Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Feb 1, 2022

Is The ECB Behind The Curve?


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I am Reza Moghadam, Morgan Stanley's chief economic adviser. Along with my colleagues, we bring you a variety of market perspectives. Today I'll be talking about the European Central Bank and whether it is likely to follow the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England in raising interest rates this year. It is Tuesday, February 1st at 2:00 p.m. in London.

The European Central Bank, or the ECB, has long said it would not raise interest rates until it has concluded its bond purchase program. Since the ECB only recently announced that its taper would take at least till the end of this year to complete, this in theory rules out rate increases in 2022. The ECB president, Madame Lagarde, has reiterated that rate increases this year are "highly unlikely."

However, the market is not fully convinced and is pricing some modest rate hikes. Many investors are also concerned that inflation could prove higher and more persistent than the ECB is projecting and could force it to follow the Fed and the Bank of England in tightening policy.

We should start by recognizing that euro area inflation is nowhere near as high as in the United States, and expectations of longer-term inflation are below 2% - unlike in the US. Labor market conditions are easier, with low and stable wage growth.

But even if the case for tightening is not as clear cut, this does not preclude a preemptive move by the ECB. Whether it does so will hinge on the continued viability of the ECB's inflation projections, which see inflation falling below its 2% target by the end of the year.

It is too early to conclude that this inflation path has become too optimistic. Certainly, the second-round effects of recent high inflation outcomes - on wages and long-term inflation expectations - has so far been moderate.

But this could change, and we would keep an eye on three triggers that might force a reconsideration.

First, long-term inflation expectations. If perceptions start to drift up in the face of chronic supply shortages and higher gas prices, the process risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and un-anchoring inflation expectations. The ECB will want to nip this in the bud.

Second, gas prices have jumped in the face of supply shortages and geopolitical tensions in Ukraine. Normally, the ECB looks through energy prices - not only because they are usually temporary, but also because, even when permanent, they imply a higher price level - not permanently higher inflation. But evidence of energy prices finding their way into long term inflation expectations could force action.

Third, the current benign labor market situation could tighten. In that case, the ECB would want to react before the process goes too far.

So if the ECB decides to tighten policy, what would that look like, and when could we expect it? A faster taper is the most likely vehicle for tightening monetary policy. Still, if inflation proves more resilient than currently projected, rate hikes while tapering cannot be definitively ruled out.

We see limited risk of a policy shift at the ECB meeting later this week. There could be some action in March, but we expect this to be more likely in June, when there will be a fresh forecast and some hard data to base decisions on.

So stay tuned.

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The European Central Bank has indicated it would not raise rates this year, but markets are not fully convinced as shifts in inflation, gas prices and labor could force the ECB to reconsider.