Mario Draghi and the ECB prepare for a change of course next month

by Shaun Richards

After a week where the UK has dominated the headlines it is time to switch to the Euro area.  This is for two reasons.  We receive the latest inflation data but also because a speech from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has addressed an issue we have been watching as 2018 has developed. We have been waiting to see how he and it will respond to the economic slow down that is apparent. This is especially important as during the credit crunch era the ECB has not only been the first responder to any economic downturns it has also regularly found itself to be the only one. Thus it finds itself in a position whereby in terms of negative interest-rates ( deposit rate of -0.4%) and balance sheet ( still expanding at 15 billion Euros per month ) and credit easing still heavily deployed. Accordingly this sentence from Mario echoes what we have been discussing for quite a while.

The key issue at stake is as follows: are we witnessing a temporary “soft patch” or a more lasting deterioration in the growth outlook?

The latter would be somewhat devastating for the man who was ready to do “whatever it takes” to save the Euro as it would return us to discussions about its problems a major one of has been slow economic growth.

Some rhetoric

It seems to be a feature these days of official speeches that they open with what in basketball terms would be called a head fake. Prime Minister Theresa May did it yesterday with an opening sentence which could have been followed by a resignation and Mario opened with what could have been about “broad based” economic growth.

The euro area economy has now been growing for five years, and we expect the expansion to continue in the coming years.

Of course central bankers always expect the latter until there is no other choice. Indeed he confirms that line of thought later.

There is certainly no reason why the expansion in the euro area should abruptly come to an end.

As we move on we get an interesting perspective on the past as well as a comparison with the United States.

Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21% over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10% above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21%.

The obvious point is whether you can use the Euro area as a concept before it even existed?! Added to that via the “convergence” promised by the Euro area founders economic growth should be better now than then, except of course we have seen plenty of divergence too. Also you might find it odd to be pointing out that the US has done better especially as the way it is put which reminds us that for all the extraordinary monetary action the Euro area has only grown by 10%. Even that relies on something of a swinging ball as of course he is comparing with the bottom of the dip rather than the past peak as otherwise the number would be a fair bit weaker. Mario is leaving a bit of a trap here, however, or to be more precise he thinks he is.

How have we got here?

First we open with two standard replies the first is that whilst any growth is permanent setbacks are temporary and the other fallback is to blame the weather.

The first is one-off factors, which have clearly played an important role in the underperformance of growth since the start of the year. In the first half of 2018, weather, sickness and industrial action affected output in a number of countries.

Actually that makes the third quarter look even worse as they had gone by then yet growth slowed. He is on safer ground here though.

Production slowed as carmakers tried to avoid building up inventory of untested models, which weighed heavily on economies with large automobile sectors, such as Germany. Indeed, the German economy actually contracted in the third quarter, removing at least 0.1 percentage points from quarterly euro area growth.

This is another marker being put down because it you are thinking that you might need to further expand monetary policy it is best to try to get the Germans onside and reminding them that they too have issues will help. Indeed for those who believe that ECB policy is essentially set for Germany it may be not far off a clincher.

There is something that may worry German car producers if they are followers of ECB euphemisms.

The latest data already show production normalising.

After all the ECB itself may not achieve that.

Trade

This paragraph is interesting on quite a few levels.

The second source of the slowdown has been weaker trade growth, which is broader-based. Net exports contributed 1.4 percentage points to euro area growth in 2017, while so far this year they have removed 0.2 percentage points. World trade growth decelerated from 5.2% in 2017 to 4.6% in the first half of this year.

Oddly Mario then converts a slow down in growth to this.

We are witnessing a long-term slowdown in world trade.

As we note the change in the impact of trade on the Euro area there are several factors in play. You could argue that 2017 was a victory for the “internal competitiveness” austerity model applied although when we get to the collective that is awkward as the Euro area runs a large surplus driven by Germany. From the point of view of the rest of the world they would like it to reduce although the preferable route would be for the Euro area ( Germany ) to import more.

Employment

Mario cheers rightly for this.

Over the past five years, employment has increased by 9.5 million people, rising by 2.6 million in Germany, 2.1 million in Spain, 1 million in France and 1 million in Italy.

I bet he enjoyed the last bit especially! But later there is a catch which provides food for thought.

 But since 2013 more than 70% of employment growth has come from those aged 55-74. This partly reflects the impact of past structural reforms, such as to pension systems.

Probably not the ECB pension though as we are reminded of “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd.

Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat
And the lines on the map
Moved from side to side.

Also whilst no doubt some of these women wanted to work there will be others who had no choice.

The share of women in work has also risen by more than 10 percentage points since the start of EMU to almost 60% – its highest level ever

Put another way this sentence below could fit into a section concerning the productivity crisis.

 In addition, countries that have implemented structural reforms have in general seen a rise in labour demand in recent years compared with the pre-crisis period. Germany, Portugal and Spain are all good examples.

There is a section on wages but Mario end up taking something of an each-way bet on this.

But in the light of the lags between wages and prices after a period of low inflation, patience and persistence in our monetary policy is still needed.

Money Supply and Credit

This is how central bankers report a sustained and considerable slow down in the money supply.

The cost of bank borrowing for firms fell to record lows in the first half of this year across all large euro area economies, while the growth of loans to firms stood at its highest rate since 2012. The growth rate of loans to households is also the strongest since 2012, with consumer credit now acting as the most dynamic component, reflecting the ongoing strength of consumption.

Also the emphasis below is mine and regular readers are permitted a wry smile.

Household net worth remains at solid levels on the back of rising house prices and is adding to continued consumption growth.

Comment

We are being warmed up for something of a change of course in case it is necessary.

When the Governing Council met in October, we confirmed our confidence in the economic outlook………….When the latest round of projections is available at our next meeting in December, we will be better placed to make a full assessment of the risks to growth and inflation.

As if they are not already thinking along those lines! The next bit is duo fold. It reminds us that the Euro area has abandoned fiscal policy but does have a kicker for the future.

To protect their households and firms from rising interest rates, high-debt countries should not increase their debt even further and all countries should respect the rules of the Union.

The kicker is perhaps a hint that there is a solution to that as well.

In conclusion, I want to emphasise how completing Economic and Monetary Union has become more urgent over time not less urgent – and not only for the economic reasoning that has always underpinned my remarks, but also to preserve our European construction………….more Europe is the answer.

There Mario leaps out of his apparent trap singing along to Luther Vandross.

I just don’t wanna stop
Oh my love, a million days in your arms
Is never too much (never too much, never too much, never too much)

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