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?
Summary– Current economic trends seem particularly favorable, but after taking a step back, we are inclined to be more circumspect than the consensus of economists on the outlook for 2018. Our worldwide scenario has changed little since September. Our global GDP growth forecast for 2017 remains the same, at 3.6%, and we have lifted our 2018 scenario slightly to 3.3% from 3.2%. Upward revisions to our 2017 estimates for the developed world offset the declines we project in emerging markets. Meanwhile, we continue to foresee a modest global slowdown in economic activity next year as a result of reduced US and Chinese growth.
In this context, and amid the structural changes underway, worldwide inflation does not look ready to accelerate. It should fall from 2 % on average this year to 1.8% next year, in the wake of declining raw material prices. With no inflation on the horizon, central banks will maintain their very accommodative bias. Restricted by a persistent flat yield curve, the Fed will have trouble carrying out the three key interest rate increases it has planned. The ECB will remain particularly conservative and is unlikely to have an opportunity to take a position on a future increase in key rates.
The dollar is set to disappoint and maintain pressure on other countries. Japan, now benefiting from a more promising environment, is probably the country best placed to absorb the market’s wariness with regard to the US currency. Our exchange-rate scenario remains unchanged from our September projections and includes a substantial appreciation in the yen.
In the short run, we think exposure to risk is still a viable strategy, so long as it is focused on developed markets. But the current environment requires investors to be ready to change direction at a moment’s notice. For this reason, we have developed a fundamental allocation to complement our short-term, tactical recommendations.
That markets are wildly optimistic about the U.S. economy is nothing new. What should draw our attention this time around is that such upbeat sentiment has rarely been harder to square with the numbers. For example, contrary to the dominant narrative:
The U.S. economy is doing worse than a few months ago, not better. Growth in industrial output is petering out, productivity has moved into negative territory, and employment data point to backsliding.
The economy’s ability to cope with higher interest rates simply can’t be taken for granted. Not only has consumer spending yet to pick up, but the real estate market has been derailed by the rise in interest rates since the start of the year.
While a change of course by the Federal Reserve may seem long overdue after five years of unconventional monetary policy, it makes no economic sense. This suggests that the Fed is very much in danger of jumping the gun.
Going it alone. The global economic picture is unquestionably looking brighter. Unlike previous recoveries, however, this one is fueled above all by consumer spending. The trend is especially noteworthy in Europe now that austerity policies have been scrapped. But it can also be observed in the United States—since the country has steered clear of the fiscal cliff dangers at the start of the year—and Japan, where the Abe administration’s first moves have lifted the spirits of local consumers. Even in China, sustained consumer spending is what has offset the negative impact of an end to export support. So on the whole, the environment is more encouraging. Yet the missing ingredient here is what proved to be one of the key drivers of global growth in the 1990s—world trade. This has two main implications:
Global growth will be weaker than in the past, and will stay that way for some time.
There will be greater risk for economies that are still too dependent on exports, i.e., the emerging economies in general and more specifically those suffering from structural imbalances—Brazil, India, and South Africa—and increasingly burdened by mounting current account deficits.
Like all crises, the present one provides a fertile breeding ground for dogmatic, cookie-cutter statements and clichés that don’t always square with reality. So perhaps the best way to avoid making disastrous decisions on the momentous issues of today is to take a good, hard look at our past. This view was what prompted us to publish the following series of charts, which sum up twenty years of comparative economic history in France and Germany.
Growth, consumption, employment, real estate, debt, demographics, and foreign trade are the themes we have covered here, in the hope of offering the reader greater insight into the forces at work in the euro area’s two leading economies.
Global GDP up 3.1 percent in 2013, 4.1 percent in 2014.With difficult conditions prevailing through the first half of 2013, the world economy will not grow any faster than the 3.2 percent registered in 2012. It will take until 2014 for global growth to exceed 4 percent—a level not seen since 2010.
50–50. Over the next two years, emerging economies will add $4 trillion to their combined GDP (at constant 2010 prices and exchange rates), contributing four times as much to global output as developed countries. By 2014, global GDP should therefore be evenly distributed between the emerging and developed worlds.
Inflation. All quiet on this front in 2013, but will start to edge up in 2014. Weak growth and receding commodity prices in early 2013 should keep a lid on inflation throughout the year. However, more vigorous recovery in 2014 will push commodity prices up (with oil reaching $130) and accelerate inflation in emerging markets.
Sovereigns. Budget deficits should ease slightly in 2013; public debt will continue to swell in 2013 and 2014. Countries that have structurally weakened and whose reform policies have yet to kick in will still be at risk. Italy tops the list, followed by Spain; France is balanced on the razor’s edge; and the future of Japan will depend on how successful the new prime minister’s stimulus program is.
The U.S. unemployment rate will diminish to 6.5 percent in the first half of 2014. The Fed’s quantitative easing program will be over. Expectations that interest rates will revert to normal levels will bring the period of low long-term rates in the Western world to an end.
10-year U.S. Treasury Note yields will hit 3.5 percent by end-2014.The rise in U.S. long-term yields will go from gradual in the latter half of 2013 to more pronounced in 2014. Europe will follow suit, with a moderate widening of the T-Bond/Bund spread.
The euro will trade at $1.35 in 2013.The Fed’s vastly expanded balance sheet, combined with the elimination of extreme risk in the euro area, will keep the dollar low against the euro in 2013. But the trend will reverse in 2014 when the Fed abandons its unconventional policy tools.