MacroScope

Strongly vigilant?

An alarming drop in euro zone inflation – to 0.7 percent from 1.1 percent – throws today’s European Central Bank policy meeting into very sharp relief. Not since the central bank cut interest rates in May has it been under such scrutiny.

No policy change is likely, and “sources familiar” are already talking down the threat of deflation. But the central bankers, who are mandated to target inflation at close to 2 percent, will be alarmed at the sight of price pressures evaporating. One need look no further than Japan to see the damage deflation can do, often for many years.

We reported last week that a strengthening euro has also come onto the ECB’s radar, given it could depress both growth and inflation, and that there are three camps – one wanting an interest rate cut (which we know was discussed at the last meeting), another preferring to keep the option open of another long-term liquidity flood for the banking system as was done last year, and a third wanting to do nothing.

The euro has since dropped quite sharply, it should be noted, but unless inflation starts picking up a little, the likelihood of some action before long grows significantly. Our latest poll of 59 economists predicted the ECB would inject more liquidity into the banking system, probably early next year. That was conducted before the last inflation figures came out and the odds on a rate cut to 0.25 percent are now tumbling fast. The December meeting, when the ECB will produce updated growth and inflation forecasts, is a more likely date.

Today, expect Mario Draghi to indulge in some robust verbal intervention – warning that he and his colleagues stand ready to act and still have an arsenal at their fingertips. He has not tended to indulged in the coded wordplay of his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, but watch out for a dusting off of the “strong vigilance” phrase which in years gone by indicated a rate move slightly further down the road (though in Trichet’s days it signalled a rate rise not cut).

Take-off has been delayed

Euro zone services PMIs and German industry orders data will offer the latest snapshot of the currency bloc’s economy which the European Commission now forecasts will contract by 0.4 percent this year and grow just 1.1 percent in 2014 – hardly escape velocity, in fact barely taxiing along the runway.

We know from flash readings for the euro zone and Germany that service activity expanded but at a slower rate last month. France’s reading crept back into expansionary territory for the first time since early 2012. Any revisions to those figures will be marginal leaving the focus more on Italy and Spain for which we get no preliminary release.

Italy’s service sector has been growing of late, according to the PMIs, while Spain’s has still been shrinking though at a slower pace. German industry orders posted a surprise 0.3 percent drop in August and are forecast to have grown by 0.5 percent in September.

What’s happened to euro inflation?

New European Commission macro forecasts for the euro zone and the EU have been given added significance by an alarming drop in inflation to 0.7 percent which has heaped pressure on the European Central Bank to ward off any threat of deflation.

There are myriad other questions – Will the Commission predict that Italy will miss its deficit target? What will it say to those countries in bailout programmes – particularly Greece, where the troika returns for a bailout review today, and Portugal? And what about France’s sluggish economy? PMI surveys on Monday showed it is acting as a drag on the euro zone recovery.

Against that backdrop, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will speak at Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s Church, the seat of the first democratically elected parliament in Germany. He is expected to outline the political priorities of the European Union in the months to come and spell out his expectations of a new German government.

The limits of Federal Reserve forward guidance on interest rates

The ‘taper tantrum’ of May and June, as the mid-year spike in interest rates became known, appears to have humbled Federal Reserve officials into having a second look at their convictions about the power of forward guidance on interest rate policy.

Take James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed. He acknowledged on Friday that the Fed’s view of the separation between rates guidance and asset purchases had not been fully accepted by financial markets. “This presents challenges for the Committee,” he noted.

A decision to modestly reduce the pace of asset purchases can still leave a very accommodative policy in place to the extent forward guidance remains intact.

It’s all Greek

The EU/IMF/ECB troika is due to return to Athens to resume a review of Greece’s bailout after some sparring over budget measures.

Greece’s president and prime minister have said they will not impose any further austerity measures and hope that their ability to run a primary surplus will persuade its lenders to cut it some more slack on its bailout loans to make its debt sustainable. The EU and IMF say there will be a fiscal gap next year that must be filled by domestic measures, be they further wage and pension cuts or tax increases.

We had a round of brinkmanship last week with EU officials saying they weren’t going to turn up because Athens had not come up with plausible ways to fill a 2 billion euros hole in its 2014 budget. But on Saturday, the European Commission said the review was back on after the Greek government came up with fresh proposals.

Shock low euro zone inflation – what the economists say

The slump in euro zone inflation to 0.7 percent in October was a big shock – that figure undercut even the lowest forecast from 42 analysts polled by Reuters.

Here’s what they had to say about what it means.

Generally, they were agreed that such low inflation ratchets up the pressure on the ECB to ease policy further, although some said that October figure probably represents the trough for inflation.

Ben May, European economist, Capital Economics

“The latest euro-zone inflation and unemployment figures will increase pressure on the ECB to take further action to support the economy. Meanwhile, euro-zone unemployment rose by 60,000 in September and falls in the previous months were revised away. Given this, the unemployment rate was 12.2%, unchanged from August’s upwardly revised figure. The latest figures put a dent in hopes that the labour market may have reached a turning point.

A question of liquidity

The Federal Reserve’s decision to keep printing dollars at an unchanged rate, mirrored by the Bank of Japan sticking with its massive stimulus programme, should have surprised nobody.

But markets seem marginally discomfited, interpreting the Fed’s statement as sounding a little less alarmed about the state of the U.S. recovery than some had expected and maybe hastening Taper Day. European stocks are expected to pull back from a five-year high but this is really the financial equivalent of “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. The Fed’s message was little changed bar removing a reference to tighter financing conditions.

However, the top central banks have sent a signal that they think all is not yet well with the world – the Fed, BOJ, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Swiss National Bank have just announced they will make permanent their array of currency swap arrangements to provide a “prudent liquidity backstop” indefinitely.

Italy versus Spain

Italy will auction up to 6 billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds after two earlier sales this week saw two-year and six-month yields drop to the lowest level in six months. Don’t be lulled into thinking all is well.

After Silvio Berlusconi’s failure to pull down the government, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has some time to push through economic reforms, cut taxes and spending. But already the politics look difficult and the central bank said yesterday that government forecasts for 1.1 percent growth next year and falling borrowing costs were overly optimistic.

Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco and Economy Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni will speak during the day.

Beware the bias in euro zone forecasts (again)

Next time you ask an economist a question about the euro zone, be sure to enquire where their head office is based.

London? New York? Expect a pessimistic response on euro zone matters.

Frankfurt? Paris? Happier days are coming soon for the currency union.

So that’s oversimplifying matters slightly – but as we’ve seen time over, institutions based outside the euro zone are likely to be gloomier about its prospects, and those based inside it are more likely to look on the bright side.

That pattern was clear to see in this week’s Reuters poll on the euro zone’s vulnerable quartet – Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Forward guidance not banking on Scottish independence

There are many unknowns surrounding a Scottish vote in favour of independence at next year’s referendum, a potentially huge event for the British economy. But one that has attracted little attention is what it would mean for UK interest rates.

As part of its forward guidance policy, the Bank of England has promised that it will not consider raising rates from record-low levels until unemployment in the UK – 7.69 percent at the most recent reading – falls to 7 percent. It expects this to happen in late 2016, though some investors think the jobless rate could fall much quicker.

The question is, what would happen to Britain’s unemployment, and consequently interest rates, if Scotland decided to leave the UK? Recent data suggest it would take longer for unemployment to hit the Bank’s threshold and prolong the era of cheap money.