ECB: forced to miss its turn again households_confidence

Following the last monetary policy meeting on 25 January, there had been an increasing number of statements suggesting growing discomfort with the status quo advocated by Mario Draghi and his chief economist Peter Praet. Looking at the various comments, and particularly the optimistic tone of Benoît Cœuré, it seemed that the ECB would soon adjust its policy to provide less support to the economy. Since its asset purchase programme was scheduled to last until late September, many expected that, this spring, the ECB would state its intention to end the programme, and some even thought that it would mention a possible timetable for raising official interest rates in 2019. It therefore seemed that rates would rise, the yield curve would steepen, banks would enjoy better conditions and the euro would continue rising. However, the resulting euphoria did not last long. With a few days to go until the 8 March monetary policy meeting, the prospect of the ECB changing direction seems increasingly remote.

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Central bankers caught between the Scylla of inequalities and the Charybdis of financial bubbles

Monetary policies have traditionally not been concerned with the subject of inequality, even when their role has been to help the economy achieve full employment. Rather, policymakers have generally limited themselves to a macroeconomic approach guided by statistics such as aggregate growth, inflation, unemployment rates and average wage rates. But in recent years, the subject has made its way onto the agenda of a growing number of central bankers.

Former Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen set this change in motion and seems to have attracted a certain number of monetary policy followers. In the United States, Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has often voiced his support of this approach. In January 2017, with Ms. Yellen’s support, he even went so far as to create the “Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute”, whose mission is to promote research that “will increase economic opportunity and inclusive growth and help the Federal Reserve achieve its maximum employment mandate”.

In Europe, the topic has become an important factor in Mario Draghi’s adjustments to monetary policy over the last two years. As Janet Yellen began to do in January 2014 by developing a series of complementary unemployment indicators, so the ECB chairman has regularly made reference to labor market slack and called attention to the risk of relying solely on the unemployment rate, which has become less and less representative of economic reality. He regularly speaks of underemployment, forced part-time work and multiple jobs to justify the continuation of hyper-accommodative monetary policy despite clearly improved economic conditions in the euro zone since the start of last year.

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The euro’s exchange rate is the ECB’s main concern, and so forging ahead on its chosen path is understandable

When, in September, Mario Draghi mentioned the euro exchange rate as one of the factors likely to influence the ECB’s monetary policy – alongside inflation and growth – few economists took him seriously. The euro’s rally since the spring, along with the obvious risk of a further rise if the ECB tightens monetary policy, meant that some caution was needed and made it acceptable to bend the previously established rule that the ECB bore no responsibility for the euro’s exchange rate. Seven weeks later, there no longer seemed to be any concern about this issue. Not only did eurozone economies, posting very good economic figures, appear to have coped with the euro’s rally, but the Fed had also clarified its strategy, reducing the risk of a further rise in the euro. As a result, the ECB was in theory able to relieve itself of the exchange-rate burden and make a more decisive commitment to bring its policy gradually back to normal.

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