The increased tension surrounding Syria caused the oil price to surge beyond $72 per barrel last week, and there is a significant risk of escalation that could drive prices much higher than their current levels, at least temporarily. This scenario is worrying in many respects.
Movements in oil prices have been key movers of the global economy and financial markets for the last four years, and have usually exacerbated any existing fragilities. Their collapse in 2014 was partly responsible for the increase in deflationary pressure and the subsequent monetary response from the ECB and BoJ. Then, the rebound from their January 2016 low deprived consumers of what little increase in real incomes they had seen in 2015, but without being sufficient to drive any real improvement in the situation of emerging-market exporters, which were also seeing increasing competition from the USA. The run-up in prices over the last few days could be more effective in this respect, unless, on the contrary, it sparks a crisis by causing more pain for consumers while also triggering an excessively radical jump in interest rates, which could happen quickly given the barely concealed impatience of central bank officials to escape from today’s low-interest-rate situation. That combination clearly does not bode well, since it could quickly turn into a major threat for global growth and the financial markets.
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.
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.
Trends in the financial markets have accelerated in the last few days. After hesitating slightly at the start of 2018, it is increasingly obvious to investors that reflation is around the corner. That belief is based on widespread growth, a surging oil price, the first positive effects of Donald Trump’s tax reform – with giant US companies promising to repatriate profits – and good news on investment and jobs. It is hard to see how that situation could fail to end the phase of latent deflation in the last few years and support expectations – seen throughout 2017 – of inflation getting back to normal. The impact of rising oil prices alone could significantly change the inflation situation, judging by how sensitive inflation is to movements in oil prices. If crude stabilises at $70 per barrel between now and the summer, inflation could rise by more than half a point in the industrialised world, taking it well above the 2% target that it touched only briefly in February 2017.
So what could prevent a significant increase in interest rates? It is very tempting to change our outlook for 2018. How is the interest-rate environment likely to develop?
Janet Yellen’s insistence on the enduringly-soft job market in the US during her speech this week in Chicago and Mario Draghi’s unusual insistence on the risks associated with allowing high unemployment to remain at a high rate over a sustained period in the euro area were striking for reasons others than the quick succession of the two statements. What’s to be made of the messages?
If we’re correct in assuming the Federal Reserve is not about to start scaling back its asset purchases, worldwide liquidity injections should hit a new high next year. Whereas the aggregate balance sheet of the four leading central banks showed little change in the first half of 2013, we can expect widespread central bank activism over the next few quarters:
At a rate of 85 billion dollars a month, the Fed’s asset purchases should amount to 1.02 trillion dollars a year.
The Bank of Japan will be adding anywhere from 600 to 718 billion dollars to its balance sheet as it strives to meet its target of expanding Japan’s monetary base by between 60 and 70 trillion yen a year (making it some 40 percent larger than at the beginning of 2013).
The Bank of England will be buying 610 billion dollars’ worth of Gilts in connection with its objective to purchase 375 billion pounds of assets via its Asset Purchase Facility.
The ECB’s probable upcoming LTRO is likely, in our estimate, to provide Europe’s banks with between 250 and 500 billion euros, or 350 to 750 billion dollars.
The “Big Four” should thus be injecting a cool 1.6 to 2.5 trillion dollars into the system in annual terms (at a pace of 135 to 208 billion a month). This should continue, if not throughout 2014, then at least through the early part of the year. In the low-case scenario, that would equal 10 percent of American GDP; in the high-case scenario, it would equal almost the entire size of France’s economy in 2012! But whether the ECB follows suit or not, the annual flow of fresh liquidity should return to the highs seen in 2011 and 2012—and for the ECB’s LTROs, could even set a post-2008-crisis record.
Download the article The reflation policies pursued by the major central banks don’t seem to be paying off. Even with key rates at historic lows everywhere and widespread use of unconventional policy tools, lending activity remains flat and economic growth anemic. Moreover, although strong commodity prices and rising taxes have kept price levels up until recently, the inflation rate is starting to sag—in a serious way. A lack of monetary policy coordination, the inability of central banks to offset the impact of fiscal tightening, and the still-crippling effect of deleveraging on growth are the primary ingredients of this collective failure. They are also a cause for concern. If they persist, we may well be heading for a much longer crisis than is commonly assumed—and for creeping deflation that could lead economic policy-makers to act rashly. But let’s be clear about one thing. The problem is not that central banks shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing; it’s that their combined efforts haven’t gone far enough.
Since the onset of the financial crisis, the European Central Bank’s balance sheet has doubled in size—from €1.5 trillion in June 2008 to €3.1 trillion in August 2012. That’s impressive, but much less so than what most of the other major central banks have done, often in a much shorter time span. So the idea that the ECB is about to make use of further unconventional tools should be no cause for concern. In fact, for the eurozone to stand a fighting chance of survival, the ECB will have to pull out all the stops, going at least as far as the Fed and the Bank of England. That will mean boosting its balance sheet by another €1.5 trillion or so to a total of roughly €4.5 trillion. What should be a cause of concern is that the break with the past the central bank is about to make will prove to be less bold than required.