Perspectives - 19 April 2019
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    Recent data in China and the eurozone point towards a stabilisation of growth and have been met with relief. Although the US economy is slowing, growth should remain at a satisfactory level in the near term. Yet there are lingering concerns about the underlying strength of the global economy. The IMF has again scaled down its forecasts and only expects a modest growth pickup later this year. The flattening of the US yield curve fuels worries that growth will disappoint. The Fed insists it is confident about the outlook and patient in setting its policy. Markets have welcomed this accommodative message. Yet the signals sent by equity and bond markets about future growth are quite different. It only adds to the list of concerns.
    Although losing steam, the economic activity in the US is seen keeping on a rather dynamic path in 2019. The International Monetary Fund still forecasts a 2.3% increase in GDP this year, while delivering an increasingly cautious message in the meantime. The IMF recently pointed out several risk factors, including the record high corporate debt ratio, the opacity and less stringent standards on the leveraged loan market, and stretched equity market valuations. Moreover, the inversion of the yield curve is virtually complete, which in the past has always been an early-warning sign of recession.
    The eurozone’s manufacturing sector has been hard hit by the decline in foreign trade and persistently high uncertainty. Very open internationally, the eurozone is sensitive to global cyclical slowdowns. Internal macroeconomic fundamentals are still solid, and the rally in the services sector is showing resilience. The ECB has taken note of the longer than expected slowdown, and has opted once again for longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO). Numerous risks still cloud the forecast horizon, which could darken rather quickly if any of these risks were to materialise.
    Since the middle of 2018, economic activity has virtually stagnated largely because of a slowdown in world trade. The most recent surveys and hard data confirm that weakness in the manufacturing sector continued in Q1 2019. Spearhead of the economy, the sector can become a source of vulnerability when world markets are less buoyant. However, Germany is able to support domestic demand. In 2019, the government will return to households and businesses a part of last year’s record budget surplus (more than EUR 50 bn).
    Business confidence surveys are showing signs of levelling off. Hard data for January and February are rather positive. These factors are consistent with the economy keeping up growing at about 1.2%, which is our growth forecast for 2019. Although this is not very high, it is synonymous with the resilience the French economy is expected to show in an environment marked by uncertainties and downside risks. The main factor behind this resilience is the positive impetus of economic and fiscal policy, notably stimulus measures to boost household purchasing power, and the expected ensuing rebound in household consumption.
    The Italian economy entered the third recession in the last ten years. In 2018, value added in the manufacturing sector recorded four consecutive contractions. Domestic demand disappointed, as both households and firms remained extremely cautious. Given the deterioration of the overall scenario, in the 2019 Economic and Financial Document recently approved, the Italian Government has lowered from 1% to 0.2% the GDP growth expected in 2019, with public deficit at 2.4% and the debt to GDP ratio at 132.6%. The structural deficit would worsen by 0.1%, to 1.5%. A progressive ageing of the population makes the scenario even more complicated.
    In a morose economic environment, Spanish growth stands out as one of the most resilient in the eurozone, and it seems to have entered the year at a very similar pace to the one in H2 2018. The main factors behind this resilience can be found on the household front, where the savings rate has dropped back to the low point of 2008. With only a few days to go before the 28 April general elections, the electoral landscape is still highly fragmented. Regardless of the outcome, the winning party will find it hard to form a sustainable majority coalition.  
    Industrial enterprises were squeezed by tighter financing conditions in 2017 and early 2018, and then hit by a slowdown in production and revenue growth last year. These troubles have contributed to the deterioration of their payment capacity, resulting in a surge in defaults in the local bond market. The increase in defaults is an indicator of the financial fragility of corporates, and also seems to be going hand-in-hand with greater differentiation of credit risks by lenders and a certain clean-up of the financial sector. These trends are expected to continue in the short term as the authorities conduct a targeted easing of monetary policy. However, the persistence of the debt excess in the corporate sector will maintain high credit risks in the medium term.
    After nearly five years in power, Narendra Modi’s track record is generally positive, even though the last year of his mandate was tough, with a slowdown in growth in Q3-2018/19. The main growth engines are household consumption, and more recently, private investment, thanks to a healthier corporate financial situation, with the exception of certain sectors. In full-year 2018, external accounts deteriorated slightly as a swelling current account deficit was not offset by foreign direct investment. A big challenge for the next government will be to create a more conducive environment for domestic and non-resident investment.
    The hopes of seeing economic activity pick up following the election of Jair Bolsonaro have fallen. Some indicators point to a possible contraction in economic activity in Q1 2019 at a time where confidence indicators were seemingly improving. Meanwhile, the reform of the pension system – a cornerstone of President Bolsonaro's economic program – was presented to Congress in February where it is currently under discussion. Negotiations will likely be more protracted and be more difficult than originally expected. Indeed, since taking office, the popularity of the Brazilian president has sharply declined and relations between the executive and the legislature have strained.
    Economic growth slowed in the first months of 2019, and is now close to its potential growth rate of 1.5% according to the central bank. A 2-point VAT increase on 1 January has strained real wage growth and sapped household consumption. Inflation (5.2% year-on-year in February) is still below the central bank’s expectations, and the key policy rate was maintained at 7.75% following the March meeting of the monetary policy committee. In the first two months of 2019, investors were attracted by high yields on Russian government bonds, despite the risk of further tightening of US sanctions. The rouble also gained 5% against the US dollar in Q1 2019.
    Economic activity in Japan remains in a slump, and the slowdown observed in 2018 seems set to last. Manufacturing activity deteriorated in the first quarter. In the short and medium term, Japan will continue to be hard hit by the slowdown in China, its main trading partner. Demographics are still a major problem in a country where the over-65 age group continues to swell and now accounts for more than a quarter of Japan’s total population. It serves as a constant incentive to boost productivity gains through large-scale structural reforms in the goods and services markets as well as in the labour market.
    By opting to leave the European Union (EU) without any exit plan, the United Kingdom has come face to face with an impossible choice. Week after week, the Brexit impasse has revealed the British Parliament’s incapacity to make decision, starting with the ratification of the divorce terms, the fruit of 2-years of negotiations by Prime Minister Theresa May. In the end, the Brexit was simply postponed. First set for 29 March, then 12 April, the deadline for exiting the EU has now been extended to 31 October (a Halloween treat?). This date could be moved forward if the UK finally manages to ratify the withdrawal agreement, which it has rejected time and again. But the most probable scenario is that the UK will extend its participation to the EU, at least for a while…
    Perspectives - 24 January 2019
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    The slowdown is spreading widely. Although it is reasonable to expect growth to normalise, several sources of uncertainty (fears of a trade war, Brexit, the US government shutdown, etc.) are acting as headwinds. China has already announced new measures, and in the United States, the Federal Reserve is insisting on its patience (concerning inflation) and flexibility when it comes to adapting monetary policy.
    The assumption that the US economy is heading for a landing is gaining ground, not just because of the shutdown. The disruption created by the trade war with China, the appreciation of risk on bond and equity markets, the peaking of the energy sector and the deterioration of real estate indices all suggest less buoyant growth. This view is shared by the US Federal Reserve, which has adopted a more cautious tone and suspended the increase in policy rates pending future macroeconomic data.
    After an eventful first twenty years, the eurozone is moving into a new phase of uncertainty. Growth has slowed markedly, and economic indicators have deteriorated. With temporary shocks and structural drags on growth, 2019 brings numerous risks. Against this background, and faced with underlying inflation that remains too low, the European Central Bank (ECB) is taking a cautious approach to this new year.
    Economic growth has slowed markedly since the second quarter of 2018 and business surveys indicate that it is unlikely to change in the coming months. The exporting manufacturing sector is much affected by the slowdown in world trade. In the coming quarters, the domestic economy is likely to become the major engine behind growth thanks to an expansionary fiscal policy. More fiscal stimulus could be expected if the economy would slow further. This would also shore up the chances of the coalition parties at the next federal election set for 2021.
    2019 is getting off to a less strong start, with economic activity having taken a hit from the ‘gilets jaunes’ protest movement. The collapse in consumer confidence has been abrupt and the global environment looks less certain. Against this background, fiscal policy is being loosened: the new plan to support the purchasing power of lower income households, announced in response to December’s demonstrations, should help consumer spending to catch up, at least in part. It comes alongside measures already introduced in the 2018 budget to support consumers and companies. French growth is therefore likely to show signs of resistance.
    At the end of 2018, Italy and the European Commission agreed on a new 2019 Budget Law, avoiding an Excessive Deficit Procedure. The 2019 public deficit has been lowered to 2% of GDP from 2.4% previously planned, and real GDP growth has been revised downward to 1% from +1.5%. This is still a challenging scenario as overall conditions in the Italian economy worsened in H2 2018. In Q3, GDP fell by 0.1% as investment, both private and public, significantly declined. After the downturn in September, exports in Italy recorded a +9.6% y/y increase in October, while they stagnated in November bringing the value of the sales abroad to 427 billion euros in the first eleven months of the year.
    The current slowdown is in keeping with the European economic cycle. Prospects are still looking relatively good, and Spain’s expected growth rate is among the highest of the big eurozone countries. Unemployment is falling rapidly but it is still massive, especially long-term unemployment. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez just presented his 2019 budget proposal to Parliament, but he is not sure it will pass. In any case, the deficit most likely slipped significantly below 3% of GDP in 2018, and Spain is preparing to exit the excessive deficit procedure that was launched 10 years ago.
    Economic growth slowed to 6.6% in 2018 from 6.9% in 2017 and should continue to decelerate in the short term. The extent of the slowdown will depend on the still highly uncertain evolution of trade tensions between China and the United States as well as on Beijing’s counter-cyclical policy measures. However, the central bank’s manoeuvring room is severely constrained by the economy’s excessive debt burden and the threat of capital outflows. Moreover, whereas Beijing has pursued efforts to improve financial regulation and the health of state-owned companies over the past two years, its new priorities increase the risk of interruption in this clean-up process. Faced with this situation, the central government will have to make greater use of fiscal stimulus measures.
    India’s economic growth slowed between July and September 2018, hard hit by the increase in the oil bill. The sharp decline in oil prices since October will ease pressures, at least temporarily, on public finances and the balance of payments, and in turn on the Indian rupee (INR), which depreciated by 9% against the dollar in 2018. In a less favourable economic environment, Narendra Modi’s BJP party lost its hold on three states during recent legislative elections.
    The election of Jair Bolsonaro at the presidency of Brazil has marked a swing to the right, the weakening of traditional political parties and a return of the military to national politics. The new administration faces the challenges of rapidly engaging its fiscal reform, gaining the trust of foreign investors while reconciling ideological differences across its ranks. How society will adjust to a new era of liberal economic policy remains the greatest unknown. Meanwhile, the economy is still recovering at a slow pace. Supply-side indicators continue to show evidence of idle capacity while labour market conditions have yet to markedly improve. Sentiment indicators have shown large upswings in recent months which should help build some momentum in economic activity over Q1 2019.
    In 2018, Russia swung back into growth and a fiscal surplus, increased its current account surplus and created a defeasance structure to clean up the banking sector. The “new” Putin government affirmed its determination to boost the potential growth rate by raising the retirement age and launching a vast public spending programme for the next six years. Yet the economy faces increasing short-term risks. Monetary tightening and the 1 January VAT increase could hamper growth. There is also the risk of tighter US sanctions, which could place more downward pressure on the rouble.    
    The COP24 only succeed in agreeing on rules on measuring, reporting and verifying carbon emissions. In the meantime, the world is falling behind the objective to limit global warming to 1.5°C. CO2 emissions are set to rise to 2030, whereas they should peak by 2020. Countries are underestimating the urgency for action or held back by commercial interests. Moreover, environmental legislation is met by growing public resistance. It demands a better framing of climate policies. Moreover, the climate change discussion should be broadened to the WTO.
    On 15 January 2019, UK MPs rejected the proposed Brexit agreement reached by EU Heads of State two months earlier. With 432 of the 634 votes going against the deal, this result has significantly weakened Prime Minister Theresa May in future discussions with the EU and with Members of Parliament. Today almost anything looks possible, starting with a delay in the official date of the UK’s departure, currently scheduled for 29 March.

On the Same Theme

Growth, interest rates and government debt 4/26/2019
The relationships between government debt, economic growth and interest rates are complex and varied. In general, a recession causes an increase in government debt and a decline in government borrowing costs. A prolonged period of monetary accommodation during a cyclical upswing can cause the average nominal interest rate on government debt to drop below the rate of nominal GDP growth. Depending on the level of the primary balance, such a situation can, under certain conditions, create leeway for fiscal expansion in order to support growth.
From slowdown to stabilisation 4/26/2019
Downward revisions to the outlook has been the driving theme since the middle of last year and the first quarter of this year continued to be challenging, not to say difficult in many countries. Understandably, data released in April were eagerly awaited. They show increasing signs of stabilisation in the eurozone and China whereas the US continues to do well. With a cautious stance from central bankers and support from the drivers of final demand, the outlook has improved somewhat but confirmation is needed. A trade deal between the US and China, which now seems likely, would give sentiment another much-needed push.
Labour market: The importance of social dialogue 4/24/2019
May Day is approaching. It is the occasion to celebrate progress made in improving workers’ rights. It can also be an opportunity to recall how much the quality of social dialogue matters for a well-functioning of the labour market. According to 2018 Global Competition Review of the World Economic Forum, the quality of labour-employer relations is relatively high in continental northwest Europe and Japan. At the same time, these countries score very well in terms of labour market outcomes. The lightly regulated labour markets in the English-speaking countries have also achieved low unemployment levels, although jobs are less well protected. In the southern European countries, the social dialogue seems to function less well. Unemployment in these countries has remained persistently high.  
Uncertainty: mixed signals 4/19/2019
The different uncertainty measures are sending mixed signals. The Economic Policy Uncertainty Index, which is based on media coverage about policy uncertainty, is no longer increasing but a downward trend has not yet started.
Global economy: Starting to look a bit better 4/5/2019
Strong job creation in March in the US has brought relief after the disappointing data the month before. The Chinese manufacturing indices have rebounded and crossed the 50 level. In the eurozone, the pressure on the manufacturing sector continues but the services PMI has improved. Retail sales have beaten expectations. For the manufacturing sector, a lot will depend on how uncertainty evolves. In this respect there are hopeful signs. The likelihood that an agreement will be reached between the US and China has increased whereas in the UK, cross-party negotiations seek to avoid a hard Brexit.
Inflation targeting: origins and rationale 3/29/2019
In this first episode, William De Vijlder discusses why low and stable inflation is important and how this led, about 30 years ago, in New Zealand, to introduce a monetary policy based on inflation targeting. He also discusses how this approach has been adopted by an increasing number of central banks.
Inflation targeting: experience and assessment 3/29/2019
This second episode analyses the role of inflation targeting in the big disinflation of the 90s, the implications for growth, volatility of growth and inflation, real interest rates and inflation expectations. It also discusses the different perspectives on inflation targeting before and after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Interview conducted with François Doux.  
Inflation targeting: which future? 3/29/2019
In an environment of extremely low interest rates, central banks' room for manoeuvre to boost growth in the event of a recession is limited. So what monetary policy should be pursued today? William De Vijlder discusses the question of changing the objective of targeting inflation in monetary policies. Interview conducted with François Doux.  
Federal Reserve: monetary policy self-assessment 3/8/2019
  The Federal Reserve will conduct a review of its monetary policy framework and the conclusions will be made public in the first half of 2020. Three questions will be addressed: should the monetary policy stance take into account past misses of the inflation objective? Are the tools adequate? How can communication be improved? The initiative should be welcomed because it shows the Fed’s efforts for being ready when the next recession hits. Facing similar challenges, the ECB is likely to be interested in the outcome of the Fed research.
Uncertainty: a moderate decline 3/8/2019
When households (companies) feel more uncertain, they will spend (invest) less. After a jump last year, the number of media articles mentioning uncertainty, has declined somewhat recently (top left chart).

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