William De Vijlder

Group Chief Economist BNP Paribas

Unwarranted spread widening: measurement issues (part 2)

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Unwarranted spread widening: measurement issues

In recent weeks, the prospect of several ECB rate hikes has caused an increase in Bund yields and, unexpectedly, several sovereign spreads. Beyond a certain point, higher spreads may become unwarranted. Under such circumstances, the ECB might consider stepping in to avoid that its policy transmission would be impacted. Determining whether sovereign spreads have increased too much is a real challenge. Historically, based on a 20-week moving window, the relationship (beta) between the BTP-Bund spread and Bund yields fluctuates a lot, so this calls for taking a longer perspective. Using data since 2013, the current spread is in line with an estimate based on current Bund yields. Clearly, other economic variables should be added to the analysis. It shows the complexity of the task should the ECB commit to address unwarranted spread widening.

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The worrisome cost of worrying about recession

The global economy has been hit by multiple shocks this year: new Covid-19 cases in China, the war in Ukraine, rising interest rates. Financial market behaviour and the US Survey of Professional Forecasters point to mounting concerns about the risk of a recession. These worries come with a cost to the economy and may cause growth to slow down further. Some degree of concern is welcome because it enhances the effectiveness of a restrictive monetary policy. There is a tipping point however, beyond which slowdown fears become self-fulfilling. Addressing these would be difficult if by then inflation has not yet converged sufficiently to target.

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Récession

The recession narrative

Since the start of the year, media increasingly use the word recession and, over the same period, there was a significant increase in Treasury yields. The common driver behind these developments is, to a large degree probably, the more hawkish tone from the Federal Reserve. Unease about recession risk shows up in the latest quarterly Survey of Professional Forecasters conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Recession probabilities across the projection horizon have moved higher and they are now well above what we have seen in the past at this stage of the tightening cycle. Exceptionally high inflation requires aggressive rate hikes to bring it back under control. This implies a difficult balancing act for the Federal Reserve and explains the heightened concerns about recession risk.

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Inflation: shifting focus, shifting concerns

Historically, there is a close relationship in the US and the euro area between, on the one hand, a measure of price pressures based on survey data on manufacturing delivery times and input prices, and, on the other hand, core inflation. The recent flash purchasing managers’ indices show that price pressures may be peaking, thereby providing hope that inflation will follow in the not-too-distant future. This will focus the attention to the speed of decline in inflation. A very slow process would be highly discomforting, raising fears that ever-higher interest rates would end up causing a recession. Everybody wants slower growth to bring inflation under control, but nobody wants the growth engine to stall.

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Incertitude

Europe: the reaction of uncertainty to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine

Uncertainty matters greatly for households and businesses when taking decisions. It can have many causes: economic, economic policy, political or even geopolitical. Survey data of the European Commission show that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a huge jump in uncertainty, followed by a gradual decline. The war in Ukraine has triggered another, albeit more limited, increase. It will be important to monitor the development of uncertainty in the coming months at the level of consumers, businesses and individual countries. In the absence of a decline, one should expect that the negative impact shows up in spending and activity data.

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Inflation

Multiple dilemmas on the horizon

In most developed countries inflation is exceptionally high. It is widespread – it affects the vast majority of the components of the consumer price index – and, what’s more, it is persistent, as statistical analysis shows. It should therefore take time to return to a level in line with central banks’ objectives.

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Inflation

Inflation and the sustainability of public sector debt

At first glance, higher inflation seems like good news for governments. After all, inflation erodes the real value of debt and lowers the public debt/GDP ratio through a higher nominal GDP. However, the impact of inflation on public finances depends on whether higher inflation was anticipated by financial markets and on its expected persistence. Both factors would influence the borrowing cost and hence the dynamics of the debt ratio through the difference between this cost and nominal GDP growth. Public finances should benefit from having a central bank that is credible in its ability to keep inflation expectations well anchored and is not afraid of tightening policy when inflation has moved well above target. In the euro area, higher Bund yields cause higher sovereign spreads, reflecting a higher risk premium, which in the longer run will worsen the dynamics of the debt ratio. It implies that fiscal policy also has a role to play by keeping the debt ratio under control.

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Central banks

Central banks: the need and courage to act

Elevated inflation, if left unaddressed, could cause a de-anchoring of inflation expectations, an increase in risk premia, greater price distortion and hence longer-term costs for the economy. Although at first glance, central banks face a dilemma -hiking interest rates to lower inflation at the risk of causing an increase in unemployment or focusing on the labour market and accepting the risk that inflation stays high for longer-, they can only choose between acting swiftly or face an even bigger challenge later to bring inflation back under control. Recent statements by officials of the Federal Reserve, the ECB and the Bank of England acknowledge the need to act but their decisions and guidance are very different and reflect the differences in the macro environment.     

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Dollar vs euro

ECB: the weaker euro, a blessing or a headache?

At first glance, the significant depreciation of the euro looks like a blessing for the ECB. Via its mechanical effect on import prices, it should remove any remaining doubt about the necessity of hiking the deposit rate. However, upon closer inspection, there is concern that the weaker euro, through its effect on inflation and hence households’ purchasing power, will weigh on growth. This would warrant a cautious approach in terms of policy tightening. On balance, a deposit rate hike in the second half of the year looks like a certainty, but the real question is about the scale and timing of subsequent rate increases. This will depend on how the inflation outlook develops.  

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Inflation

Global: inflation persistence and why it matters

Elevated inflation has become widespread. It raises the risk of further price increases because companies may be more inclined to raise prices when most others are doing the same. This would make high  inflation more persistent, implying that it would take more time for inflation to converge back to target.  Persistently high inflation could weaken the credibility of the central bank and cause an un-anchoring of long-term inflation expectations. To pre-empt such a development, monetary authorities could decide to tighten policy aggressively. Research by the Federal Reserve shows that US inflation has become more persistent. This helps to understand the increasingly hawkish rhetoric of Federal Reserve officials and their insistence on the need to frontload monetary tightening. The ECB is also monitoring inflation persistence closely. This could mean that, depending on the data, the first rate hike could come sooner after all, even as early as July.

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US yield curve

US: should we worry about the flattening of the yield curve? Not yet.

 The US yield curve has flattened, giving rise to comments that, given the historical experience, risk of a recession is increasing. Yet, when drawing conclusions, caution is warranted. Market-based inflation expectations, which are very high, should decline after a number of rate hikes. This could pull down long-term nominal bond yields, leading to a further flattening or even an inversion of the curve. However, a decline in inflation is growth-supportive. Another reason for caution is that due to past central bank asset purchases, the slope of the yield curve is less steep. Past QE may thus reduce its quality as a leading indicator of economic growth. For these reasons, an alternative indicator has been developed. The near-term forward spread compares market-based expectations for short-term interest in 18 months’ time with current short-term rates. Its record as leading indicator is better and, what’s more, the current spread is very large. This implies that we should not yet be concerned about the flattening of the yield curve.

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Eurozone: what drives companies’ elevated selling price expectations?

An exceptionally high number of Eurozone companies plan to raise selling prices. It is unlikely that, at this stage, unit labour cost growth would already be a key driver. Rising input costs and strong demand are playing a crucial role, whereby well-filled order books make it easier for companies to increase their prices. Selling price expectations of euro area companies are much higher than what would be expected based on their historical relationship with input prices and order book levels. It seems that when more companies are raising prices, others will be inclined to do the same. This broad-based nature of the increase of inflation could slow down the reaction of inflation to slower demand growth.

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Consommation inflation

Eurozone: household spending under pressure from inflation

A priori, rising inflation and inflation expectations, reflecting robust growth in demand and economic activity, should boost household spending by reducing real interest rates. Today’s situation is different. In many advanced economies, inflation is exceptionally high and to a considerable degree explained by negative supply shocks. In the EU and the euro area, household confidence recorded a big drop in March. Although unemployment expectations have increased, the main reason seems to be concern about high and rising inflation. Eurozone consumer confidence measures provide information about spending up to three quarters into the future. Given their recent decline, one should expect below-average consumer spending growth over the coming months. However, unemployment expectations that are still below their long-term average should provide some support to spending.  

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Cyclical outlook dominated by a shock to expectations

The latest cyclical surveys show the impact of the war in Ukraine. Confidence of households and companies has dropped, although, concerning the latter, significant differences exist between countries and sectors. In Germany, the IFO business climate has plummeted whereas in France, the decline is more limited. Services tend to be doing better than manufacturing. Importantly, employment expectations of companies remain at an elevated level. It is a key factor to monitor in view of what it signals about companies’ confidence in the medium outlook as well as for its influence on households’ sentiment about their future personal situation. This last point is particularly important given the plunge in household confidence, which is largely related to concern about the general economic outlook. Undoubtedly, the jump in energy prices and rising inflation play an important role in this respect.

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Federal Reserve

Federal Reserve: when will it stop hiking?

The FOMC has started a new tightening cycle and its members project 6 additional increases in the federal funds rate this year and 4 more in 2023. This hawkish stance is unsurprising. After all, the policy rate is very low, inflation is exceptionally high and the economy is strong. Given the Fed’s dual mandate, the pace and extent of rate hikes will depend on the evolution of inflation as well as the unemployment rate. Previous tightening cycles suggest that concerns about the risk of an increase in the unemployment rate have played an important role in the decision to stop hiking. The central bank will have to hope that inflation has dropped sufficiently by the time that this risk would re-emerge.

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European Central Bank

ECB: enhanced policy optionality

Since its launch, the ECB’s asset purchase programme has had, through various transmission channels, a significant impact on financial markets, activity and inflation. In recent months, doubts about the positive effects of additional purchases and concerns about possible negative consequences have increased. Against this background, the ECB has cut the link between the timing of the end of net asset purchases and the rate lift-off. This is a welcome decision that increases the governing council’s optionality. The new staff macroeconomic projections remind us of the pervasive uncertainty we are facing. In such an environment, monetary policy can be nothing else than data-dependent.  

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Are markets pricing in an increase in stagflation risk?

The war in Ukraine has caused a jump in commodity prices that will trigger a further increase in inflation and will weigh on GDP growth.  Unsurprisingly, the narrative that stagflation is in for a comeback is gaining ground, as shown by the increasing number of media references to this topic. Stagflation is a multi-year phenomenon of high inflation and a high rate of unemployment. Although inflation is high, the other conditions are clearly not met today. Monitoring financial markets developments is useful in gauging whether stagflation risk is on the rise. This can be done by comparing the developments in breakeven inflation and the high yield corporate bond spread. In the US, both have increased recently but it seems premature to interpret this as a sign that markets have already started to price an increase in stagflation risk. After all, these developments are of a very recent nature and the high yield spread is still low.

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Uncertainty

Radical geopolitical uncertainty

The war in Ukraine influences the euro area economy through different channels: increased uncertainty, financial market volatility, reduced exports, higher prices for oil, gas and certain other commodities. Although the economic channels of transmission are clear, the size of the impact is not. Counterfactual analysis of last year’s jump in oil and gas prices provides a reference point but the geopolitical nature of the economic shock reduces the reliability of model-based estimates. Moreover, the other transmission channels should also have an impact on growth. Finally, there is a genuine concern that, the longer the crisis lasts, the bigger the economic consequences because eventually, months of elevated uncertainty would end up weighing heavily on household and business confidence.

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Companies’ pricing power and the inflation outlook

The question of the persistence of high inflation matters because it will determine the extent of monetary tightening necessary to bring inflation under control. Key factors are growth of unit labour costs, the price elasticity of demand and its mirror image, the pricing power of companies.

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Eurozone sovereign spreads: haunted by the stylised facts

Investor behaviour is strongly influenced by stylised facts, i.e. the historical relationship between economic variables and financial markets. When Bund yields increase, the spread of certain sovereign issuers tends to widen. This positive correlation will be perpetuated when enough investors believe that the historical relationship continues to hold. This was again illustrated in recent weeks by the significant widening of certain sovereign spreads in reaction to the rise in Bund yields. It creates a challenge for governments, due to higher borrowing costs, but also for the ECB, because of its influence on monetary transmission. This explains the ECB’s insistence on the flexibility offered by the PEPP reinvestments.

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ECB

ECB: rules and a lot of discretion

Based on Christine Lagarde’s latest press conference, it is clear that the ECB’s Governing Council view on the inflation outlook has evolved quite significantly. Since the December meeting, upside risks to inflation have increased, raising unanimous concern within the Council. Financial markets interpreted this as a signal that the first rate hike might come earlier than previously expected and bond yields moved significantly higher. The ECB’s forward guidance, which can also be considered as a description of its reaction function, suggests a rule-based approach to setting interest rates with clear conditions in terms of inflation outlook and recent price developments. In reality, a lot of judgment will be used as well. This makes perfect sense given the many uncertainties surrounding the outlook, although it makes the outcome less predictable. With this caveat in mind, we expect a first 25bp rate hike in September, to be followed by a similar increase in December.

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About William De Vijlder

Group Chief
Economist
BNP Paribas
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