Prepare To Be Put To Sleep By Draghi: Full ECB Preview

With the ECB set to announce its latest monetary policy decision in less than 12 hours, one can summarize in one word what the market expects: nothing. Sure, there are some nuances - the central bank may wax philosophical about Europe's better growth prospects, and maybe even set the stage for a small signal as early as June about an eventual reduction of stimulus, but don't count on it. After all, there is a reason - or rather two - why markets are where they are today, and it has to do with central banks creating a record $1 trillion in new money out of thin air. The ECB has been responsible for half and Mario Draghi knows it.

Which is why the former Goldmanite will to point to still-weak inflation, muted wage growth and an uncertain outlook to argue that easing off the accelerator now could unravel years of work that have consumed much of the ECB's firepower, a Reuters poll showed. That won't stop him however from acknowledging the euro zone's "solid growth momentum", surging consumer and business confidence, and receding political risk after the first round of France's presidential vote put a pro-euro centrist in pole position. After all, Jean-Claude Trichet dud just that in 2011 when he, too, mistook a burst of exported Chinese inflation for "recovery." We all know what happened after: first he hiked by 25 bps, and a few months later the Fed had to bail out Europe with unlimited swap lines.

In any case, for those who need a more erudite assessment of why Draghi will say nothing at all of consequences tomorrow, here is BofA's Gilles Moec who says that "we do not expect hard decisions or communication changes from the ECB this week" howver "policy debate may get fierce from June." What happens then: "we expect very slow QE tapering in 2018 and no policy rate hike before well into next
year, if at all." As for the market, rates traders will focus on any mention of bond scarcity and exit sequencing.

From Moec's full note "No Need to Rush":

No need to rock the boat yet

Given the recent focus on political developments, we think it is easy to forget the ECB's Governing Council is due to meet on Thursday. Our sentiment is that there is a consensus at the Governing Council to leave the current stance and communication largely unchanged for now, even if we think this consensus does not extend on which decisions to make, when the time comes. This means that while we do not expect any hard decision or any significant communication surprise this week, we also believe the policy conversation could be quite fierce from June.

We continue to think that in the face of a still subdued inflation outlook, prudence will prevail and the ECB will opt for small changes to forward guidance in June, slow tapering in 2018 and no policy rate hike before well into next year. Still, the hawks – and some centrists – at the ECB appear to be tired of extraordinary measures, meaning the market could price a more aggressive stance in the second half of this year.

Peace in our (short) time

In our opinion, most Governing Council members in March were not expecting their tiny move on forward guidance to trigger such an impressive market reaction. After engaging in concerted damage mitigation in the two weeks before the Easter break, we think they will be looking for some peace and quiet at the April meeting. We note in particular that even some hawkish hardliners, such as Governing Council Hansson, have recently stated that the ECB is "looking at the data," which suggests that even this block of the Council is not after an immediate policy discussion. At the same time, Board member Coeure was keen to say the ECB was "very, very serious about forward guidance," which did not sound like having another go at this essential part of their communication was on their wish list.

We think there are several reasons behind this truce.

  • First, the data provides fodder for hawks, who will focus on strong surveys pointing to swift output gap reduction, and doves, who continue to worry about weak core inflation and hard data, which do not fully live up to the surveys' promise.
  • Second, the March episode, with the market hastily pricing depo rate hikes, will remind Council members that moving market expectations is more art than science, with significant risks of overreaction.
  • Third, the political context–the ECB meets between the two rounds of the French presidential elections– goes against making big moves.

Fire beneath the ice

Still, the debate is going on underground. We think Benoit Coeure – who in his role of "market man" at the board is probably quite sensitive to the need to provide investors with sufficient visibility – is trying to gently move the communication toward a very slow "Exit strategy". This week he stated that the balance of risks to growth is now neutral: the council statement kept it "tilted to the downside" last month. He has been very candid on the direction of travel for the ECB since December, e.g., in his speech at the end of last year about the need for governments to prepare for higher interest rates, so he is probably keen to prepare the market for a gradual removal of QE.

Peter Praet–the chief economist, i.e., more focused on macro developments–for his part continues to insist on the weakness in inflation and last week stuck to the negative balance of risks.

More profoundly–those are limited divergences we think–hawks are probably still ready to argue for a swift decommissioning of the ECB's unconventional arsenal as soon as the political situation allows it.

Baseline and risks

In our baseline, the statement does not change this week. In June, the assessment of the balance of risks would move to neutral, while the most dovish part of the forward guidance–the notion that rates could fall further–would be removed (a cheap bone to throw to the hawks, in our opinion).

Then in September the Council would start preparing the market to slow tapering in 2018 (eg, going first at EUR40bn for six months before gradually moving to zero by the end of 2018) while the forward guidance on rates would be more thoroughly changed; dropping the notion that there would be a long delay before the end of QE and the first hikes, while opening the door to some "technical tweaks" to the depo rate, which would not materialize before well into next year. In our baseline, the ECB would still be a net purchaser of securities at the end of 2018 (to be clear, would stop by December 2018).

It seems to us the market tends to focus on a hawkish alternative to this, with fast tapering and quicker rates. We agree that is what the noises from the hawks and centrists suggest. But we also continue to believe core inflation will disappoint the ECB. That is what motivates our belief in a very, very slow and considered exit.