Thursday, January 21, 2016

ECB meeting - It ain't over till it's over

What was expected to be a dull first meeting of the year, turned out to be an exciting ECB meeting with ECB president Mario Draghi opening the door widely for new ECB action in March. While today’s ECB meeting will again feed bold speculations about what could happen in March, the question remains whether Draghi will really be able to deliver on his promise. No action today but probably in March. This is the bottom line of today’s ECB meeting. Interest rates and all else were kept on hold. However, ECB president Draghi sounded much more concerned about the outlook for the Eurozone economy, both in terms of growth and inflation, than six weeks ago. Draghi explicitly mentioned the renewed sharp drop in oil prices, the appreciation of the euro (let’s not forget, the side-effect of Draghi’s monetary policy own goal in December) and the slowdown of emerging markets and China. In addition, Draghi mentioned the volatility in financial and commodity markets as one of the factors behind the increase in downside risks since the start of the new year. Against this background, Draghi sent several strong messages, hinting at new ECB action at the next ECB meeting. First of all, Draghi reintroduced the concept of explicit forward guidance by stating that “we expect them [key ECB interest rates] to remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time”. In our view a clear indication that despite having announced the lower bound for interest rates several times of the last years, the ECB is again considering cutting rates. Moreover, an even stronger hint at new action was given with the sentence “it will therefore be necessary to review and possible reconsider our monetary policy stance at our next meeting in early March”. According to Draghi, “work will be carried out to ensure that all the technical conditions are in place to make the full range of policy options available for implementation, if needed”. A bit of a surprise as we thought that all possible options had already been on the table back in December. Financial markets reacted enthusiastically to Draghi’s hints and the euro exchange rate dropped immediately. The question, however, is whether and what the ECB can really deliver in March. Let’s not forget that the outcome of the December meeting looked like a compromise between doves and hawks, with the ECB eventually delivering less than markets had expected. Admittedly, at least the external environment for the Eurozone economy has worsened since the December meeting but it is unclear what the ECB can do to tackle low prices. It is hard to imagine that oil purchases will be on the agenda in March. Nevertheless, unless oil prices rebound in the coming weeks or the Eurozone economy surprises to the upside, it will again be difficult for the ECB not to deliver with new action in March. Judging from today’s comments, the most likely common denominator for both hawks and doves should be another rate cut (perhaps the idea of a two-tier deposit rate will be dug out again), possibly combined by another marginal fine-tuning of QE. All in all, today’s ECB meeting shows that Mario Draghi is always in for a good surprise. Every time it looked as if the ECB was done with its stimulus and willing to wait until all measures have had enough time to unfold their full impact, Draghi puts another log on the fire. Even if the big question remains whether Draghi can actually make markets’ new dreams come true. We might not hear Draghi sing at a press conference but for now Draghi has today again reminded everyone that “it ain’t over till it’s over”.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Solid recovery continues: German GDP grew 1.5% in 2015

It is a strange habit of the German statistical office to release GDP data for the entire past year before actually publishing fourth quarter data. According to the just released numbers, German GDP increased by 1.5% in 2015 (in calendar-adjusted terms), from 1.6% in 2014. Without working day adjustments, German GDP increased by 1.7%, from 1.6%. In our view, this outcome suggests that the German economy has probably grown by some 0.4% QoQ in the fourth quarter. However, as no hard data for December has been available so far and the statistical office normal uses extrapolations and historical patterns for its fourth quarter estimates, some downward revisions cannot be excluded. Let’s not forget that the vacation period could have had a negative impact on production in December. Moreover, the statistical office also released a first estimate of Germany’s 2015 fiscal balance, providing more arguments for the critics of too weak German public investment. For the first time since 1961, the German government recorded a fiscal surplus in two consecutive years. According to the statistical office, the fiscal surplus came in at 0.5% of GDP in 2015, from 0.6% GDP in 2014. German austerity fetishists will love it. Already yesterday, the German government reported a federal fiscal surplus, which at the federal level came in at 12bn euro, instead of the initially planned 5bn euro. Previously, the government coalition had already decided to transfer any surplus from the 2015 budget entirely into the 2016 budget and not using the surplus to reduce government debt. The funds are needed to finance the costs of the refugee inflow, which the government has currently estimated at around 8bn euro. The reported surplus now offers additional financing leeway for another 7bn euro. While initially this additional fiscal room for maneuver will be used as a buffer for the refugee costs, it is obviously also grist to the mills of proponents for more public investment. Returning to GDP data, today’s numbers almost close the economic year 2015 for Germany. It was yet another year in which the German economy defied earlier swan songs and, despite many headwinds like the Greek crisis, the slowdown in emerging markets and China and increased geopolitical uncertainties, continued the recovery. The year 2015 clearly marks an important step in the rebalancing of the German economy, as private consumption turned out to be an important growth driver (contributing 1.0 percentage points to growth). Still, despite all talks about the strength of the German economy, it took until 2015 before the current expansion has finally become stronger than the last one between 2004 and 2008. Moreover, it would still need at least two more solid years of growth before the cycle between 1994 and 2000 could be equaled. Looking ahead, the two-speeded recovery, with strong consumption and services on the one hand and sluggish industrial production and exports on the other hand, should continue in 2016. As regards the domestic part of the economy, the year 2016 should bring at least a short-term consumptive stimulus from the refugee inflow and increased government consumption. At the same time, low interest rates, low inflation and high employment should further boost growth. As regards the external and industrial part of the economy, high inventories, subdued order books and weaknesses in several important export markets suggest that the German export sector could soon simply face too many headwinds to prolong the recent success story. All in all, the German economy has once again defied many external headwinds and performed another solid growth year in 2015. However, there are at least two caveats to today’s positive data: firstly, after several years of stellar performances (at least vis-à-vis the rest of the Eurozone), the German economy has returned to normality, hardly outperforming the Eurozone any longer. And secondly, without any new structural reforms and investments it is hard to see any sharp acceleration of the economy any time soon. This might be as good as it gets. Therefore, any celebrations and self-adulations should remain extremely modest.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

German IP disappoints in November

This morning’s trade and production data end an almost all-German week in the Eurozone, in which macro-economic data have almost been overshadowed by the mass assaults in several bigger German cities on New Year’s Eve. While the latter could, in our view, mark a turning point in Chancellor Merkel’s handling of the refugee influx, macro data shows a two-speeded economy with strong domestic demand but rather sluggish industrial and export activity. Turning to this morning’s data, industrial production dropped in November by 0.3% MoM, adding to evidence that the Chinese and emerging market slowdowns are leaving their marks on the Eurozone’s largest economy. Moreover, these weak data add to concerns that hard data will not be able to catch up with optimistic sentiment indicators. On the year, industrial production remained unchanged. Looking at the details, bright spots were in the production of intermediate (+1.1% MoM) and consumer goods (+1.9% MoM). The construction sector benefitted from the mild weather in November and increased by 1.6% MoM. At the same time, exports increased by 0.4% MoM in November, while imports increased by 1.6% MoM. As a consequence, the trade balance narrowed to 20.6bn euro, from 22.5bn euro in October. It is not easy to find a common theme for latest German data. While consumption remains solid, on the back of the strong labour market, low inflation and low interest rates, latest developments are still far from creating exuberance. At the same time, industrial production is treading water and the current slowdown is clearly more than only the result of a vacation-driven summer lull. Looking ahead, ongoing uncertainties in China, a possible slowdown in the US economy and more generally the negative effects from record-low oil prices a quick rebound in industrial production is anything but certain. To the contrary, in our view, industrial activity should continue to remain sluggish this year. However, this does not necessarily have to be a problem. In fact, Germany seems to experience the same phenomenon as for example the US and Chinese economy: a shift from manufacturing towards services. In Germany, this has been illustrated by the Ifo index for individual sectors. While the manufacturing sector has been treading water throughout the year and weakened in recent months, the construction, retail and wholesale sectors have been driving the strong Ifo index performance in recent months. Another piece of evidence that the German economy is currently mainly driven by domestic factors. Moreover, the fact that the Ifo index for the service sector has recently climbed to its highest level since early 2005, provides further evidence for the decoupling of manufacturing and services. As regards exports, German exporters are still benefitting from the weak euro. Particularly, exports to the US have benefitted from the sharp depreciation of the euro since 2014. As a consequence, the US has been Germany’s most important trading partner this year, taking this number one spot from France. In this regard, renewed fears of a Chinese hard landing should not push the German economy into severe problems. Germany currently exports almost twice as much to the US as to China. However, as it is not only the Chinese economy which is slowing down but also other emerging markets, while at the same time Eurozone peers are still struggling to gain momentum and oil-exporting countries are suffering from low energy prices, the German export sector could soon simply face too many headwinds to prolong the recent success story. Next week, the German statistical office will continue its long tradition of releasing GDP data for the entire year without having any hard macro data for December. The latest batch of November data suggests a continuation of the recovery in the fourth quarter, albeit at a rather subdued pace. However, in the light of the latest market turmoil, continued concerns about the Chinese economy, extremely low oil prices and the absence of dynamic growth regions in the world economy, any shouts of joy about strong German growth should better remain humble. Carsten Brzeski

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Encouraging data from Germany

Signs of relief. This morning’s German data provides some relief and signs of stabilization of the economy in the final quarter of the year. Particularly the surprise increase of new orders in November bodes well for the coming months. After a disappointing summer performance, German new orders increased for the second month in a row, now by 1.5% MoM in November, from 1.7% MoM in October. For the pessimists, the increase in new orders was mainly driven by domestic demand (2.6%). This shift of the German economy towards more domestic activity is probably the theme of 2015. On the year, domestic new orders are now up by more than 6%, while foreign orders are down by 0.7%. Moreover, this morning’s retail sales data supports strengthened domestic demand, showing an increase of 0.2% MoM in November. On the year, retail sales are up by 2.3%. This morning’s data has at least two important messages for and on the German economy: i) there is still hope that hard industrial data will eventually catch up with strong soft data (and the other way around); and ii) with record low inflation, record high employment, record low unemployment, strong consumption and the surge in domestic orders, the year 2015 marks the successful transition towards more balanced growth.