Today’s ECB press conference (3 Feb 2022) marked a very significant change in ECB rhetoric, and it now looks far more likely that interest rates are on the way up; the market is currently priced for short term rates to be 0.3% higher by year-end and to turn positive by the spring of 2023.
That may or may not materialise but it is clear that the recent upside surprises to EA inflation has shaken the ECB’s previous belief that inflation would fall steadily in the early months of 2022. That view had prompted President Lagarde to state that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that rates would rise at all this year, but when asked she refused to reiterate that line, arguing now that ‘the situation had changed’ and that the ECB was data dependent. Lagarde also noted a few times that the unemployment rate in the EA had fallen to a historic low of 7%, thus raising the risk of ‘second round’ effects i.e. higher wages feeding into higher costs and prices.
Inflation is now deemed subject to ‘upside risks’ and given that and the overall hawkish tone it was odd to see that the monetary policy statement still included the line ‘the Governing Council expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at their present or lower levels‘ (my italics), presumably an oversight.
The March meeting now assumes greater importance, as that will include updated Staff forecasts. The inflation projection for this year will almost certainly be revised much higher(it was 3.2% in the last forecast) but the crucial factor will be the figure for 2024, which was 1.8% and hence below target but could now move up to 2% or above.
The timing of any rate increase is complicated somewhat by the present ECB commitment to end QE before raising rates. The PEPP ends next month but as it stands there is no end-date fixed for net asset purchases, which from October are set at €20bn a month. So to raise rates this year the Governing council would first have to terminate net purchases.
What does this mean for Irish mortgage rates?. Any initial moves by the ECB would be through the deposit rate, which would affect market rates and hence new variable mortgage rates and new fixed rates. The refinancing rate, which affects Tracker mortgages would be unchanged initially but would probably rise as well as we move into 2023. This is not set in stone and weaker economic growth or a spike out in government borrowing costs might change things, but as its stands it appears the ECB is likely to tighten monetary policy sooner rather than later.