William De Vijlder

Group Chief Economist BNP Paribas

What if the road to Covid-19 immunity is longer than expected?

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Inflation

Pent-up demand to trigger inflation pick-up

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a decline in inflation and, in most euro area countries, an increase in the inflation dispersion between sectors. It will take considerable time until activity has been restored sufficiently to generate labour market bottlenecks, which –in the absence of exogenous shocks- are a necessary condition to see a broad-based and lasting increase in inflation. This suggests that for the coming years, we should expect inflation to fluctuate around a slowly rising trend. In the course of 2021, the unleashing of pent-up demand –under the assumption that a vaccine is sufficiently widely deployed- could cause a temporary pick-up in inflation. In this respect, a decline in the price elasticity of demand will play a key role.

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Blog édito 20.42

Announcement of vaccine cuts tail risk

The announcement that a Covid-19 vaccine that is under development is highly effective caused major reactions in financial markets, reflecting a feeling that the growth outlook has changed. The prospect of a vaccine offers hope that in the medium run activity will normalise, but the positive impact on growth will take time to materialise. Clearly, the view that better times are ahead of us very much depends on the horizon one takes. However, decisions of households and businesses not only depend on expected growth of income and profits but also on the distribution around the growth forecast. The prospect of a vaccine reduces the probability of very negative outcomes and this reduction in uncertainty should eventually contribute to a pick-up in growth.

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Illustration blog EcoTV du 13/11/2020

The stop-go recovery

After a mechanical and spectacular recovery in economic activity during the third quarter, there seems to be a real risk that the euro zone will see the recovery come to an abrupt halt in the final quarter of the year. This will be due to the sharp rise in the number of new coronavirus cases, the measures taken to restrict the spread of the disease and the general feeling of uncertainty that will hold back spending. This said, we can already look forward to the impetus to recovery from a relaxation of these measures once the number of new cases has been brought back under control. We are therefore living in a stop-start economy, with strong acceleration alternating with brutal slowdowns. Such an environment, with its lack of visibility beyond the short term, is depressing the propensity of businesses to invest. Households may also delay spending on large-ticket items. Monetary and, to an even greater extent, fiscal support will thus remain crucial. Spillover effects from the rest of the world will also play a key role. In this context, one thinks of China and of the USA, where a new stimulus package is being drawn up.

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Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy takes centre stage (and will stay there)

Market action last week largely reflected expectations of how the result of the US elections would shift the balance between fiscal and monetary stimulus. Federal Reserve Chair Powell insisted on the need for more fiscal policy support but also hinted that, if need be, more monetary easing would occur. In the UK a coordinated approach has been adopted. The Bank of England will increase its purchases of government bonds and the government will prolong its income support for employees being out of work. Fiscal policy will remain centre stage for many years to come.

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Crise + Covid 19

The stop-start recovery

Activity was already slowing before the new lockdown measures and the latter will act as an additional brake. We are living in a stop-start economy. The contraction of activity should be more limited than in March-April. The measures are less strict for economic activity, businesses are better prepared and exports should benefit from a more dynamic business environment, in particular in Asia, compared to what happened in spring. The stop-start recovery should also have negative consequences that go beyond the near term. Uncertainty may last for longer which entails increased risk of bigger scars like a rise in long-term unemployment or corporate bankruptcies. It may intensify disinflationary forces and increases the burden on public finances. It will also take more time until the pre-pandemic activity level will be reached.

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Dette

The stairway of public indebtedness

For a large sample of developed economies, government debt as a percentage of GDP has been on a rising trend over the past 40 years. High public sector debt weakens the resilience of the economy to cope with interest rate and growth shocks.This calls for embarking, at some point in time, on a fiscal consolidation. Clearly, now is not the time. The economy is still recovering from the Covid-19 shock and the outlook remains highly uncertain. Nor is there any urgency, considering the very low interest rates. However, the absence of urgency in the near term should not make us forget about the necessity to act at a later stage. Otherwise, the resilience of the economy would weaken further. It would also represent a bet that in every downturn, central bank QE will come to the rescue.

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Economic policy

Supply-side policy for a post-Covid19 world

The Covid-19 pandemic will have profound longer-term consequences. Certain industries will benefit, directly or indirectly, whereas others will suffer.The idea of thriving industries full of new opportunities and others struggling to survive reminds us of Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Such a process can entail huge costs in the short run. Research shows the key role played by active labour market programmes. More broadly, economic policy not only needs to focus on the demand side but also, and increasingly, on the supply side so as to avoid that the pandemic acts as a lasting drag on growth.

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Economic growth

Will companies use better cash flows to invest?

A key question in assessing the pace of the recovery in coming quarters is what will happen to corporate investment. Financial analysts are expecting profits of US companies to increase. If confirmed, we can expect better cash flows which, based on historical relationships, should lead, with some delay, to a rise in capital formation by companies. However, there is a possibility that companies which have seen a pandemic-induced rise in indebtedness would prefer to use their extra cash to pay back debt. Cash flow uncertainty is another factor that could weigh on the willingness to invest.

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Does quantitative easing represent a free lunch for governments?

In recent decades, the experience in many countries has been that the decline of the public debt ratio during expansions did not compensate for the increase during recessions. This could end up creating concern about sovereign risk and influence the borrowing cost. Under the assumption of permanent reinvestment of maturing paper, significant holdings by the central bank of government paper as a result of quantitative easing, could limit this risk.
This depends on the interest rate on excess reserves and on whether such a policy ends up generating higher inflation and/or inflation expectations.

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Bloomberg Interview 20200929

William De Vijlder’s interview on Bloomberg TV – September 29, 2020

In his interview on “Bloomberg Markets: European Open”, William De Vijlder, Chief Economist at BNP Paribas, gives his view on ECB’s leeway on growth and inflation against the background of the pandemic-induced recession. The strenghtening of euro, fiscal dominance as well as uncertainty (surrounding notably the next American election) will also be discussed.

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Monetary policy

QE forever: on the slippery slope towards fiscal dominance?

Declining effectiveness of monetary policy and increased fiscal policy space make the case for increased public debt issuance in combination with quantitative easing to boost growth. There is concern that such policy coordination would lead to fiscal dominance whereby monetary policy is dictated by considerations in terms of public finances to maintain public debt sustainability. Once the pandemic will be behind us, governments will have the responsibility to improve their public finances. Inaction in this respect would put the burden on the ECB when fighting future downturns. It would be a different type of fiscal dominance.

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FED

US monetary policy goes inclusive

Over the past 10 years, fostering inclusive growth has moved higher up the agenda of governments, international institutions and, increasingly, companies. Under Chairman Powell, it has become a key topic for the Federal Reserve through the focus on the heterogeneity of the labour market situation of different socio-economic groups. It has led to the view that pre-emptive tightening based on a declining unemployment rate is unwarranted. On the contrary, it may very well stop people from finding a job.  It will be interesting to see whether other central banks and in particular the ECB in the context of its strategy review, will follow in the Fed’s footsteps.

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ECB: patience required

The outcome of the ECB meeting was eagerly awaited considering the latest inflation data, the strengthening of the euro and the Federal Reserve’s new strategy of targeting average inflation. The implicit message from the ECB President’s press conference was “be patient” on the three areas of concern. Inflation is projected to pick up whilst staying well below the target, the euro exchange rate is being closely monitored and the sheer number of strategy review workstreams implies it will take quite some time before we learn about the outcome in terms of the inflation objective.

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Illustration EcoTVW du 4/09

The headaches of the ECB

The Covid-19 represents a massive disinflationary shock because of the demand shortfall it creates. This has triggered a very strong reaction of central banks across the globe, including the ECB. The ECB’s action –in particular the PEPP- has been successful in maintaining fluid financing, both bank-based and capital-market based. Nevertheless, the ECB has a headache, three actually. Inflation is too low and declining, the strong euro reinforces this development and there is concern that the change in the longer-term goal of the Fed, which will now target inflation averaging 2 percent over time, will complicate matters.

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La Fed

The global repercussions of the Federal Reserve’s inflation averaging strategy

The Fed’s new inflation averaging strategy should have global real and financial spillover effects. The former refer to international trade whereby a more sustained expansion of US GDP should pull along the economies of its trading partners via increased US imports. The financial spillovers are driven by capital flows, monetary policy and risk appetite. These factors are highly intertwined. The new Fed strategy will also force other central banks to revisit their own strategy. This creates an issue for the ECB.

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FED

The Federal Reserve enters a new era of inflation targeting

The Federal Reserve has changed its longer-run goals. Going forward, monetary policy will focus on the shortfall of employment from its maximum level, rather than on the deviations from this level. More importantly, the central bank will now seek to achieve inflation that averages 2 percent over time. The announcement implies a more accommodative stance because the timing of the first rate hike is now pushed further into the future. It also means that, eventually, the Fed’s reaction function will become more difficult to read: when will average inflation –a concept that remains to be defined- warrant a policy tightening? Such ambiguity would then lead to increased volatility, unless guidance takes an even bigger role.

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Incertitude

Looking beyond the second quarter GDP numbers

Unsurprisingly, this week’s GDP numbers for the second quarter were exceptionally bad. The third quarter should see strong quarterly growth, if only because of a powerful base effect. It also leaves room for disappointment however, should the growth momentum start to slip over the summer. In the US, this already seems to be the case. In the euro area, business surveys continue to improve and the employment expectations indicator sees a marked increase. Households are not convinced however and their unemployment expectations have remained broadly stable.

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Illustration EcoTV Week du 31/07

The euro area economy: doing better

Survey data for the euro area continue to improve. The flash purchasing managers’ indices for July have passed the 50 hurdle in manufacturing and services as well as for the composite index, implying activity is expanding again. In addition, export orders are improving. Although companies feel more confident than the month before, the level of confidence is still rather low compared to historical averages. This is illustrated in the latest data for German and French business sentiment: better but starting from a low level. Caution continues to prevail, which shows up very clearly in the employment component of the business surveys. A lot has to do with the concern about how the pandemic will evolve. Against this background, the fiscal stimulus at the national and EU level will be more than welcome.

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Commission européenne

The European Council agreement: not perfect, but truly historical

The European Council agreement this week on a recovery effort is, inevitably, a compromise but it is nevertheless historical It consists of a combination of grants and loans to member states and is funded by debt issued at the EU-level It sets a precedent for the management of future crisis situations with a better balance between monetary and fiscal policy. The possibility of such a two-pronged approach, reduces economic tail risk, which should structurally support confidence of households, companies and investors. The targeted allocation of the grants to countries which are in greater need, is another historical achievement and should generate a larger multiplier effect.

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William De Vijlder

About William De Vijlder

Group Chief
Economist
BNP Paribas
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