By Wei Hongxu*
As the European bond market falls, European Central Bank (ECB) President Christine Lagarde said on June 28 that the central bank will start a bond-buying program on Friday to curb possible debt crises. The ECB is considering maintaining “flexibility” in its reinvestment allocation to its massive EUR 1.7 trillion bond-buying portfolio while launching a new program to stabilize the markets. It is also working on a new bond-buying tool to address so-called “fragmentation”. Lagarde said the tool would allow rates to rise “as far as necessary” to complement stabilizing inflation at the 2% target. The ECB’s position as the “buyer of last resort” has eased the sell-off of European bonds to a certain extent, and the yields of sovereign bonds of some highly leveraged countries have fallen.
Under the ECB’s decision to raise interest rates in July to counter inflation, its proposed bond-buying program, while easing a possible bond market crisis, is effectively contradicting its imminent monetary tightening. Researchers at ANBOUND pointed out that similar to those implemented by the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan (BOJ), the ECB’s monetary policy also faces challenges ahead. With high global inflation narrowing down the monetary policy space, the dilemma between inflation and employment is becoming increasingly more common. This is not good news for the global economy and capital markets, as the contradiction between economic growth and inflation will plague major central banks for a long time.
Lagarde said the ECB would remain “flexible” on reinvestment of the PEPP portfolio due on July 1. “We will ensure that the orderly transmission of our policy stance throughout the euro area is preserved,” she said. “We will address every obstacle that may pose a threat to our price-stability mandate”.
The ECB’s insistence on playing the role of the “buyer of last resort” has actually drawn lessons from the European sovereign debt crisis triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. Due to the slow decision-making of the ECB at that time and its reluctance to promote easing, the economies and financial systems of highly leveraged countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain suffered huge losses from the debt crisis. ECB then finally launched quantitative easing in 2014 to deal with the dual threats of deflation and the sovereign debt crisis at that time, which stabilized the economic and financial systems of the relevant countries. In total, the ECB currently buys more than EUR 49 trillion of bonds, equivalent to more than one-third of the eurozone’s GDP. In the past two years, the ECB has bought more bonds than all the additional bonds issued by the 19 eurozone national governments, giving it huge leverage over the region’s borrowing costs.
As the European market is about to bid farewell to negative interest rates, after the ECB starts hiking interest rates, the increase in borrowing costs will inevitably bring new risk factors to its bond market. The consequences of rising interest rates will not only cause the economic growth of various countries facing decline, it is also likely to lead to a new round of debt defaults. Such is the price that the central bank has to pay for its measures against inflation. However, as with the Fed, market investors are equally skeptical that the ECB’s tightening policy will be effective in tackling inflation. At present, the inflation level in the eurozone has reached more than 8%, which is more than four times the 2% target of the ECB. The latest CPI data in the eurozone in June is expected to reach a record high of 8.5%. High inflation is not only the energy distortion brought about by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but also the constraints of supply chain adjustment.
These factors mean that the inflation level will be difficult to contain in the short term and will fall back quickly. ECB Chief Economist Philip Lane said the central bank must remain vigilant in the coming months as inflation could keep climbing and the region’s economy could slow due to consumption. Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley stated that the eurozone’s economy is expected to slip into a mild recession in the fourth quarter of this year as measures of consumer and business confidence slump due to reduced energy supplies in Russia, while inflation remains high. The eurozone’s economy is expected to contract for two quarters before returning to growth in the second quarter of next year, driven by rising investment. Despite the risks of an economic slowdown, the ECB is still expected to raise rates at every meeting for the remainder of the year, culminating in a hike to 0.75% in December, given the persistently high inflation. However, if the economic outlook deteriorates significantly, the ECB may stop raising interest rates after September. This actually shows that the central bank does not have many effective means in the face of high inflation. It can only adopt the take-one-step-at-a-time approach and adjust between inflation and recession.
Such a situation is happening in the United States and Japan as well. The Fed is also faced with the conflicting choice of inflation and recession, while the BOJ needs to consider a series of effects of changing its easing policy. The situation in Japan is somewhat similar to that of the ECB in that it is difficult for the central bank to tighten its currency by shrinking its balance sheet. After the Japanese yen continued to depreciate, the inflation level exceeded the target of 2% for a row, putting the BOJ to be in a difficult position. If the easing policy advocated by Abenomics is terminated to deal with inflation, it will bring about an increase in the yield of Japanese government bonds, in addition to the collapse of the Japanese stock market bubble. With Japan as a whole facing an unprecedented level of leverage, it is not optimistic that Japanese companies can afford the increase in interest rates. At the same time, the BOJ has accumulated a large number of sovereign bonds and risk assets. Once the balance sheet is reduced and sold, it will intensify the sell-off in the capital market, thereby causing a capital market crisis affecting both stocks and debts. This crisis, especially the debt crisis, will cause fatal shock and impact on the economy.
This prospect is also the reason why the ECB is still struggling to stop bond-buying even if it is determined to raise interest rates. Relatively, because of the special role of the U.S. dollar in the international currency, the Fed does not encounter greater risks when it raises interest rates while shrinking its balance sheet, and rather it is in a relatively active position. However, the Fed also faces the risk of a recession caused by accelerated policy tightening. This is similar to the situation of the ECB and the BOJ. Balancing inflation and economic stagnation would be the main challenge faced by major economies, and it is also a dilemma that the main central banks in the world have to face.
Final analysis conclusion:
Given the high level of global inflation, major central banks in the world tend to adopt tightening policies. However, the contradiction between inflation and economic growth, as well as the resulting debt problem, is becoming more and more prominent. Under these contradictions, central banks are generally facing the dilemma that while the space for monetary policy is narrowed, the policy difficulty has increased. This also means that these central banks are in the embarrassing situation of monetary policy failure, and that the global economy needs to deal with the threat of stagflation for a long time.