MacroScope

Strong euro may be a monster Draghi can’t tame

Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), addresses the media during his monthly news conference at the ECB headquarters in FrankfurtECB President Mario Draghi may have created a monster when he declared nearly two years ago that he will do “whatever it takes” to save the euro.

Given that Draghi has now openly pegged the outlook for monetary policy at least partly to the exchange rate, the prospect of both short-term and long-term investors buying the euro is a worrying obstacle for policy.

A rampant euro is anathema to the ECB’s narrow mandate, which is aimed squarely at getting very low inflation back to its target of just below 2 percent. A stronger euro keeps a lid on the price of everything the euro zone imports from abroad. And it makes everything it exports seem relatively more expensive.

The ECB now appears hamstrung between two outcomes, both pointing to a strong euro.

If the euro zone economy relapses from its broadening recovery, and inflation remains dangerously low, speculators may be tempted to try their luck and see how far they can take the euro before a reluctant ECB steps in with a response.

Is it time for the ECB to do more?

From financial forecasters to the International Monetary Fund, calls for the European Central Bank to do more to support the euro zone recovery are growing louder.

With inflation well below the ECB’s 2 percent target ceiling and continuing to fall, 20 of 53 economists in a Reuters Poll conducted last week said the bank was wrong to leave policy unchanged at recent meetings and should do more when it meets on Thursday.

And the pressure on the ECB to do more has mounted after the preliminary inflation estimate for March was published on Monday. The data showed inflation cooling down further to 0.5 percent, its lowest since November 2009.

Marathon banking union talks

Shots were fired at an international team of monitors in Crimea over the weekend, violence flared in Sevastopol as thousands staged rallies and Angela Merkel, who perhaps has the most receptive western ear to Vladimir Putin, rebuked him for supporting a referendum on Ukraine’s southern region joining Russia. But in truth we’re not much further forward or backwards in this crisis.

The West from Barack Obama on down has said the referendum vote next Sunday is illegal under international law but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle if Ukraine’s southern region chooses to break away. The best guess – but it is only a guess – is that barring an accidental sparking of hostilities, there is not much percentage in Russia putting its forces in Crimea onto a more aggressive footing in advance of the vote.

Euro zone finance ministers meet and are joined by their non-euro counterparts for an Ecofin on Tuesday. They have the mammoth task of finalizing everything on banking union that was set out in principle by their leaders at a December summit, since when not much has happened.

Japan-style deflation in Europe getting harder to dismiss

To most people, the idea of falling prices sounds like a good thing. But it poses serious economic and financial risks – just ask the Japanese, who only now finally have the upper hand in a 20-year battle to drag their economy out of deflation.

That front is shifting westward, to the euro zone.

Deflation tempts consumers to postpone spending and businesses to delay investment because they expect prices to be lower in the future. This slows growth and puts upward pressure on unemployment. It also increases the real debt burden of debtors, from consumers to companies to governments.

In many ways, policymakers fear deflation more than inflation as it’s a more difficult spiral to exit. After all, interest rates can only go as low as zero and if that doesn’t kickstart spending, they’re in trouble. Again, just ask the Japanese.

High unemployment putting the ECB in isolation

 

Unemployment in the euro zone is stuck at 12 percent, an already high rate that masks eye-popping rates in many of its struggling member economies.

But in a press conference lasting one hour, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi mentioned the problem of high unemployment only a few times – satisfied with the central bank’s usual stance of imploring euro zone governments to implement structural reforms to their labour markets, on a case by case basis.

Draghi said:

 … although unemployment in the euro area is stabilising, it remains high, and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and the private sector will continue to weigh on the pace of the economic recovery.   

Euro zone inflation falls again; economists base ECB rate cut calls on deja vu

Euro zone inflation has dipped again and some forecasters are hedging their bets on the policy response by saying the European Central Bank could either cut rates this week or sometime in the next two months.

That lack of conviction, although not a recent phenomenon, is driven by memory of the ECB’s surprise cut in November after a similar drop in inflation and a nagging belief that things have not worsened enough in the interim to warrant another.

Only two of 76 analysts - Barclays and IFR Markets – in a Reuters poll conducted before news on Friday that January euro zone inflation fell to 0.7 percent said the ECB would trim its refinancing rate below 0.25 percent this week.

ECB deflation risk denial has echoes of 2009

Euro zone policymakers like to talk. They often contradict each other at separate speaking engagements on the same day. But they have struck a chorus in recent weeks, asserting that deflation is not a threat.

Members of the ECB Governing Council have been particularly vocal, insisting they will not have to alter policy to counter falling prices.

Jan 9: Mario Draghi says the euro zone may “experience a prolonged period of low inflation” — steering clear of even mentioning the word deflation.

Shock now clearly trumps transparency in central bank policymaking

The days of guided monetary policy, telegraphed by central banks and priced in by markets in advance, are probably coming to an end if recent decisions around the world are any guide.

From Turkey, which hiked its overnight lending rate by an astonishing 425 basis points in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, to India which delivered a surprise repo rate hike a day earlier, central banks are increasingly looking to “shock and awe” markets into submission with their policy decisions.

A wide sample of economists polled by Reuters on Monday already expected a massive rise of 225 basis points by Turkey’s central bank to stop a sell-off in the lira. Instead it doubled the consensus and opted for the highest forecast.

Will rounding cents bring euro zone down?

The 18-country euro zone has had a rough ride in the past 6 years, and even with the glimmers of good news reaching the darkest corners of the debt crisis, the European Central Bank has been anything but ready to sound a crisis-over siren.

Right after ECB President Mario Draghi warned against undue optimism, the central bank has identified a new threat to the common currency’s integrity – rounding up or down small change.

Belgium plans to allow retailers to round 1 and 2-cent coins to the closest five cents, in a similar fashion as Finland and the Netherlands already do. But the ECB had harsh words against such going-it-alone moves, published in a legal opinion published on its Internet site.

Ireland: bailout poster child, but hardly textbook

Amid the euphoria surrounding Ireland’s removal from junk credit rating status, it’s easy to get swept along by the consensus tide of opinion that the Emerald Isle is the “poster child” for euro zone austerity.

But were another country to find itself in Ireland’s unfortunate financial predicament now, few would suggest it follow the path Dublin took.

The Irish government assumed the entire nation’s private banking sector debt in 2008 after then finance minister Brian Lenihan explicitly guaranteed all bank debt in the country. It was hailed as a masterstroke at the time, but in an instant Ireland’s hands were tied and its options all but evaporated. Even the stuff that posed no systemic risk was put on the government’s – the taxpayers’ – books. This prevented the collapse of the financial system, but at a price: the country’s sovereign debt load almost doubled to around 100% of annual economic output, and in order to do that it was forced to take an €85 billion bailout from international creditors two years later.