Monday, October 26, 2015

Rethinking the overachiever

Mario Draghi’s bold comments have raised the bar for the December meeting to a very high level. What could the ECB actually do? Even after some sleep and several internal brainstormings, it is not fully clear to us why ECB Draghi went as far as he did with his comments during Thursday’s ECB press conference. In our view, it would have been more than sufficient to use the phrase “the degree of monetary policy accommodation will need to be re-examined at our December monetary policy meeting”. This alone would have been a clear opener for more monetary action in December. Instead, Draghi himself brought forward the possibility of lowering the deposit rate, mentioned that some Governing Council members had already been in favour of more action at the Thursday meeting and hinted at new, unprecedented action by stating that the Governing Council had tasked internal committees to investigate further measures. All in all, a “work-and-assess” mode that has put market expectations to a (too) high level. The question of why Draghi chose for such boldness will remain unanswered. Is the ECB just overly concerned or are we back in the good old days when central banks had exclusive insight information on markets and economies? Hopefully, the meeting minutes will shed some light on these questions. Looking ahead, all eyes will now be on the 3 December meeting. In our view, despite all boldness, new action is not a done deal, yet. It will be conditional on the next batch of ECB staff projections and, particularly, the inflation forecasts for headline and core inflation in 2017 (1.7% and 1.6% respectively in the September forecasts). Admittedly, inactivity in December would clearly be counterproductive and would lead to a negative market reaction, eventually still forcing the ECB to act. In short, Draghi’s boldness has put the ECB into a position from which it will be very hard to escape without any new action. Based on Draghi’s comments on Thursday, what is the most likely action the ECB can deliver on 3 December? Given that not all members of the ECB’s Governing Council seem keen on stepping up QE, as they either deem it too early or simply ineffective (just think of Liikanen or Weidmann), returning to traditional monetary policy instruments seems like the most viable option. A cut of the deposit rate by 5-10 bp and a cut of the refi rate to zero could be easier digested by the ECB’s own QE critics. The fact that Draghi had several prepared statements at the Thursday meeting on why a rate cut would not lead to a credibility loss (despite last year’s comments that the ECB had reached the lower bound) and the focus on real not nominal rates, suggests that the ECB did already have a very intense discussion on this option. Draghi’s comments that the Governing Council had tasked all relevant committee to investigate other possible measures suggests that the ECB itself is not fully concerned that a simple “more of the same” will do the trick. Stepping up the current QE by either increasing the monthly size or the length of the programme is on the one hand hard to achieve (given that markets have already dried up significantly) and on the other hand will probably not have a huge impact on the economy. In our view, however, it is doubtful that the same committee which prepared QE last year will now all of a sudden find completely new measures no one else had ever thought about before. In theory, possible options might be purchases of corporate bonds, stocks or government bonds of non-Eurozone countries. Is it likely? In our view, not (yet). Notwithstanding the above, the ECB might still be tempted to deliver something on QE. Just in order to meet high market expectations. In this regard, some minor, rather cosmetical, changes to the current QE programme should not be excluded. An increase of the monthly size by 5 to 10bn and an extension of the minimum deadline to January 2017, instead of the current September 2016. The ECB might even consider dropping the reference to a precise minimum deadline. At first glance, this would make the programme look more open-ended than it currently is. However, at second glance, such a move could backfire in a situation in which inflation expectations start to increase before September 2016. Another more elegant way to do something more in terms of QE (probably preferred by the members of the Governing Council more critical of the programme) would be lowering the minimum yield at which the ECB can purchase bond (currently -20 bp), in line with the rate cut on the deposit facility (given the fact that it is not entirely clear whether there is an automatic link between deposit rate and the rate limit for QE purchases). That could also shift the longer end of the yield curve downwards. In the same vein, a further rate cut on TLTROs could be considered. All in all, a rate cut (also applied to the different types of unconventional monetary policy instruments), possibly combined with some cosmetic tweaking of QE look like the most likely next step for the ECB. Will it help? The ECB thinks it does. And, indeed, judging from Thursday’s market reaction, it should – at least initially – weaken the euro exchange rate. However, as it always needs two to tango, this ECB strategy would only work if the Fed would really start hiking interest rates. In this regard, any market and ECB enthusiasm could easily end with a hangover two weeks later when the Fed meets on 16 December.

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