ECB preview: Keep it simple

The European Central Bank (ECB) convenes today for its latest policy meeting. After last month’s word puke from Lagarde (“Financing conditions are defined by a holistic and multifaceted set of indicators, spanning the entire transmission chain of monetary policy from risk-free interest rates and sovereign yields to corporate bond yields and bank credit conditions.”), we have spent several weeks trying to accurately assess where the ECB is really at in terms of responding to the changing economic outlook with regards the recovery from the pandemic, rising bond yields and higher inflation expectations. There is greater clarity now – it looks like the ECB is happy to let inflation run higher and only let bond yields move up if due to better growth: it’s now all about real yields. At the last meeting the ECB said it would pick up the pace of asset purchases, front-loading the PEPP scheme, but it could still use less than the full envelope of €1.85tn if favourable financial conditions can be maintained without spending it all. The outcome of the March meeting was very much that the PEPP programme is more likely to end by March 2022 than be extended, albeit policy will remain very accommodative well beyond that point. The question about tapering PEPP should wait until June, and ending the programme may need to be discussed in September, but for now the ECB should be looking to keep it simple.

This ought to be a quiet one for the ECB, but the propensity for miscommunication is strong. Since the March 11th meeting, the selloff in sovereign debt and rally in yields cooled, before picking up some steam again. While German 10-year bunds are north of where they were at the time of the March meeting and close to the February highs, real rates remain at historic lows. This is what matters to the ECB more than nominal rates. Moreover, the economic data has not materially changed since the last meeting and there signs the largest economies are adapting to lockdown restrictions better than before and are more resilient. The latest Zew survey about the German economy shows investor sentiment at its highest in over a year. The head of the French central bank recently noted that economic activity is declining less than feared in April. Vaccinations, slow to start, are picking up pace and the EU should be on course to catch up the UK and US before too long.

So we look rather to the risk that a hawkishness creeps in. The ECB will need to be careful about getting itself tied in knots about when and how it will exit PEPP just yet, and whether a PEPP taper coincides with raising traditional asset purchases, and just what the reaction function is given it’s spent several weeks trying to clarify this since the last meeting. Now is not the time for such debates, however markets will look towards hawks becoming louder as inflation starts to pick up. Hawks are going to get more vocal if inflation starts runs higher over the next few months – the mandate is clear on this one. Lagarde will need to not sound overly confident about the recovery (why should she anyway?), or else risk letting markets latch on a timeframe for winding down PEPP.

And we should note that chatter about when is the right time to exit emergency mode is coming just as the ECB is looking at a potential change to the inflation mandate. Not content with a more symmetric target a la the Fed, it also wants to introduce inequality and climate change mandates…This only makes guessing the future path of monetary policy and the ECB’s reaction function even more muddy, which in turn may lead to some form of spike in yields and widening of spreads, which exactly what the ECB is seeking to avoid. Another reason to keep it simple tomorrow.

Tighter financial conditions ahead?

The ECB will also have to wrestle with the expectation of tightening financial conditions in the Euro area later this year. Banks and Eurozone banks expect to tighten access to credit in the second quarter, having already tightened in the first quarter. “This reflects banks’ uncertainty regarding the severity of the economic impact of the third wave of the pandemic and the progress in the vaccination campaign,” the ECB said, adding that loan demand is also faltering as companies postpone investments.

The ECB’s job is to make sure it doesn’t get dragged into a conversation about tapering PEPP and keep the markets happy until June when it will have much more data at its disposal and news on vaccinations will hopefully be much better. For this meeting, keep it simple is the order of the day.

EURUSD: Rejection of the 100-day SMA sets up today’s retest of the 1.20 round number support. Ultimately the ECB may not be the main driver of the pair right now and more exposed to broader risk sentiment and Treasury yields impacting the USD momentum.