Can Europe Cope with a Strong Euro?

Rapid euro appreciation could bring some problems for growth, but officials think the euro zone economy is strong enough to weather it

Though officials have remained relatively relaxed on the issue thus far, exchange rates are moving back into the policy foreground as the euro approaches historic highs against the U.S. dollar. Current foreign exchange levels should do little to curtail the euro zone recovery or prevent further monetary tightening. Yet there is the risk that if imbalances continue to build, there could be a sudden correction later on, which could have destabilizing effects.

The euro-to-dollar rate appreciated 10% year-over-year in March, and it is trading at levels last seen at the end of 2004. With diverging interest rate levels supporting further appreciation, it seems only a matter of time before the euro reaches its cyclical high of $1.3637, set on Dec. 30, 2004. The next barrier would be the 27-year high of $1.44 calculated retroactively (since, of course, the euro didn't exist then) to January, 1980.

The euro is also again rising steadily against the yen, with carry trades and the prospect of further European Central Bank (ECB) rate hikes one of the factors supporting further euro strength. The trend was exacerbated by the lack of a clear signal from the G7 on exchange rates, beyond the familiar line that "excess volatility" in exchange markets is undesirable and that exchange rates should reflect fundamentals.

Hurting Foreign Demand?

Despite this, euro zone officials have been quite sanguine on the issue, and we agree that the euro zone should be able to cope with recent appreciation of the currency used in 12 European nations. Note that on a real trade-weighted basis, the appreciation looks much less dramatic. The trade-weighted TWI index rose just 3.7% year to year in February, compared with a 10.1% year-to-year appreciation in the euro-to-dollar exchange rate that month. Nevertheless, the TWI is also approaching historical heights.

A stronger euro does undermine the competitiveness of euro zone goods on international markets and could potentially cut foreign demand, which has been a supporting factor for euro zone growth. However, low wage growth and larger productivity gains mean that real exchange rate increases are less significant. Furthermore, world growth remains very strong, which ultimately is more important for export growth than the exchange rate.

In a 2004 report, the European Commission showed that export demand is relatively insensitive to changes in exchange rates, and that a 10% appreciation of the real effective exchange rate would cut overall exports by only around 2%. One reason for that is that exporters typically hedge their short-term exposure, and that longer-term shifts depend on whether exchange rate moves are deemed to be transitory or permanent.

Importance of World Growth

If swings are seen as temporary, exporters adjust their profit margins. For instance, they cut prices when exchange rates rise, if domestic products are expensive on foreign markets, and vice versa. Some firms have sufficient margins for more permanent adjustments.

But more important for export demand is overall world growth. According to the European Commission, a 10% drop in world demand would cut euro zone exports by 8%. And so far world growth remains very robust. The IMF predicts world economic growth of 4.9% this year and next, which is just marginally lower than the 5.3% in 2006. Assuming the correlation is symmetric, the positive impact from strong world growth would far outweigh the impact of 10% appreciation in the euro.

This explains why the EC's survey shows that the industrial sector remains very optimistic with regard to the growth outlook. The reading for export order books continued its ascent in the first quarter of this year, and the reading of five in February and March is the highest for at least 12 years. This is a very different situation from back in 2004, when the euro reached its last peak against the U.S. dollar.

Additional Tightening

Furthermore, a stronger euro also means lower import prices, which ultimately will have a positive effect on consumer price inflation.

The EC highlights that empirical estimates show that on the order of 50% to 70% of the cost savings importers realize from buying goods overseas with a stronger euro are passed through to consumers. The pass-through to consumer prices is more muted and takes longer, but ultimately it will have an impact, which in turn is improving purchasing power and may strengthen domestic demand.

To the extent that the stronger euro has a positive impact on the medium-term inflation outlook, it also affects ECB policy. The EC uses a weighting of 6 to 1 for its Monetary Conditions Indicator and the trade-off between interest rates and exchange rates. This means that a 6% appreciation of the real trade-weighted index has an equal effect to a 100-basis-point interest rate hike. With the trade-weighted index up 5% year-over-year in February, this amounts to an additional tightening of monetary conditions, on top of the ECB's interest rate hikes.

Looking Toward the Second Half

So what does all this mean for the euro zone and interest rates? We agree with officials that the euro zone economy is currently sufficiently strong to cope with the recent euro appreciation. Very robust domestic demand, coupled with still strong world growth, will remain supportive of the recovery. This means further monetary tightening is likely, and we don't see the current euro rise preventing the expected rate hike in June.

Looking further ahead, a further rapid euro appreciation could bring some problems for the growth outlook and ECB policy. Officials will be very wary of sudden exchange rate swings, which could have a destabilizing effect. A stronger currency may provide some welcome tightening of monetary conditions. But, given strong M3 money supply growth, the ECB is likely to prefer tightening via interest rates rather than through the exchange rate channel.

The risk of verbal intervention is rising with the euro approaching $1.40. We don't expect euro strength fundamentally to affect the recovery, but a further rise in the euro could affect our outlook for monetary policy in the second half of the year. We are currently expecting two further 25-basis-point hikes and a yearend rate of 4.5%.

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