William De Vijlder

Group Chief Economist BNP Paribas

Unwarranted spread widening: measurement issues (part 2)

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William De Vijlder

Inflation: a cycle in three phases

Over the past two years, the world economy has suddenly moved from too little to too much inflation. Three phases can be distinguished. The first phase concerns the inflation impulse, which was driven by four factors: an increase in demand, a reallocation of demand, supply bottlenecks and a shift in the sector preferences of the labour force. These factors caused important changes in relative prices as well as a jump in inflation. In phase two, second-round effects enter into force. Wage growth increases and elevated inflation becomes broad-based. Key conditioning factors are negotiation power of the labour force and pricing power of companies. Both depend on the growth environment. In phase three, ‘natural’ forces such as slower growth can weigh on inflation but the prominent role is taken by central banks. They prefer to tread carefully, seeking to avoid premature or excessive tightening. Their task is complicated because at the current juncture inflation is to a considerable degree caused by a shock in energy prices. More than anything, they hold the key for the future development of inflation.

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US Federal Reserve

US monetary policy outlook: more questions than answers

In his press conference last week, Fed chairman Jerome Powell was very clear. Based on the FOMC’s two objectives –inflation and maximum employment- the data warrant to start hiking interest rates in March and, probably, to move swiftly thereafter. In doing so, it will be “led by the incoming data and the evolving outlook”. This data-dependency reflects a concern of tightening too much and makes monetary policy harder to predict. The faster the Fed tightens, the higher the likelihood of having it take a pause to see how the economy reacts.

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10-year Bund yield back at zero percent. What are the drivers?

For the first time since May 2019, 10-year Bund yields have moved back in positive territory. Three factors explain this development. Firstly, the traditional international spillover effect of developments in the US Treasury market where following a more hawkish tone from the Federal Reserve, yields have been on a rising trend since early December 2021. Secondly, markets are pricing the end of PEPP and the tapering of net asset purchases by the ECB.  Finally, there is the prospect that, at some point, the ECB will raise its policy rate. Bond markets in the US and Germany have become highly correlated since 2021. This is an important factor given the imminent start of a rate hike cycle in the US and its possible influence on Treasury yields and, by extension, yields in the euro area.

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Federal reserve

US: bye bye QE, here comes QT

The minutes of the December meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) have shown a distinct and sudden shift towards a more hawkish stance. The reduction of the pace of net asset purchases (tapering) has been stepped up, the first rate hike is expected to come earlier and the FOMC participants favour an early start and a faster pace of quantitative tightening (QT). Although they are more relaxed about QT than in 2017, it remains a tricky operation. The challenge will be to find the right balance between QT and the number of rate hikes in order to bring inflation under control without jeopardizing growth. History shows that achieving a soft landing is difficult.

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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: 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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Fiscal policy

Fiscal policy to continue to support euro area growth next year.

In most European countries, the structural primary deficit should shrink next year. This reduction represents a negative fiscal impulse, raising concern that it would act as a headwind to growth. However, the level of the primary deficit is such that it still corresponds to an accommodative fiscal stance. Taking into account national fiscal policies as well as expenditures financed by the Recovery and Resilience Facility and other EU grants, fiscal policy in the euro area should have a significant positive impact on GDP growth next year, thereby accompanying and strengthening the ongoing recovery. In addition, it should enhance the effectiveness of the ECB’s accommodative policy.

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Central banks: Same objective, different data, different policies

It was a rare coincidence that last week, four major central banks –the Federal Reserve, the ECB, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan- held their monetary policy meeting. Considering that they all target 2% inflation, their decisions shed light on the role of differences in terms of approach as well as in the economic environment and outlook. However, they share a preparedness to react when circumstances require. Given the mounting concern about the Omicron variant, more than ever, monetary policy is data-dependent.

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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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EcoTVWeek - December 2021

Beyond interest rates: the role of fiscal, financial and monetary conditions

The list of factors that need to be taken into account when assessing the influence of monetary policy on growth and inflation has grown over the years. Long gone are the days that it was sufficient to look at interest rates against the background of the gap of inflation versus target and unemployment versus its natural rate. Forward guidance and management of the balance sheet (quantitative easing or tightening) are now part of the standard toolkit of central banks.

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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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The bond and stock markets appear to be immune to inflationary risk – but are they?

Several factors might explain current market behaviour in the face of higher inflation. Firstly, the high inflation is considered transitory. This is the belief of the central banks and it is shared by professional forecasters, who are collectively predicting that inflation will fall next year. The findings of the European Central Bank’s survey of monetary analysts and the US Federal Reserve’s survey of market operators are both along the same lines.

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European Central Bank

High inflation, optionality and central bank patience

The ECB insists on the need for patience before considering a policy tightening, despite current elevated levels of inflation. It believes that inflation will decline next year and that a wage-price spiral is unlikely to develop. Moreover, inflation expectations remain well anchored. Demand in the euro area is suffering from the headwind created by the jump in energy prices. Reacting to this type of inflation by tightening monetary policy would create the risk of reducing demand even more. To avoid such an outcome, it makes sense for the central bank to wait for more information to arrive, thereby adopting a risk management approach of monetary policy. When policy leeway is limited, central banks, confronted with a high degree of uncertainty, will opt for a patient stance considering the potential cost of a policy mistake. The higher their credibility, the more they can be patient.

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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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Deposit rate lift-off, markets and the ECB

Markets have been pricing in an early lift-off of the ECB’s deposit rate. The ECB argues that, considering its inflation outlook, this is not warranted. This difference in view could reflect a loss of central bank credibility. More likely is that market participants and the ECB disagree on the inflation outlook. Another explanation is that investors focus on the distribution of possible inflation outcomes and are concerned about the risks of inflation surprising to the upside.

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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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European Union

Reforming EU economic governance: the start of a marathon

The European Commission has relaunched a comprehensive review of the economic governance framework of the European Union. This initiative is necessary considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public finances as well as the investment needs in the context of the green and digital transformation. The review process comes with several challenges: an agenda which is particularly broad, the inclusive nature of the debate, involving many stakeholders and, as far as fiscal governance is concerned, the necessity for EU member states to strike a balance between committing to policy discipline whilst keeping national fiscal policy leeway. Given the state of public finances in most EU countries, sensible fiscal rules are necessary to gradually create the much-needed fiscal room for manoeuvre.

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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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About William De Vijlder

Group Chief
BNP Paribas
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