When improvement does not necessarily rhyme with simplification
Senior Economic Advisor, Accuracy
Today, though this statement may apply more to developed countries than to developing countries, the economic landscape appears on the surface more promising. COVID-19 is on the verge of transforming from epidemic into endemic. Economic recovery is considered likely to last, and the delay to growth accumulated during the COVID-19 crisis has mostly been caught up. Last but not least, prices are accelerating.
This last phenomenon is quite spectacular, with a year-on-year change in consumer prices passing in the space of two years (from early 2020 to early 2022) from 1.9% to 7.5% in the United States and from 1.4% to 5.1% in the eurozone. What’s more, this acceleration is proving stronger and lasting longer than the idea we had of the consequences on the price profile of opening up an economy previously hindered by public health measures.
Faced with these dynamics on the dual front of health and the real economy, opinions on the initiatives to be taken by central banks have changed. The capital markets are calling for the rapid normalisation of monetary policies: stopping the increase in the size of balance sheets and then reducing them, as well as returning the reference rates to levels deemed more normal. This, of course, comes with the creation of both upward pressure and distortions in the rate curves, as well as a loss of direction in the equity markets.
At this stage, let’s have a quick look back to see how far we may have to go. During the epidemic crisis, the main Western central banks (the Fed in the US, the ECB in the eurozone, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England) accepted a remarkable increase in the size of their balance sheets. For these four banks alone, the balance sheet/GDP ratio went from 36% at the beginning of 2020 to 60% at the end of 2021. This is the counterpart to the bonds bought and the liquidity injected in their respective banking systems. At the same time, the reference rates were positioned or maintained as low as possible (based on the economic and financial characteristics of each country or zone): at +0.25% in the US, at -0.50% in the eurozone, at -0.10% in Japan and at +0.10% in the UK. This pair of initiatives served to ensure the most favourable monetary and financial conditions. They ‘supplemented’ the actions taken by the public authorities: often state-backed loans granted to businesses and furlough measures in parallel to significant support to the economy (around 4.5 points of GDP on average for the OECD zone; note, the two types of measure may partly overlap).
Now, let’s try to set out the monetary policy debate. The net rebound of economic growth in 2021, the widely shared feeling that economic activity will continue following an upward trend, and price developments that are struggling to get back into line all contribute to a situation that justifies the beginning of monetary policy normalisation. It goes without saying that the timing and the rhythm of this normalisation depend on conditions specific to each geography.
HOWEVER, WE MUST BE AWARE OF THE SINGULAR NATURE OF THE CURRENT SITUATION.
The current inflationary dynamics are not primarily the reflection of excessively strong demand stumbling over a supply side already at full capacity.
More so, they reflect – and quite considerably – production and distribution apparatuses that cannot operate at an optimal rhythm because of the disorganisation caused by the epidemic and sometimes by the effects brought about by public policies. The return to normal – and if possible quickly – is a necessity, unless we are willing to accept lasting losses of supply capacity. With this in mind, we must be careful not to speed down the road to monetary neutrality; otherwise, we risk a loss of momentum in economic growth and a sharp decline in financial markets, both of which would lead us away from the desired goal.
Another point must be mentioned, even if it is more classic in nature: the acceleration of consumer prices is not without incident on households. It gnaws away at their purchasing power and acts negatively on their confidence, both things that serve to slow down private consumption and therefore economic activity.
THIS IS ANOTHER ELEMENT SUPPORTING THE GRADUAL NORMALISATION OF MONETARY POLICY.
How do the two ‘major’ central banks (the Fed in the US and the ECB in the eurozone) go about charting their course on this path, marked out on the one hand by the impatience of the capital markets and on the other by the need to take account of the singularity of the moment and the dexterity that this singularity requires when conducting monetary policy?
All we can do is observe a certain ‘crab walk’ by the Fed and the ECB. Let’s explain and start with the US central bank.
The key phrase of the communiqué at the end of the recent monetary policy committee of 26 January is without doubt the following: ‘With inflation well above 2 percent and a strong labor market, the Committee expects it will soon be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate.’ Not surprisingly, the reference rate was raised by 25 percentage points on 16 March, and as there is no forward guidance, the rhythm of the monetary normalisation will be data dependent (based on the image of the economy drawn by the most recently published economic indicators). At first, the focus will be on the price profile; then, the importance of the activity profile will grow.
The market, with its perception of growth and inflation, will be quick to anticipate a rapid pace of policy rate increases. The Fed, having approved the start of the movement, is trying to control its tempo. Not the easiest of tasks!
Let’s move on to the ECB. The market retained two things from the meeting of the Council of Governors on 3 February: risks regarding future inflation developments are on the rise and the possibility of a policy rate increase as early as this year cannot be ruled out.
Of course, the analysis put forward at the time was more balanced, and since then, Christine Lagarde and certain other members of the Council, such as François Villeroy de Galhau, have been working to moderate market expectations that are doubtlessly considered excessive.
We can see it clearly. It will all be a question of timing and good pacing in this incipient period of normalisation. In medio stat virtus1 , as Aristotle reminds us. But how establishing it can be difficult!
1 Virtue lies in a just middle.
IMPACT OF THE RUSSIAN INVASION OF UKRAINE:
NECESSARY DOWNWARD REVISION OF ECONOMIC ASSESSMENT
• The world outside Russia, especially Europe, will not get through the crisis unscathed. The continued acceleration of prices and the fall in confidence are the principal reasons for this. Indeed, the price of crude oil has increased by over 30% (+35 dollars per barrel) since the beginning of military operations, and the price of ‘European’ gas has almost doubled. In the same way, it is impossible to extrapolate the rebound in the PMI indices of many countries in February; they are practically ancient history. Growth will slow down and inflation will become more intense, with the United States suffering less than the eurozone.
• Vigilance (caution) may need to be even greater. This new shock (the scale of which remains unknown) is rattling an economic system that is still in recovery: the epidemic is being followed by a difficult rebalancing of supply and demand, creating an unusual upward trend in prices compared with the past few decades. Is the economic system’s resistance weaker as a result?
• In these conditions, monetary normalisation will be more gradual than anticipated. Central banks should monitor the increase in energy (and also food) prices and focus more on price dynamics excluding these two components – what we call the ‘core’. The most likely assumption is that this core will experience a slower tempo, above all because of less well-orientated demand.