Encore

05/09/2014 at 4:17 pm

Markets barely had enough time to recover from Mario Draghi’s last “rock star” performance at the ECB before he shocked them with yesterday’s encore. Back in June he left his fans with the rhetorical question: “Are we finished? The answer is no.” Yesterday he proved it, lifting the lid on a plan for purchasing about €700bn worth of asset-backed securities while slicing another 10bp off policy rates. Only six of the fifty-seven economists and investment banks surveyed by Bloomberg expected the rate move, and the ABS programme, though trailed at the June ECB press conference, has also come surprisingly quickly.

Three months ago it looked as though Mr Draghi was playing to the crowd as much as anything. Two questions now emerge:

  1. Has anything substantial happened in Europe since June which has increased the need for emergency monetary measures?
  2. If not, how necessary are the ECB’s announcements as “open mouth operations”?

Look at the growth numbers reported in August and it is tempting to answer question (1) with a “yes”. Across the eurozone as a whole, GDP for Q2 was flat, down from an already-muted 0.2% rise in Q1. Stagnation in France was no surprise but it was a mild shock to see Italy back in recession. At the same time, headline inflation has continued to fall back with the annual CPI increase to August down at 0.3%. There has also been heightened concern in recent weeks over events in eastern Ukraine, with some commentators attributing weakness in European business investment to fears over escalating sanctions against Russia.

At the same time, however, it’s not that simple. The PMI composite indicator of economic output for the eurozone remains well into positive territory, despite the usual variation between countries, and the economic sentiment indicator (of consumer and business confidence) remains well off its 2012 lows – and indeed well above the levels associated with the three quarters of positive growth witnessed from Q2 2013. The ECB along with the consensus expects GDP to grow again this quarter, albeit at the accustomed muted rate. Even on the inflationary front much of the decline is down to cheaper energy prices: the “core” CPI rate for August, which as it excludes volatile items such as food and energy is supposed to be a more accurate reflection of the economy’s underlying price dynamics, actually rose for the second time since May to 0.9%. On balance, then, it does not seem reasonable to believe that there has been a material deterioration in the fundamental prospects for the eurozone over the last three months.

This does nothing to detract from the importance of question (2). At yesterday’s press conference (the full text of which can be read here), Mr Draghi had the following important, and in this blog’s view unarguable statement to make in the tangential final section of his answer to a question about fiscal policy:

[I]n many parts of the euro area, there are several reasons why growth is not coming back, but one of them is actually that there is lack of confidence. There is lack of confidence in the future, lack of confidence in the prospects, in economic prospects, of these countries.

It is an indisputable fact that much of the world’s confidence in recent years has relied for better or for worse on the perceived actions of central banks. The ECB understands this. And the reaction to this week’s news, together with one key longer-term trend, seems to indicate that they are getting the confidence-building part of their operation right.

First the reaction yesterday: Stoxx 50 up by 1.8% on the day, credit spreads tighter, euro back under 1.30 for the first time in over a year – in its biggest daily percentage fall against the dollar since the height of the debt crisis in November 2011 – and as for the bond market, well, that brings us on to the longer-term trend side of things.

Talking of the height of the debt crisis, back in November ’11 it cost the Italian government 7.9% to raise three-year money. A few months later, after the ECB announced its potential use of an emergency long-dated bond-buying programme, Italy was borrowing for ten years at 5.8%. Finally, just on Thursday last week, Italy raised ten year money at 2.4% and five year at 1.1%, record lows in both cases. And it isn’t just Italy. At the time of writing, two year bond yields are actually negative now in Germany, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Slovakia and (wait for it …) Ireland. It puts even the two-year Japanese government bond to shame, and makes the yield on our own 4% 2016 gilt look positively generous at 0.8%. All this is just excellent news, of course, if you’re an indebted sovereign looking to refinance your borrowing at the cheapest rates available in the world.

It doesn’t do to be complacent about Europe, or indeed the world economy in general. But it is encouraging that the ECB has been rising to the market’s demands for action in its own managed, but clearly credible way. European confidence in particular does indeed need all the help it can get. Rock star: play on …

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