  set to embark on monetary tightening.

Why has the Governing Council decided to signal a probable rate rise? In part because the EA economy performed strongly in the latter part of 2017 and although growth moderated in the first half of this year, to 0.4% per quarter, that is still above what the Bank considers to be potential, which has resulted in further falls in the unemployment rate. The ECB is also more confident that wages are finally responding to the tighter labour market, and as a result expects underlying inflation to pick up steadily , with the ex food and energy measure forecast to average 1.8% in 2020 from 1.1% this year. As such , the Council is more confident of a ‘sustained convergence’ in headline inflation to target.

In fact headline inflation has been above target for the past four months, oscillating between 2% and 2.1%, boosted by higher energy prices. Yet that is also squeezing household incomes ( wage growth was 1.9% in q2) and core inflation ( which excludes food , energy, alcohol and tobacco ) has remained stubbornly at 1.1% or below in recent months, slipping back to 0.9% in September.

The  economic outlook also looks less robust than it did. The ECB maintains that the risks to EA growth are balanced but at their September meeting  it was noted that a case could be made that the risks had tilted to the downside. Since then , the global outlook certainly seems to have deteriorated amid a backdrop of falling equity markets, rising trade tensions, weaker growth in China, a rising dollar, Brexit uncertainties and  Italy’s apparent willingness to breach euro fiscal rules.

Indeed, some of the hard data in the EA has been noticeably weaker over the summer months and the PMIs have also softened, with the latest reading for the EA as a whole dropping to a 2-year low of 52.7 in October, That is consistent with GDP growth of only 0.2% a quarter and it will be interesting to see whether the ECB reiterates its balanced risk view at the upcoming meeting.

It may be that the current weakness in sentiment and activity proves temporary but what may also concern the ECB is that more forward looking indicators also signal weakness ahead. The major European equity indices are all heavily in the red year to date while monetary indicators are not reassuring; M3  growth has slowed to 3.5% while the growth rate of lending to the private sector has remained becalmed at 3.4% in recent months, with mortgage lending slowing a little to 3.2%.

It is unlikely that the ECB will do a volte- face on its forward guidance at this juncture but the risks to their view on inflation have risen and it is not a done deal that rates will rise in 2019.

The exchange rate and oil price, not growth, key for ECB QE exit

The consensus was badly wrong on the euro zone last year, significantly underestimating the pace of economic growth and the single currency’s appreciation against the US dollar. This year, growth is expected to remain strong and the euro is generally forecast to appreciate modestly, while many believe the ECB will cease its net asset purchase programme by year-end, with a strong majority of analysts also expecting that to be followed by a rate rise in 2019.

The ECB staff forecast also projects above-trend growth for the next three years, resulting in a steadty decline in the unemployment rate to an average of 7.3% in 2020, from over 9% last year. Yet inflation is still forecast to be below target in 2020, at 1.7%, despite years of QE and negative interest rates. Indeed, the December forecast actually revised down the Bank’s projections for core inflation ( the headline rate excluding food and energy)  by 0.2 percentage points over the next two years.

In fact the ECB has significantly changed its forecast relationship between growth and inflation, as indeed have many Central banks. In their macro models, stronger GDP growth leads to lower unemployment  which in turn boosts wage inflation and ultimately price inflation via higher costs for firms, which are passed on to consumers. But, as is now well recognised,the relationship between unemployment and wage inflation has changed and the ECB is now adjusting its forecasts to reflect that fact. Two years ago, for example, an unemployment rate of 10% was expected to generate a 2.1% rise in wages but in the latest forecast wage inflation in 2019 is projected to be below 2% despite an unemployment rate as low as 7.8%.

So stronger growth. per se, is no longer  a sufficient condition for a meaningful acceleration in price inflation in the Staff forecasts, with the path of inflation strongly influenced by the exchange rate ( with a quick pass through to import prices ) and the oil price ( energy accounts for about 10% of the CPI). Oil prices in the current forecast are expected to decline modestly over the next few years (based on the futures market) to $57 a barrel by 2020, but if they fell further, to say $50, annual inflation would be 0.2% lower in 2019 and 2020. On the exchange rate, the euro/dollar is forecast to be broadly unchanged at $1.17 but if it appreciated to , say,  $1.35 over the next few years it would reduce the forecast CPI  in 2020 by  0.6 percentage points.

The ECB’s forecasts could well be wrong, of course, and  inflation may pick up by more than expected but they highlight the risk of what could be a huge policy dilemma later this year.The Bank probably wants to call a halt to asset purchases for a variety of reasons but what if the euro does indeed appreciate and oil prices decline, so leading to lower forecast inflation? Awkward for a Bank that has argued that QE is crucial in getting inflation back up to target.

What next for the ECB?

The ECB faces some tricky policy decisions  and judging by the minutes of the last meeting the Governing Council has no clear view on how to proceed. The euro zone economy has surprised to the upside this year, bank credit across the zone is  growing again, the redenomination risk in sovereign bond markets has long gone and the unemployment rate has fallen to 9.1% from  a peak of over 12% , all of which  might  argue for a change to policies born in a crisis environment or adopted when deflation was perceived as a real danger.

Yet the ECB”s (self-imposed) goal remains elusive- inflation is not ‘close to but below 2%’ and according to the current staff forecast that will remain the case for some time, with an average of 1.5% projected for 2019. Indeed, according to the minutes, some council members questioned whether the staff had used an appropriate pass-through rate from the euro’s recent appreciation and hence wondered if the inflation forecast was actually too high.

The minutes also revealed ‘discomfort widely expressed’ about the length of time inflation had been and was expected to remain below target, and that ‘a very substantial degree of monetary policy accommodation was still needed for inflation to converge sustainably to levels in line with the Governing Council’s aim’, which would imply that we are unlikely to see a substantial policy shift in the near trem. Indeed, ‘any reassessment of the monetary policy stance should proceed in a very gradual and cautious manner‘.

So what are the options?. Policy as it stands includes the purchase of €60bn assets a month until the end of December this year ‘or beyond, if necessary‘. The minutes would indicate an abrupt halt in  a few months is out of the question but there are logistical issues in a number of countries, given  the current 33% issuer limit on sovereign bonds. Consequently, the market is anticipating some form of ‘tapering’, and the minutes discussed the merits of continuing to buy for  a longer period but at a slower monthly pace against a higher monthly volume over a shorter time frame.

The former is perhaps more likely, as it better ties in with another strand of policy, a commitment to keep interest rates at current levels  for an extended period and ‘well past the horizon of the net asset purchases’. This explicit linking of forward guidance on rates to QE argues for extending the latter for a longer period if the ECB wants to influence rate expectations and that might indeed have an additional impact, this time on the exchange rate. We know the Bank is concerned about the currency’s appreciation, and if one rules out explicitly talking it down one lever left is to convince markets that rates will stay lower for longer.

The ECB will also no doubt emphasise that it intends to keep reinvesting the proceeds of maturing assets but the net asset decision will be key, and lower for longer may well be the mantra that decides the latter.

 

ECB caught between strong growth and weak inflation

Longer term euro interest rates have moved higher over the past few weeks as the market starts to adjust to what it perceives as an imminent change in monetary policy from the ECB. 10-year German bond yields are trading at over 0.5%, which is still extraordinarly low but compares with a yield of only 0.25% at end-June, so the speed of the move has surprised. A  ‘reflation’ reference by Draghi was the initial  catalyst ( although later played down by the ECB)  and the pace of economic activity has  certainly picked up this year but the problem for the hawks in the Governing Council is that inflation remains stubbornly below target (1.3% in June), with the core rate still remarkably low (1.1%).

GDP in the Euro area  (EA) grew by 0.6% in the first quarter and  strong  survey readings  (the IFO in Germany is currently at  a record high) imply a similar if not stronger figure for q2. On that basis it now seems likely that annual growth in the  EA may emerge at 2.1% or 2.2% this year and hence above the 1.9%  projected in the June  ECB staff forecast. There have only been two previous tightening cycles by the Bank, and the IFO is currently well above the level that has previously triggered higher rates, but , to date, the pick up in economic activity has not put any material upward pressure on prices.

The persistence of low inflation , not just in the EA  but across  other developed economies, notably the US, has prompted a lot of analysis.What is striking is the behaviour of wages, as they have not responded to tightening labour markets in the expected way. That relationship is generally known as the Phillips curve, and the evidence shows that the curve is now much flatter than in the past i.e.  a given fall in unemployment has very little impact on wages. So, for example, EA unemployment has fallen from 12.1% to the current 9.3% but wage inflation in q1 was only 1.4% and averaged 1.5% in 2016.

A range of factors have been put forward for this limp growth is wages; low price inflation, the decline of trade unions, globalisation, the growth of self employment and changes in the structure of the jobs market. Many of these factors are structural and if so, the acceleration in wage inflation expected by the ECB over the next few years may not materialise, despite stronger GDP growth.

The ECB also now tends to emphasise core inflation more than it did under the previous President, but the inflation target is set in terms of the headline rate, and most research shows that to be strongly influenced in the shorter term by commodity prices and the exchange rate. Consequently, the recent fall in oil prices and the appreciation of the euro ( up 8% against the US dollar in the past three months), unless reversed, would normally prompt a further downward revision  in the the next ECB inflation forecast in September.The June forecast itself reduced the inflation projection over the next three years by a cumulative 0.6 percentage points, largely reflecting weaker oil prices. Another point worth noting is that credit growth, although stronger than last year, is still anaemic, a factor referred to in the latest ECB minutes.

So what is the market expecting? It would be difficult for the ECB to claim that there are upside risks to inflation but having stated that the risks of deflation have effectively disappeared the Bank may tweak it guidance on asset purchases, which currently states that ‘we stand  ready to increase our asset purchase programme in terms of size and/or duration‘. In reality, the scope to increase QE is anyway constrained, as in a number of cases the Bank is at or close to the 33% issuer  limit in government bonds. However, the market does not expect an immediate halt to buying by the end of the year, rather a  gradual tapering of the monthly total into 2018.

Yet the ECB would find itself in a difficult situation if inflation fell further over the next few months, as it has argued that QE has been instrumental in boosting the price level and that ‘ a very substantial degree of monetary accommodation is still needed for underlying inflation pressures to build up and support headline inflation in the medium term’. The Fed  also faces low inflation but can point to its dual mandate ( stable prices and full employment ) to justify tightening,  but the ECB does not have that luxury.

Stronger euro and weaker oil bad news for ECB hawks

Last December the euro briefly traded below 1.04 against the US dollar and few forecasters envisaged a short term recovery, with a number calling for parity against the greenback. In the event the euro has appreciated, with the past two months seeing a notable rally, taking the single currency above $1.12. The consensus has also shifted, with many abandoning bearish calls in favour of further euro appreciation. Speculative positioning  has also tilted decisively, with the market now running modestly long the euro/dollar for the first time in over three years.

One factor driving the euro is the economic data, which has generally surprised to the upside,  in turn prompting analysts to revise up their GDP projections. As a consequence many now expect the ECB to shift its policy stance, moving initially towards less dovish rhetoric before changing its forward guidance, although a rise in the deposit rate is not fully priced in until the latter part of 2018. In contrast, the US data has tended to surprise to the downside and the market, which was effectively pricing in two further rate hikes in the US this year, is now much less confident about the second ( although  a rise this month is still seen as highly likely)

In its  Staff forecast in March the ECB projected inflation at 1.7% in 2019, predicated on a euro/dollar rate of $1.07 over the forecast horizon. The exchange rate is seen to have a significant impact on prices in the EA and if the next forecast ( due later this week) used a rate of $1.12 that , all else equal, may push the inflation forecast for 2019 down by as much as 0.2 percentage points.

Moreover, the March forecast assumed an oil price around $56 over the next few years, and that now looks too high, given developments of late , with  Brent crude prices falling to around $50 on market concerns that the OPEC cuts have not been sufficient to make an appreciable dent in the unusually high level of crude stocks. Again, a lower oil price projection, say around $50, would shave up to another 0.2 percentage points off the inflation projection.

Of course the Staff may revise up some other components ( wage growth for example) to avoid having to lower the inflation outlook, and one sometimes wonders if the forecast drives ECB policy or the other way round, but on the face of it the combination of weaker oil and a stronger currency should have a disinflationary impact.

 

Euro rate rise expectations overdone

Just over a year ago the ECB cut its main refinancing rate to zero and its deposit rate to -0.4%, having first shifted the latter into negative territory in June 2014. As a result money market rates have also been negative for some time while longer dated  rates only turn positive at a maturity above 3 years. Yet March saw a change in the market view with regard to the ECB’s monetary policy and the possible timing of an interest rate rise, reflecting  both incoming data and  what were perceived as less dovish comments from Frankfurt.

The  euro composite PMI has  certainly continued to strengthen, reaching a six-year high in March,  and points to 0.6% rise in GDP in the first quarter given the past relationship between the two series, with the prospect of even stronger growth in q2. That, in turn, would point to a significant  upward revison to the current consensus growth  forecast for 2017 of 1.7%. Headline inflation also surprised to the upside, reaching 2% in February,  slighly above the ECB’s target.

The market also reacted to President Draghi’s comments that the ‘risks  of deflation have largely disappeared‘. The Governing Council still expects rates to remain ‘at present or lower levels for an extended period’  but Draghi also said that there was a ‘cursory’ discussion  at the March policy meeting about removing the prospect of a further rate cut while also stating that no Council member favoured any additional long term lending to the banking system . The market responded by giving a much higher probability  of a 0.1% rise in the deposit rate  this year and certainly by mid-2018.

The  ECB later let it be known that it felt the reaction excessive relative to the message it was seeking to deliver and rate rise expectations have been pared back somewhat, with a rise of 0.05% priced in by March 2018. The data has also been less suppotive and indeed worrisome for the ECB. The flash estimate for March inflation was much lower than expected, at 1.5%, and if one excludes food and energy the rate fell back to cycle low of 0.7%. Moreover, the modest uptick in credit growth that had been apparent appears to have stalled, with the annual rise in loans to the private sector easing in February, to 2.3%. These figures  impacted the euro, which is now trading back at $1.065 having spiked to over $1.08. The ECB also puts some store on the 5 yr 5 yr inflation swap as a measure of inflation expectations ( albeit less so now than in the past) and that has fallen back below 1.6%.

Some claim the March inflation data owes a lot to the timing of Easter ( in March last year ) and that there will be a seasonal rebound in April, including the core measures.  Unemployment in the euro area is also falling steadily, which might be expected to push up wage inflation ( although the latter has continually disappointed  forecasters) and that view is reflected in ECB projections, which envisage core inflation picking up to average 1.8% in 2019.

On market rates themselves, the level of excess liquidity ensures that short rates do not stray too far from the deposit rate , which is -0.4%. That excess, which tops €1,500bn, is the amount the ECB is pumping into the banking system, via QE and the TLTRO, over and above the liquidity  banks need to meet normal requirements. The Governing Council hopes this will be used to boost bank lending but so far the impact is limited, and one wonders what the ECB would do if credit growth slows in a material way. That issue may not arise but unless core inflation picks up appreciably any rate rise speculation is premature.

 

Can the ECB do any more?

Inflation in the euro area has been below 2% now for over three and a half years, and the ECB is currently pulling four policy levers in an attempt to get inflation back up to its target level. The first is forward guidance, adopted  by the Governing Council in mid-2013, designed to convince the market that rates will stay lower for longer. The latest wording to that effect states that ‘we continue to expect [rates] to remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time’ which also flags the possibility of further easing.

In the past the ECB has used official interest rates as its main policy instrument and they are now at historically low levels; the refinancing rate is zero while the deposit rate has been cut to -0.4%. Money market rates are also  negative , including 12-month euribor. Forward rates imply that the market does not expect any upward move in official rates till 2019.

Credit in the euro zone is largely driven by the banking sector ( unlike the US, for example)  and the ECB has also introduced additional measures to boost bank lending , including offering banks long term loans at very low rates. The latest variant (TLTRO II) offers loans up to four years at a zero rate, and banks can reduce the rate paid into negative territory depending on the growth of their loan book. So the ECB would effectively be paying banks to take funds.

Bank lending to the private sector has picked up but is still very weak by historical standards ( the annual increase is currently 1.7%) and so the ECB has sought to influence spending more directly by its asset purchase programme, the fourth policy instrument currently at play. The current plan is to purchase €80bn a month ‘until the end of March 2017, or beyond, if necessary, and in any case until the Governing Council sees a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation consistent with its inflation aim

Inflation is currently 0.4% and the ECB’s staff forecast envisages a gradual acceleration to an average 1.6% in 2018. The consensus market view is that further monetary easing is a virtual certainty, although there is some disagreement about the form that might take. It is noticeable that the Governing Council is now expressing more concern about the profitability of the banking system (at least in the minutes of recent meetings) and fewer analysts now expect a further rate reduction in either the refinancing rate or the deposit rate. It is early days yet for the TRLTRO so any change there is unlikely and so we are left with possible tweaks to QE, including a tapering, although, again, there are a variety of views. Some believe that the ECB may broaden the universe of assets purchased, but in reality that means buying bank debt and/or equities, which may be acceptable for the Bank of Japan but is  highly unlikely , one would think , given the ECB’s constitutional  and operational constraints.

That leaves changes to the current government bond programme, and a majority of analyts believe that the scheme will be extended beyond March, for 6 months or longer. That is not without its problems, however, as in some cases the ECB is at or close to the current 33% issue and issuer limits ( including Ireland) and at various points of late almost half  the available bonds have been trading below zero, with a smaller proportion below -0.4% in yield. A decision to leave the deposit rate unchanged would presumably preclude the latter  and a decision to up the issue and issuer  limits  could potentially give the ECB the main role in any default proceedings, an awkward position for a bank regulator. At the moment the bond purchases are also constrained by the need to adhere to the capital key ( purchases are broadly proportional to each country’s weighting in the ECB’s capital) and again a decision to abandon this may prompt opposition fror the ‘German school’ within the Governing council.

What we do know is that various committess have been set up within the ECB to tease out these matters and examine how QE could be extended if required, but the bigger issue is whether the ECB is at or near the end of its monetary policy cycle. The December Staff forecasts will be crucial and it is worth noting that oil prices are  now higher , which of itself could push the 2018 inflation forecasts to around 2%. The Council also believes its policies have had a significant effect already are are still working through the system. QE has to end at some point, one would think, and the main issue now  is whether it will be in five months or ten.