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.

 

The ECB’s Scattergun

The provision of credit in the Euro Area (EA) is largely delivered through the banking system, in contrast to the US, where capital markets are the main source of  loans. That explains, to some degree, why the ECB sought to flood the banking sector with liquidity following the financial crash in 2008, as opposed to seeking to influence the real economy more directly via the purchase of assets (QE). The Bank has  subsequently travelled a long way in its quest to boost economic activity  and is now utilizing a plethora of instruments in an attempt to hit its inflation target , although this scattergun approach may yield further disappointment.

In June 2014 the ECB was still of a mind that bank funding costs were the problem and announced a Targeted Long Term Refinancing Operation (TLTRO). Banks could borrow up to 7% of their existing loan book (defined as  lending to the non-financial private sector excluding mortgages) in two tranches, in September and December, at a cost equal to the refinancing rate (at that time 0.15%) plus 10 basis points. Banks could borrow more in subsequent quarterly tranches if their lending grew above stated benchmarks, with all lending to be repaid by September 2018.. In the event the take-up was disappointing, amounting to €212bn in the first two tranches , rising to a cumulative €418bn by end-2015, with the take-up in December just €18bn. This compares with total outstanding loans to the private sector of €10,600bn. The funding could not be used for mortgage lending and banks were no doubt influenced by the fact that loans had to be repaid early (by June 2016) if the benchmarks were not being met.

The ECB effectively accepted that the first TLTRO was not a success by announcing TLTRO II last week,allowing banks to repay early existing loans under the first scheme to encourage a switch into the new variant. This one  is designed to boost ‘lending’ as opposed to ‘lending to the real economy’ and there does not appear to be any restrictions. The scheme will start in June, with four quarterly tranches up to March 2017, and loans mature in four years from the time of origination, Banks this time can borrow up to 30% of their non-mortgage loan book at the refinancing rate , which is currently zero. Moreover, banks that are growing their loan book can borrow at a lower rate, down to the deposit rate, which is currently -0.4%. The pool of existing loans amounts to €5,600bn so in theory the amount of TLTRO borrowing could be substantial, with a 60% take-up implying a figure of €1,000bn.

So the ECB has sought to offset the impact of a negative deposit rate on the profitability of the banking system by allowing banks to borrow at that rate, or at least some of them. But is weak lending a function of funding costs?. The answer is probably no, at least for many banks; market rates have tumbled, allowing banks to borrow at very low rates anyway, without tying up collateral for years at the ECB, with capital , profitability and risk aversion the key issues on the supply side of the credit market. Others would argue that the demand for credit is weak anyway, given the uncertain economic outlook, and that the ECB’s decision to cut the deposit rate deeper into negative territory reinforces that uncertainty rather than assuaging it. Deleveraging is also a factor, particularly in Ireland, with many households and firms preferring to repay rather than add to debt.

The ECB has also partially undermined the rationale for the TLTRO by announcing the decision to extend its asset purchase scheme to corporate bonds . This will presumably encourage firms to issue debt and so disintermediate the banking system. Purchases will only include investment grade debt. which also implies that many corporates in the periphery of the euro zone will be excluded, with bank borrowing their only option. So bank lending to low risk corporates may fall, raising the risk profile of any remaining bank lending.

The ECB may also have hoped that’s this suite of measures would help to push the euro down, but that has not transpired, at least for the moment, partly due to  Mario Draghi’s comment that  ‘we don’t anticipate that it will be necessary to reduce rates further’. In that context it is interesting that Peter Praet, a member of the Executive Board, has subsequently sought to emphasize that we are not yet at the lower bound on rates, an indication that the Bank was not happy that the euro appreciated post- conference.