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IT is a sobering thought that, even after all the central bank wailing and gnashing about inflation, the European Central Bank (ECB) has yet to increase the official deposit rate from the negative 50 basis points it’s been stuck at for almost three years. When policy makers meet later this month, they should follow the example of peers elsewhere by implementing a half-point hike.
ECB president Christine Lagarde’s new mantra of graduali *** , optionality and flexibility seems to have missed out the action bit. Her oft-repeated desire to raise rates initially by just 25 basis points at the July 21 governing council meeting is starting to look like a potential policy error. By being so prescriptive, the central bank is, in fact, reducing its flexibility.
Forward money markets are pricing in more than 200-basis points of rate hikes by June next year, so much of the hard work of repricing yields and setting expectations has already been achieved. The ECB risks not so much being behind the curve as being on a different planet. Not kicking off the rate-hiking cycle at the June 8 quarterly economic review looks like a missed opportunity.
Watching Federal Reserve (Fed) chairman Jerome Powell next to Lagarde at the ECB’s forum in Sintra, Portugal this week, the contrast in their approaches was glaringly obvious. Helped by the super-strong United States economy, Powell was confident enough to make it clear that the bigger risk was not triggering recession, but failing to control inflation expectations. In other words, interest-rate beatings will continue until inflation morale improves.
Lagarde nodded her agreement, and even responded “ditto” when asked the same final question, having spoken eloquently earlier about the need for “decisive action.” Yet there is scarce evidence of any ECB moves to combat runaway inflation, bar the gradual halting of stimulus measures. Spain was the latest European country to see its annualised inflation rate top 10%. Germany may have seen a welcome dip to 8.2%, but France’s price gains spiked sharply to 5.8%. For the eurozone, the annual rate rose to 8.6% last month from 8.1% in May. It’s hard to see where Lagarde’s confidence about controlling inflation comes from.
The same charge could equally be leveled at Bank of England (BoE) governor Andrew Bailey, who was similarly a nodding bystander to Powell’s tough rhetoric. The BoE was the first major central bank to act on rates late last year, but is now noodling in the slow lane as the Fed roars past it, despite Bailey admitting the inflation pinch is likely to affect the United Kingdom more than other major economies.