Ideally, a rise in the price of oil, resulting from improvement in worldwide economic conditions, would increase inflation expectations and also pull up long-term interest rates. This could steepen the yield curve, or at least displace it upwards. All other things being equal, bank shares would benefit and their poor performance of the last few weeks would turn around. Even though higher interest rates would penalize a certain number of sensitive sectors, the breath of fresh air for the banking sector would restore some appetite for risk which has recently been lacking.
More realistically, i.e. with an economy well into the expansion phase, there is little chance this series of events would last. It is not even sure they would have the time to develop in the first place, despite some indications to the contrary over the past few days.
The aggressive protectionist measures announced by the US president over the past few days have generally been perceived as a prime inflationary threat. The reasoning is rather logical. An increase in import tariffs on non-substitutable goods that enter the production processes of key economic sectors or are purchased directly by US consumers will cause the price of those goods to rise. In addition, (i) the US balance of payments is likely to deteriorate and push down the dollar, and this might be exacerbated by potential difficulties in external financing, and (ii) the rest of the world might retaliate against the announced US measures, creating a domino effect. In theory, this combination is the perfect inflationary cocktail. How then can we explain that the markets have not shown greater expectations of inflation?
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.
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.
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.