After losing virtually all influence over the euro-dollar exchange rate since the beginning of last year, interest rate differences seem to be making a comeback, in the wake of rising oil prices. If renewed sensitivity continues, it could have a profound impact on exchange rates. If the euro-dollar exchange rate pair normalized with respect to its long-term reaction function, the economic conditions currently prevailing in the United States and Europe would imply a euro below parity with the dollar.
Until recently, however, the reaction function did not hold sway. It was weakened by structural deterioration in the outlook for the US economy, and many economists who believed in these models were caught unawares all through last year. With this in mind, let’s examine whether rising oil prices could normalize the situation and push the dollar higher, and as a corollary, the euro lower.
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.
After several months of hesitancy during which European stockmarket performance was consistently disappointing, left behind by almost all other major global asset classes, could there be more encouragement for investors in last few weeks of the year? Recent developments mean that it is very tempting to predict a rally. That is especially the case since, unless the European markets show signs of waking up soon, it will become increasingly difficult for European investors to maintain hopes of a long-overdue rally.
Until now, economists have not been particularly worried by the euro’s rise since the beginning of the year, given that business trends and confidence in future growth had gained momentum. At less than $1.20 since mid-summer, the euro is trading well below certain past levels and also more in line with its purchasing power parity. Recent data indicate, however, that the single currency’s appreciation has had a significant impact on corporate margins and on import prices, resulting in a reduction of core inflation rates in the eurozone. This is relatively disconcerting at this stage in the business cycle and may be behind the sluggish stock markets of the past few months.
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.