William De Vijlder

Group Chief Economist BNP Paribas

Economic cycle

How are growth, inflation and employment trends evolving in a given country or region? William De Vijlder examines the cyclical fluctuations of an economy in crisis, expansion, recession and recovery phases as part of a cyclical analysis.

Global: supply side disruption, some hopeful signs

The current business cycle is atypical and this influences the analytical approach, with a focus on the supply side and whether it will be able to meet the level of demand in the economy, rather than on the demand side. Supply side disruption has been a key issue but recent PMI data suggest that we may have seen the worst. In the euro area and the US, the percentage of companies that are confronted with rising input prices and are contemplating to increase their output prices has started to decline and delivery lags are shortening. The Federal Reserve of New York’s global supply chain pressures index seems to have peaked. However, anecdotal evidence suggests visibility remains very low. Given the importance of supply disruption for the growth and inflation outlook, it implies that forecast uncertainty will remain very high. 

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Illustration ECOTVWeek Jan 2021

Euros in our pockets: looking back, looking ahead

20 years ago, on 1 January 2002, the biggest cash changeover in history took place when 12 EU countries introduced euro banknotes and coins. Today, the euro is the currency of 19 EU countries and more than 340 million people. It benefits from a high degree of popular support. Since its launch, the euro has gone through different phases: a first decade with good growth but increasing imbalances; the sovereign debt crisis; the years of disinflation and finally the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking ahead, important challenges remain: the project of launching a digital euro, finalising banking union and making significant progress towards a capital markets union. In addition there is the need to reform economic governance, which is big challenge. In the nineties, huge adjustment efforts were undertaken under external pressure, the argument being that they were necessary to be able to join the euro. Now, the euro area countries find it hard to agree on what pressure is needed to steer national policies in a direction that would benefit all.

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2022

2022: assessing upside and downside risks

Judging by the latest forecasts, the outlook for growth in 2022 is positive and, at some point during the year, inflation should start to decline. Uncertainty remains elevated however so there is a risk that key economic variables evolve differently than anticipated. The biggest ‘known unknown’ concerns the future development of the pandemic. Real GDP growth could surprise to the upside should inflation decline faster than expected. A tightening of financial conditions, more supply disruptions and inflation staying high for longer are the key sources of downside risk to growth.  

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Year 2022

2022: towards the big normalisation

After last year’s sudden, deep and a-typical recession, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, this year has also been a-typical in several respects. Supply bottlenecks and supply disruption have been dominant themes throughout the year, acting as a headwind to growth, both directly but also indirectly, by causing a pick-up in inflation to levels not seen in decades. Under the assumption that the pandemic is gradually becoming less of an issue thanks to the vaccination levels, 2022 should see a normalisation in terms of growth, inflation and monetary policy.

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Ciel menaçant

Three headwinds to growth

In his testimony to a commission of the US Senate, Jerome Powell has acknowledged that inflation is less transitory than considered hitherto, adding that, as a consequence, a faster tapering seems warranted. Despite this hawkish tone, the reaction of US Treasuries was muted. This may, amongst other things, reflect concern about how the pandemic might evolve. The new Omicron variant undeniably represents an uncertainty shock for households and companies. It comes on top of a negative supply shock that is already a clear headwind to demand. It clearly makes the task of central banks more complicated than ever when deciding how much of a monetary headwind they can create.

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Emploi

European area labour market bottlenecks: structural aspects

Companies in the euro area report record-high levels of labour shortages. These are partly cyclical in nature but structural factors also play a role. Last year’s annual investment survey of the European Investment Bank shows that the availability of staff with the right skills is the second most important factor weighing on long-term investment decisions in the EU. Structural labour shortages can weigh on potential GDP growth through its impact on capital formation, innovation and productivity. Economic and in particular education policy including vocational training and lifelong learning schemes will have to make sure that, going forward, the available skills, both in quantity and quality, fit the evolving needs.

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Euro area labour market bottlenecks: cyclical aspects

In the euro area, business surveys report record-high staff shortages. They represent a headwind to growth and raise the possibility of faster wage growth and a pick-up in inflation. Thus far, growth of negotiated wages has been subdued but, given its historical relationship with labour market bottlenecks, an acceleration seems likely. Despite the difficulties of companies in filling vacancies, labour market slack has remained above pre-pandemic levels. This situation should improve in the coming months but whether this eases labour market tensions depends on companies’ hiring intentions. Based on recent surveys, these should remain elevated.

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Weaker US household confidence, a source of concern?

A recent academic paper argues that, considering the significant recent decline of consumer expectations, the US could be entering recession. However, Covid-19 complicates the interpretation of household confidence data. Fluctuations in infections play a role and the recovery from last year’s recession as well as other factors have caused a jump in inflation. Given the historically high quits rate, the weakening in household sentiment probably reflects mounting concern about the impact of inflation on spending power. Something similar has been observed in the latest consumer confidence data for France.

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Inflation

The risks associated with transitory but high inflation

Although the significant increase in inflation in most advanced economies is expected to be transitory, it is necessary to focus on the potential consequences of inflation staying temporarily high for longer. Companies that hitherto have been reluctant to raise prices might do so after all, higher inflation could weigh on spending but also cause wage demands to grow, inflation expectations could drift higher, the market sensitivity to growth and inflation surprises would increase and there could be fears about a change in the reaction function of the central bank. In the coming months, investors and central banks will scrutinise data in parallel, but the former will react more quickly should inflation stay high.

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EcoTVWeek - October 15 2021

Unease about the distribution of risks

Although the forecasts from the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook paint a quite favourable picture, there is unease about the distribution of risks. Risks to real GDP growth are tilted to the downside, a key factor being new Covid-19 variants that could hit countries with low vaccination levels particularly hard. Growth would also suffer if the increase in energy prices were to continue. Inflation risks on the other hand are skewed to the upside. Supply-demand mismatches may last longer than expected and the energy shock could cause second round effects. As a consequence, there is great uncertainty about the inflation outlook. Central banks will need to be patient, waiting for inflation to trend down, but also vigilant and ready to act if necessary. Their messages will be followed closely by financial markets, which, until now, have reacted in a calm way to the increase in inflation.

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Illustration Edito 21.36

Market timing, the zero lower bound and QE

Successful market timing between equities and cash requires high skill levels. Very low official interest rates, through their impact on market rates, create a disincentive for doing market timing because they increase the break-even skill level. The same applies for quantitative easing. These considerations are important from a financial stability perspective. Growing investor reluctance to do market timing will probably lead to a decline in equity market volatility and an increase in equity valuations. The former provides a false sense of safety whereas the latter increases the sensitivity to negative news and hence increases the riskiness.

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Illustration blog EcoP Quarter 4 2021

Underlying strength, but gathering clouds

Recent data show business and consumer sentiment has peaked and real GDP growth is expected to slow down whilst
remaining well above potential. A key factor in this respect is the self-reinforcing interaction between spending, company
profits and employment, against a background of easy monetary and financial conditions. In using the popular metaphor,
until recently, the economic sky looked quite blue but clouds have been gathering. The message of central banks should
become a bit more hawkish, in the US, political disagreement influences the economic agenda of the Biden administration
and China is going through a major adjustment phase. Most importantly, supply bottlenecks continue to weigh on growth
whereas the jump in gas and energy prices is raising concerns that inflation might stay high for somewhat longer.

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Edito 21.35

Bad inflation clouds outlook

When the pick-up in inflation during a growth upswing is driven by the demand side, inflation is considered to be good. However, inflation can also be bad. In that case, higher prices do not follow from e.g. higher wages due to a tight labour market. Bad inflation rather reflects supply-side shocks. This is, to some degree, the situation that is unfolding in the Eurozone and other economies due to the recent huge increase of oil and gas prices. Bad inflation weighs on households’ real disposable income and hence spending. The impact is expected to be larger for households at the lower end of the income distribution, considering that a bigger portion of their expenditures goes to fuel and in particular heating, and that they also have a lower savings rate.

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Vitesse croissance

Growth hits speed limit

Judging by recent survey data, it seems many advanced economies are hitting against their speed limit in terms of economic growth. This has several consequences. It creates upside risks to inflation, something which is acknowledged by the Federal Reserve and the ECB. Labour shortages can cause faster wage growth but they should also underpin consumer confidence and spending. Supply bottlenecks should boost company investments. However, when growth is at the speed limit, future economic volatility may increase. Finally, it also creates an analytical challenge in understanding whether softer business surveys are demand or supply driven.

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Dollar engrenage

US inflation: increasing discomfort

Annual inflation has reached 5.3% in the US in June. Its drivers are still very concentrated but there is concern that they will spread. Anecdotal evidence is accumulating that price pressures faced by companies are increasing. Price pressures as reported in the ISM survey send the same signal. Historically, they have been highly correlated with producer price inflation and consumer price inflation but the transmission depends on factors such as pricing power, competitive position, labour market bottlenecks, etc. The next several months will be crucial for the Federal Reserve and for financial markets, considering the Fed’s conviction that the inflation increase should be temporary. The bond market has bought into this view thus far but, going forward, its sensitivity to upside surprises to inflation should be higher than normal.

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Loading 2021

A global macro economic analysis after 18 months of pandemic

A conjunction of developments has led in the first semester of the 2021 to a global improvement in business and consumer sentiment in advanced economies. Vaccination campaigns gathered speed while the number of new infections declined. Monetary policy support also played a part as well as fiscal policy. International trade and capital flows created international spillover effects which led to a sizeable improvement in the assessment of export orders.

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William De Vijlder

Outlook for the second half of the year: it’s not over

A combination of positive developments has led in the first half of the year to a broad-based improvement in business and consumer sentiment in advanced economies: successful vaccination campaigns, a declining number of new infections, ongoing policy support and positive international spillover effects. Gradually, the ‘mechanical’ recovery in sectors which previously had suffered from restrictions is expected to lose steam. Supply bottlenecks and certain price increases may end up acting as a headwind. The growth cycle, despite a gradual slowdown, is far from over but neither is the fight against Covid-19. There is increasing concern that new variants would lead to precautionary behaviour, thereby weighing on certain spending categories. This concern has already triggered a significant decline in bond yields, despite concerns that in the US inflation might stay higher for longer. It also means that central bank policy guidance will be a key point of attention in the second half of the year.

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Looking beyond peak growth

The first half of the year has seen a broad-based improvement in business and consumer sentiment in advanced economies but elevated levels of business surveys reduce the likelihood of further significant increases. The third quarter is expected to see the peak in quarter-over-quarter GDP growth this year. Nevertheless, over the remainder of the forecast horizon –which runs until the end of next year- quarterly growth is expected to stay above potential. This favourable outlook for the real economy brings challenges for financial markets. Surprising to the upside in terms of earnings will become more difficult. Moreover, there is the question of the inflation outlook. For the time being, both the Federal Reserve and markets are relaxed about it but we should expect that over the coming months, the market sensitivity to growth and inflation data will be higher than normal in view of what they would imply for the Fed’s policy stance.

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