Today the Governing Council of the ECB (European Central Bank) meets to announce its monetary policy decisions. It does so in a very different environment to its more recent meetings because of the way that the economic winds of change have blown. What I mean by this is that the economic outlook is the brightest it has seemed for a while now. Also consumer inflation has risen to pretty much on target which poses a question for ECB policy going forwards as I have been pointing out for a while now, most recently last Friday. There is a clear contrast with the United States where expectations of an interest-rate rise this month are pretty much 100% now. Yet there is a problem as we note this from @fwred on the Atlanta Fed forecast for US economic growth.
Potentially HALF the growth rate of the euroarea in Q1.
This has led to hints of a change today this morning.
#ECB doesn’t plan to announce a new round of TLTROs, according to people familiar with the matter” ( @bondzilla )
So if true it will scrap a bank subsidy.
However I wish to take the opportunity of the second anniversary of the major QE program of the ECB to take a look at the impact it has had on France and its economy. It has provided a deposit rate of -0.4% a balance sheet heading towards 4 trillion Euros and thereby a lower level for the Euro although of course we can never judge any policy in isolation. The QE purchases have meant that 269 billion Euros of French government bonds have been bought easing its fiscal policy via the fact that it has some negative bond yields and only has a ten-year bond yield of 1,03%. So whilst that has become increasingly expensive vis a vis Germany it is also as Middle of the Road pointed out some years ago.
Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep, Chirp
The French economy
Lets look at it with a different twist as the particularly francophile Financial Times has looked at the French economic situation. It has done so on a political beat but for me the issue is monetary policy as over the period in question ( since 2012) it has been monetary policy that has been the main economic player in town.
The winner of this year’s election will inherit an economy that has been growing slowly but steadily since the 2008 financial crisis……..However, as the chart below shows, despite modest growth the country has underperformed relative to the likes of Germany, the UK and the US. Nevertheless, towards the end of Mr Hollande’s term things began to pick up. Growth last year reached 1.1 per cent, the fastest pace during his tenure — though it still fell well below the EU average of 1.8 per cent.
Let me just correct a factual error with this from the French statistical office.
On average over the year, GDP rose by 1.1%, practically as much as in 2015 (+1.2%).
So in annual terms not the fastest rate although it is quicker than 2012,13 and 14. In a way cheering an economic growth rate of ~1% poses its own question in an era where we have tentatively described the new normal as 2%. But if we skip the UK and US there is an issue in a currency union where growth is consistently below the average and the country which is considered with France at the heart of the Euro project which is Germany. The solution for that would be regional policy but quite how that would manifest itself I am not sure.
The numbers here continue to be awkward to say the least.
unemployment continued to creep up to a high of more than 10 per cent, prompting the president — late in his tenure — to take more decisive steps to tackle what he labelled an “economic emergency”……..unemployment figures have shown only marginal improvements over the past year,
There are other worrying features of the French labour market as well.
The reforms have so far failed to break France’s two-tier labour market. Last year, 86.4 per cent of total hiring was into temporary jobs — and of those, 80 per cent were for contracts shorter than one month. Meanwhile, long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high: more than 45 per cent of the unemployed in France have been without a job for more than a year, the highest proportion since records began in 2003.
It is not a good time to be young in the French labour market either.
France’s youth unemployment rate is roughly double that of the UK and continues to rise — in contrast with a decline in most advanced economies. The story is similar for foreigners and those with lower levels of education.
Accordingly the quantity number unemployment remains poor in spite of all the monetary easing and a chill wind blows through if we add in the reforms promised because the situation has not changed all that much. Also “emergencies” seem to last these days don’t they as I think also of the UK “emergency” Bank Rate of 0.5% which somehow went even lower to 0.25%!
If you are employed in a permanent job in France you have better conditions and perhaps better pay than in the UK. But for those outside such a position the outlook is worse, although some aspects seem the same as “contracts for less than one month” are not a million miles away from zero hours contracts in principle.
This is larger in France than in many other places.
But France still has one of the highest public spending ratios among advanced countries — at 57 per cent of GDP. Within that, health, social and pensions expenditure as a share of GDP remain comparatively high and have risen since 2012.
Of course there are beneficial consequences of this as many French people are proud of their health system. Whilst the ECB continues with its QE bond purchases the fact that the national debt to GDP ratio is 97.5% matters little but of course unless France finds some economic growth we are left with what happens if the ECB stops buying?
Let me throw in something which is not mentioned by the FT. If you look at French houses prices they were in the autumn of 2016 where they were in the last quarter of 2007. I do not know about you but with all that has gone on in the credit crunch era that seems so much healthier than the UK situation. What do readers think?
There is a catch though ( as ever…) as we consider the mortgage books of the French banks.
Regulation and Taxation
The Financial Times struggled here to present an optimistic picture.
Despite attempts at simplification, French companies “are still faced with a high regulatory burden and fast-changing legislation”, according to a recent European Commission report………At 48 per cent, the labour tax wedge was the fifth highest in the OECD in 2015 and French corporation tax remains the highest in Europe.
There is much to consider here and there are of course problems with using GDP as a yardstick. It is a long way from perfect but in essence monetary policy in the Euro area has been trying to drive it higher using the excuse that it is bringing inflation back on target. But for France there has been an improvement but only to a growth rate of around 1% so far. The opening of 2017 looks better but can that be sustained for the several years required? Along that road the ECB would have all sorts of questions to answer if it maintained its stimulus.
Something that should particularly benefit French business is the corporate bond buying program but as it has bought more than 10% of Euro area corporate bonds already how long can it go on? For a start it is anti-competitive especially if you do not qualify.