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.

The Return of Inflation?

Inflation in the Euro Area has risen sharply of late, with the flash estimate for February at 2%, from 0.6% in November, and is now  at the highest rate in four years. Consumer prices have also picked up momemtum in the other major economies: In the UK the inflation rate has accelerated from 0.9% to 1.8% in four months while in the US the increase is from 1.6% to 2.5% over the same period. As a consequence markets have shifted away from the fear of deflation and now the issue is whether this upturn in prices will prove short-lived or is it the beginning of a more sustained period of inflation, ultimately requiring  a faster policy response than currently priced in to markets. That change is clearest in the US, with the Fed now expected to raise rates again this month.

The more benign interpretation of the inflation trend  is supported by measures of core inflation, which exclude volatile components like Food and Energy. On that definition, the euro inflation rate is at 0.9%, unchanged over the last three months, and so the rise in inflation is due to a rebound in energy prices ( up an annual 9.2% in February) and unprocessed food ( plus 5.2%). These changes partly reflect base effects ( large monthly falls a year ago now dropping out of the annual figure) and the recent increase in global commodity prices, notably crude oil. In the US the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is the core consumption price deflator, and that is rising at an annual rate of 1.7%, or at an annualised  rate of 1.6% over the past three months, again not flashing red.

What determines core inflation? Profit margins have an impact ( can firms pass on higher import prices in the UK for example) but the main factor is labour costs, and in most countries wage growth remains subdued and is much lower relative to unemployment than in the past. Why this is the case is the subject of much debate but in the absence of a pronounced pick up in wage inflation it is difficult to see price inflation accelerating for a prolonged period.

Headline inflation is what matters to consumers, of course, and the recent rise will dampen real incomes and  probably reduce real consumption and hence GDP growth. A 2% inflation rate is therefore  worse for the economy  than a 1% rate, yet Central Bankers have argued the opposite, as most use a 2% inflation figure as their definition of stable prices. How this became conventional wisdom is hard to fathom ( prices rise by 22% in a decade and just shy of 50% in 20 years, hardly a good measure of stability) while the fear of deflation is strong, even though Japan, the land of falling prices, has not really suffered in terms of its real GDP growth per head. Inflation at 2% may be fine with wage growth of 4%, as was the case , but not if wage growth is 2% or below, as appears to be the ‘new normal’. There is not much central bankers can do in the short term to influence energy or food prices, of course, but higher headline inflation will dampen real spending in the absence of an acceleration in nominal wage growth.