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.

The struggle to find good news about the economy

Usually, during a period of sluggish growth and rising official rates, bad news about business activity and demand is often welcomed by the stock market, as it often causes central banks to take a more cautious approach during their monetary-tightening cycle.

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Towards a frugal winter

 Recent economic data paint a picture of increasing concerns about the economic outlook. In the US, high inflation and rising interest rates play a key role. In the euro area, the same factors play a role -although interest rates are still below those in the US- but skyrocketing energy prices and gas supply disruption are additional forces that should drag down growth. Easing price pressures in business surveys are a hopeful development but selling price expectations remain nevertheless exceptionally high given the weakening of order books. This could point to input price pressures that force businesses to charge higher prices to protect their margins. It is to be feared that slowing demand will make this increasingly difficult, forcing companies to cut back on investments and new hirings.

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American flag / capitole

US: an uneasy feeling (part 2)

Recent data send conflicting signals about the outlook for the US economy. A survey of chief financial officers shows they have become gloomier and the nowcast of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is forecasting a contraction of real GDP in the second quarter. This would mean two successive quarters of negative GDP growth, which corresponds to the popular definition of a recession. However, the labour market continues to be strong and the majority of indicators used by the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee are still in an uptrend. This suggests there is no imminent risk of recession yet.

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Statut de la liberté

US: an uneasy feeling

The chief financial officers of US companies have become gloomier about the outlook for the US economy. The latest Duke University CFO survey shows that 20.8% of the participants expect negative GDP growth over the next 12 months. The assessment about the own-company prospects has declined far less, leading to a record high gap with the outlook for the economy as a whole. This is a source of concern: how long can own-company confidence remain high if the overall environment continues to deteriorate? Interest rate developments will play a key role in this respect. Of those US companies that plan to borrow, two-thirds would reduce their investments in case of an increase of borrowing costs of 3 percent. It is a sobering message considering the expected tightening of monetary policy.

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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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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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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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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 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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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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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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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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