Euro Economy Chugs Along as ECB Tries to Figure Out Future

  • Inflation remains at just 0.5 percent with core rate stuck
  • Draghi to speak at Frankfurt’s Euro Finance Week gathering

Mario Draghi reckons the European Central Bank has engineered a moderate and steady recovery in the euro area, and economists agree.

Respondents in a Bloomberg survey predict a roughly consistent pace of growth right through 2017. That revival from a double-dip recession and debt crisis has depended heavily on an exceptionally loose monetary stance, meaning that when the ECB president and his colleagues speak in Frankfurt this week, investors will be seeking hints on how long the policy will last.

It’s not a simple topic. U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory last week, alongside the looming exit of the U.K. from the European Union, prompted Governing Council members Jens Weidmann and Vitor Constancio to warn of high uncertainty. As the ECB prepares new forecasts for its December meeting, it must ponder what the next speed bumps might be -- such as populist gains in elections in the currency bloc -- and how to overcome them.

“The uncertainty facing the economy is there; we’ve got Brexit, no one knows what Trump will do, and we will see elections that have clear anti-European and anti-trade trends,” said Jens Kramer, an economist at NordLB in Hanover, Germany. “That will set the wrong impulses for growth, and probably the ECB has this in the back of their minds.”

Trade Outlook

A less trade-friendly global atmosphere is key threat to the euro zone, where exports are compensating for mediocre domestic demand. Trump pledged throughout his campaign to dismantle or renegotiate deals, and the U.K. is set to formally begin Brexit talks early next year. Also clouding the outlook is a referendum in Italy and elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, all with a rise in populist opposition.

Against that backdrop, financial policy makers and executives are meeting in Frankfurt for a series of conferences known as Euro Finance Week. Speakers include Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Officer John Cryan, who will give remarks before Draghi, Weidmann and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble make appearances on Friday.

Speaking at the opening of the event Monday, Constancio said that while some argue that “recent geopolitical developments” will have benefits, “the real negative effects of heightened uncertainty can come later.”

On Tuesday, economic data will probably confirm that the 19-nation euro area grew 0.3 percent in the third quarter. Figures will also be released for Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.

2 Percent

Economists in the Bloomberg survey forecast the same pace of growth this quarter and in early 2017, with a slight pickup to 0.4 percent in the third quarter. They see inflation -- which was just 0.5 percent last month -- slowly accelerating to 1.3 percent by the end of 2017. That’s still well below the ECB’s goal of just under 2 percent, suggesting that officials may decide they have to extend their quantitative-easing program.

Constancio said that subdued core inflation -- which excludes items such as food and energy -- is a cause of concern, and that may affect policy. “A more satisfactory evolution of wages is needed, now that inflation and productivity are increasing,” he said. After his speech, he clarified to reporters that his remarks aren’t a signal that the bank’s worries about core inflation are increasing.

Still, it reflects the ECB’s biggest concern: inflation is only slowly picking up. Its 80 billion-euro ($89 billion) QE program will be reviewed on Dec. 8, and Executive Board member Benoit Coeure said last week that the monetary stance will stay “very accommodative” until price growth is firmly on track toward the goal.

Economists in a previous survey in October said the central bank is only likely to signal a readiness to wind down asset purchases when inflation holds above 1.5 percent for at least three consecutive months. Economists in the latest poll see it averaging 1.5 percent only in the second quarter of 2018.

Opponents of ultra-loose monetary policy want to see higher interest rates sooner than that. Coeure’s response -- aimed at governments -- is that tightening requires a stronger economy, and that can only come if administrations push through structural reforms.

“If the European economy regains the ability to sustainably create growth, interest rates will return to levels more favorable to savings,” he said on Friday.

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