William De Vijlder

Group Chief Economist BNP Paribas

Fiscal and monetary policy

William De Vijlder examines fiscal and monetary policy through the lens of government and central bank decisions (including the ECB, the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England), with a special focus on changes in a country’s budget balance and public sector debt.

BCE /EBC

The ECB: under pressure

Judging by the recent data, the acronym PEPP that was introduced last year when the ECB launched its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, could also be seen as a reference to the pandemic’s exceptional price pressures.  The upcoming governing council meeting and the new staff projections are eagerly awaited. Whether PEPP will be prolonged beyond March 2022 ultimately depends on the inflation data. It seems likely that the ECB will postpone its decision until after the summer in order to have a better view of the inflation outlook.

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Central bank inflation forecasts: ‘Trust us, we know better’

Strong belief in the quality of central bank economic forecasts enhances monetary transmission and hence the effectiveness of monetary policy. In the current environment of rising inflationary pressures, the belief of market participants that central banks have better forecasting skills should limit the rise in inflation expectations. Research casts doubt on whether such a belief is warranted. Although Fed staff projections tend to have lower forecast errors than private sector forecasts, the difference has narrowed since the 1990s. In the Eurozone, forecast errors for inflation of the Eurosystem/ECB staff projections were equal to those of the Survey of Professional Forecasters.

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Central banks and climate change

Central banks have become increasingly aware of the impact of climate change on price and financial stability. Moreover, by accepting collateral or via asset purchases, central banks are taking explicitly climate risks on their balance sheets. At the European Central Bank, climate change has become integral part of the monetary strategy review launched in 2020. A major question is whether climate objectives should be pursued in the conduct of monetary policy. The fear is that it could be seen as “mission creep”. At a minimum, one would expect the ECB to ask for more disclosure concerning climate-related factors for assets held on its balance sheet. But the question to what extent market neutrality should be abandoned in favour of greener objectives is still open. The outcome of the review should be announced in September 2021.

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FOMC

US: trying to read the mind of the Federal Reserve

The new economic projections of the FOMC members reflect a big but temporary boost to growth from the fiscal stimulus and the normalisation of economic activity as the adult population is vaccinated. They expect a limited, temporary increase of inflation. Four participants now expect that the circumstances would warrant an increase in the federal funds rate next year. Seven expect this to be the case in 2023. Fed chairman Powell was quick to point out that the projections are not a committee forecast and that the data do not justify a change in policy. This message clearly anchors short-term interest rates, whereas longer-term bond yields fluctuate on the waves of ease or unease about where the federal funds rate could be several years into the future.

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Towards an unwelcome tightening of financial conditions in the euro area?

The financial cycle, as captured by bond and equity market developments is very much globally synchronised, but, at present, there is a business cycle desynchronization between the US and the euro area. Rising euro area government bond yields, on the back of higher US yields, cannot be considered as a sign of economic strength. Quite to the contrary, they come at a bad moment. One would expect, at a minimum, a very strong statement from the ECB’s Governing Council on 11 March on its decisiveness to act should yields continue to rise. Markets would of course prefer immediate action. After all, the tool –the PEPP- is available so one might as well step up its use.

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Illustration ECOTV Mars

Does the rise of bond yields call for yield curve control?

Should central banks adopt a policy of yield curve control ? This debate has intensified following the important upward move of US bond yields. Central banks watchers are wondering what is the best reaction to adopt faced with this increase in bond yields. As a reminder, the increase in US bond yields is occurring against the background of an economy which is recovering, an additional major stimulus package which has been prepared by the Biden Administration, an ongoing very accommodating monetary environment and a very successful vaccination campaign.

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Dette

The cost of (talking about) public debt cancellation

Recently, several calls have been made for the ECB to cancel part of its government debt holdings.Such an operation would violate the EU Treaty. On economic grounds, it is unnecessary, given that the interest paid on the debt to the ECB flows back to governments in the form of dividends. It would actually entail a cost: higher inflation expectations and/or a higher inflation risk premium would cause an increase in bond yields. The extreme nature of the measure could also undermine confidence. In reality, the very low levels of interest rates imply that governments have a lot of time to bring their finances in better shape.Finally, should senior policy makers merely talk about the possibility of debt cancellation, this could also entail a cost: financial markets could consider that the unthinkable is gradually becoming less unthinkable.

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Public finance

US fiscal stimulus: doing not enough is the greater risk

The dire state of the labour market requires a major support effort for the economy. This view is shared by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen. The massive fiscal stimulus plan prepared by the Biden administration has received criticism from prominent economists. They argue that the plan is too big and could trigger a sizeable increase in inflation. In deciding on the size of the fiscal plan, risk management considerations play an important role. Doing not enough is clearly the greater risk. However, doing a lot will eventually force the Federal Reserve to demonstrate its independence by not shying away from raising rates despite the impact on government finances.

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2020 / Covid-19

2020: Entering a new era

2020 will leave its mark in History owing to the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic notably triggered a disruption of the supply-side, led central banks and governments to adjust fiscal and monetary policies to face the crisis.

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Monetary policy: today’s relief, tomorrow’s headache?

The Federal Reserve and the ECB have been highly successful in influencing asset prices as part of their effort to cushion the shock to the economy from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, one might wonder whether today’s relief could cause an investor’s headache tomorrow. The difficulty of an exit strategy does not imply that certain monetary tools should not be used in the first place. After all, they do have positive effects. However, the likelihood of a bumpy normalisation process of monetary policy calls for careful preparation by central banks as well as investors. These considerations could become particularly relevant should the recovery in 2021 end up surprising to the upside.

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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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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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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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