MacroScope

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.

European leaders and financial markets insist the threat of deflation in the euro zone is low. Outside experts surveyed by the European Central Bank said this week they saw a “very low” probability of deflation. And this is what European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said last week:

“We have to dispense once more with the question: Is there deflation? and the answer is ‘No’.”

Cold War chill over Ukraine

Dramatic twist in the Ukraine saga last night with a conversation between a State Department official and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine posted on YouTube which appeared to show the official, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, deliberating on the make-up of the next government in Kiev.

That led to a furious tit-for-tat with Moscow accusing Washington of planning a coup and the United States in turn saying Russia had leaked the video, which carried subtitles in Russian. A Kremlin aide said Moscow might block U.S. “interference” in Kiev.

Nuland is due to give a news conference today after her visit to Kiev.

Vladimir Putin is likely to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in Sochi as the Winter Olympics get underway. It could be awkward for Yanukovich’s opponents if they look like western pawns.

ECB – stick or twist?

 

The European Central Bank meets today with emerging market disorder high on its agenda.

It’s probably  too early to force a policy move – particularly since the next set of ECB economic and inflation forecasts are due in March – but it’s an unwelcome development at a time when inflation is already uncomfortably low, dropping further to just 0.7 percent in January, way below the ECB’s target of close to but below two percent.

If the market turbulence persists and a by-product is to drive the euro higher, which is quite possible, the downward pressure on prices could threaten a deflationary spiral which ECB policymakers have so far insisted will not come to pass.

PMIs on the up

Slowing growth in the Chinese and U.S. factory sectors earlier this week did nothing to soothe frayed market nerves and put a firm focus on today’s service sector PMI surveys in Europe along with the equivalent U.S. report and a weekly jobless number there.

While the world’s two largest economies suffered a hiccup, euro zone factories had their best month since mid-2011 in January. But it is the service sector that dominates in Europe. Flash readings, which are not usually revised much, showed the euro zone services reading hit a four-month high with France lagging Germany again although even its number rose. Today we’ll get the first numbers for Italy, Spain and Britain.

The reports will be the last meaningful pieces of evidence the European Central Bank gets to chew over before Thursday’s policy decision. Emerging market tumult and its possible effect on already vanishing inflation will be bang at the top of its agenda.

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.

Forward guidance is not fully living up to its name

Britain’s economy may have seen one of the fastest rebounds among industrialized nations last year, but half of 56 economists polled by Reuters think the Bank of England has lost some credibility over its handling of the forward guidance policy.

The policy – an advance notice that monetary conditions will not be tightened too fast or too soon – was a way of managing market bets, at a time when the scope for stimulating economies through conventional interest rate cuts was limited.  Many say it was a necessary transition from the ultra-loose rate policy of recent years to a more normal post-crisis one. Indeed, the use of verbal intervention to guide monetary policy has been on the rise in recent years, as shown by this graphic on the Federal Reserve. 

But the BoE’s forward guidance has come under a lot of criticism and its results have been mixed, as highlighted by this Reuters story  and FT blog.

Crunch day for Turkey, and Ukraine

Hard to look beyond Turkey today. The central bank will issue its quarterly inflation report and has called an emergency policy meeting thereafter and will deliver a verdict at midnight local time. All very cloak and dagger.

The central bank, under heavy political pressure, has so far not raised interest rates but is instead burning through its reserves to defend the tumbling lira with only limited success.

It has floated the idea of “additional tightening days” when it will fund the interbank market at a higher rate, which is essentially monetary tightening by the back door. But in the throes of a full-on emerging market selloff it’s hard to see that doing the trick.

Davos Day Two — Rouhani, Lew and Lagarde

Day one in Davos showed the masters of the universe fretting about Sino-Japanese military tensions, the treacherous investment territory in some emerging markets and the risk of a lurch to the right in Europe at May’s parliamentary elections which could make reform of the bloc even harder.

Today, the focus will be on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (and his main detractor, Israel’s Netanyahu). Presumably he’s there to woo the world of commerce now sanctions are to be relaxed in return for Tehran suspending enrichment of uranium beyond a certain level. Anything he says about Syria’s peace talks, which have so far been more hostile than conciliatory, will instantly be headline news.

Other big name speakers are U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who is going around warning about the threat of European deflation, Australian premier Tony Abbott, who is running the G20 this year, and a session featuring the BRICS finance ministers.

The Bank of Canada is probably not ready to seriously consider cutting rates — yet

With all signs showing the Canadian economic miracle is fading, the Bank of Canada is understandably starting to sound more dovish. The Canadian dollar has got a whiff of that, down about 10 percent from where it was this time last year.

But that doesn’t mean Governor Stephen Poloz is ready to signal on Wednesday that his rate shears are about to get hauled out of the shed.

Yes, economic growth is expected to be restrained over the next couple of quarters, the long-awaited pick up in exports and business investment still seems elusive and inflation continues to remain undesirably weak.