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The ingredients of ECB success will be boldness and clarity

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The writer, a former head of the IMF’s European department, is chief economic adviser at Morgan Stanley

The European Central Bank ended 2020 with a flourish, following up the successful stabilisation of markets with fresh measures to ensure easy financing conditions in the coming year. So is that the end of the line for monetary stimulus? What should we expect in 2021?

Three challenges will loom large at the ECB as the continent transitions to a post-vaccine, post-pandemic world: the problem of chronically low inflation; the tools to tackle it; and the link to climate policy. These may seem like long-term issues but are of acute interest to forward-looking financial markets as they bear on how long easy financial conditions might persist.

All three issues are to be taken up in a forthcoming strategy review, which is likely to be the ECB’s most consequential policy pronouncement in 2021.

First, the inflation challenge. Considering the ECB’s success in stabilising markets and holding the eurozone together, its failure to deliver on its core mandate — inflation “close to but under 2 per cent” — is remarkable. Inflation has been closer to 1 than to 2 per cent for seven of the past eight years, and markets expect that will be the case for the next decade.

The shortfall is not just a problem for debtors, who end up paying more in real terms than they bargained for. It is also a problem for a central bank effectiveness once expectations, in the face of systematic error in one direction, start to adjust.

Thus, the ECB may have succeeded in pushing down nominal interest rates, but since inflation expectations have also fallen, the decline in expected real rates — the key variable for savers and investors — has been more modest. Keep this up and a central bank loses all traction. Some commentators already bracket the ECB with the Bank of Japan, which lost control of its inflation anchor to become an institution perpetually at war with deflation.

Avoiding such a fate requires removing the ambiguity and ambivalence surrounding the ECB’s “close to but under 2 per cent” target. This has become a bigger issue since an influential minority in the ECB’s governing council has made clear it sees no problem in low inflation. The hawks favour a lower target range that would allow the ECB to declare victory and end monetary easing sooner. But lower inflation is the last thing a currency zone ridden with debt, wage rigidities and differing vulnerabilities needs.

Rather, the ECB should look to eliminate the “close to but under” clause attached to its current target. Alternatively, it could follow the US Federal Reserve’s lead in adopting an average inflation target, which, by encouraging expectations of above 2 per cent inflation in coming years, could counter the inflation pessimism that pervades Europe.

Second, the toolset. It is unclear if the strategy review will produce more than tweaks to the ECB’s asset purchase and credit subsidy programmes. A bolder move would be to expand into private asset purchases and revive short-term interest rates as an active policy tool. The latter was set aside in the belief that rates cannot be taken much below zero without harming banks.

But there are ways around the problem, and the prospect of a digital euro issued by the ECB, on which a small fee can be imposed, opens the door to more negative interest rates without undermining banks.

A more potent tool to raise inflation expectations involves breaking a taboo: co-ordination with fiscal policy. The proscription made sense in a world of robust growth, where any hint of collusion with fiscal authorities risked igniting inflation. But that world is long gone.

In the new secularly stagnating one, sustained public investment will be key to lifting demand, growth and inflation. The ECB has been supportive of fiscal expansion during the pandemic, but whether this stance will continue is unclear, placing question marks over inflation prospects. A more overt co-ordination with fiscal authorities, without underwriting profligacy or violating monetary financing of deficit rules, is well within the ken of the ECB.

Third, climate change. This is not an issue usually associated with central banking. But it has become relevant as green spending is a focus of the EU’s recovery fund.

Moreover, recognition of the financial risks stemming from climate change is growing. The ECB will need to go beyond insisting on transparency about climate risks in bank portfolios to actually incorporating these risks in its operations — be that in stress tests, capital requirements or eligibility for ECB asset purchases and collateral.

It is a well-worn trope in European policy circles that nothing changes outside of a crisis. If the ECB is to succeed in the coming decade, not just in 2021, it will need to prove itself the exception to that rule.



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Europe

Numis sets out EU ambitions after record results

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Numis has picked Dublin for its new EU office to target European clients cut off by Brexit rules after the London-based broker posted record results for the first half of its financial year.

Numis said initial public offering volumes over the six months to the end of March were at their strongest level “for many years”, helping to more than double revenues in its investment banking division to £82m. The company advised on flotations including Moonpig and Auction Technology Group during the period. 

Overall revenue rose almost two-thirds to £115.4m, while pre-tax profit increased more than fivefold to £39.3m. 

Numis said mergers and acquisitions had also started to recover, driven by domestic and international buyers identifying attractive investment opportunities as the economic impact of the pandemic on the UK market eased. The broker is advising property group St Modwen on a £1.2bn takeover approach from Blackstone announced on Friday morning.

Alex Ham, co-chief executive, said activity for the rest of the year looked strong, with a number of IPOs and deals expected.

Some of these are likely to be European IPOs, despite the fact Numis has been unable to market to EU clients since the UK left the trading bloc. 

Numis has relied on so-called reverse solicitation — in effect, requiring EU clients to approach the broker for help — but plans to open a Dublin office next year to ramp up growth across Europe. Brexit had caused a reduction in institutional income from EU-based clients over the six-month period, it said.

“This is a departure for us in expanding beyond the traditional UK market,” said Ross Mitchinson, co-chief executive. “Dublin is a real focus for us to much better attack the European market.”

Mitchinson said EU regulators were being “tough but fair” about requirements on opening the office. “They want to see a well-capitalised business.”

The UK government and regulators have launched a series of consultations and proposals to deregulate and streamline rules to help British financial services groups after losing easy access to EU markets and clients.

But Mitchinson said these had not made much difference so far to Numis, adding that he did not “see the point” of a recent push to reduce the impact of Mifid II rules on research for small companies. “Institutions will not take a different approach,” he said. 

Numis will move to a new London office in September, which has been reconfigured with additional “Zoom rooms” to reflect the push for more flexible working in a future split between the office and home. 

Ham said he expected Numis staff to aim for two to three days a week in the office, with less need for international travel. But he added that many at Numis would be led by the needs of their clients, rather than any prescriptive working arrangement.

The average market capitalisation of its clients has almost doubled, in part owing to the rebound in the FTSE and a focus on “growth stock” clients such as Asos and Ocado. Numis also stopped working for businesses in the natural resources sector last year — partly owing to environmental, social and governance concerns about mining and oil — but these also tended to be smaller clients.



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Angela Merkel rejects US move to waive patents on vaccines

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Angela Merkel has expressed opposition to the Biden administration’s proposal to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, saying it would have “serious implications” for vaccine production worldwide.

The German chancellor said the limiting factors in vaccine supply were “production capacities and the high quality standards, not the patents”.

“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and it must remain so in the future,” she added.

Merkel was responding to President Joe Biden’s top trade adviser Katherine Tai who said that while the US “believes strongly” in IP protections, it would support a waiver of those rules for Covid-19 vaccines.

A waiver would allow any pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in a statement on Wednesday.

The US would “actively participate” in negotiations at the World Trade Organization to hammer out the text of a waiver, she added, noting that those discussions would take time given the complexity of the issues involved.

Washington’s proposal has put the EU on the back foot. In recent months the bloc has resisted a push led by India and South Africa within the WTO for a vaccine patent waiver.

The US move received a cool response from Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president. She said the EU was “ready to discuss” how the proposal could help address the current crisis “in an effective and pragmatic manner”.

But she also insisted the priority was for vaccine-producing countries to lift barriers to exports and address supply chain interruptions.

Von der Leyen contrasted the EU’s approach with that of some allies: “Europe is the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale.” The US, a large vaccine-producing country, has reserved most of its homegrown jabs for domestic use.

The US proposal received a more positive response from Vladimir Putin, who said Russia, which manufactures the Sputnik V vaccine, would support the move. “A pandemic is an emergency situation . . . No doubt, Russia would support such an approach,” the Russian president said.

China’s foreign ministry said it looked “forward to having active and constructive discussions with all parties under the WTO framework in order to reach an effective and equitable agreement”.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said he was open to the idea of a waiver of IP rights, but “the reality is that the bottlenecks today are not price, or the patents”.

“You can transfer the intellectual property to pharma companies in Africa but they have no platform to make mRNA vaccines,” he said.

The idea of a waiver is also opposed by BioNTech, the German start-up whose joint venture with Pfizer brought the first messenger RNA-based vaccine to the market. The company said it would not ease current supply shortfalls and warned of the risks of opening up manufacturing to producers with no mRNA experience.

“Together with Pfizer, we are also working with various organisations to support the supply of vaccines to populations worldwide. And we will continue to provide low or lower middle-income countries with our vaccine at a not-for-profit price,” BioNTech said in a statement on Thursday.

“However, patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine . . . The manufacturing process of mRNA is a complex process developed over more than a decade.”

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, said the vaccine makers would have vastly expanded their capacity before any new players could make a real difference to supply. 

“If you were to start today, you’re going to have to start by hiring people. Those vaccines don’t fall from the sky,” Bancel told the FT US Pharma and Biotech Summit on Thursday. “There is no mRNA industry . . . When we hire people that come from traditional pharma, we have to train them in the art of mRNA.”

Matthias Kromeyer, a general partner at the venture capital firm MIG, one of BioNTech’s earliest investors, said a patent waiver would discourage future investments in the sector.

“If the US/EU/WHO suspend patent protection, they will lose a lot in the long run — namely the willingness of private investors to invest in such companies, many years before it is clear whether their technologies will succeed or not,” he said.

“This would mean the collapse of an entire industry that has just demonstrated it is the only one that can deliver a sustainable solution for this global medical, economic and social crisis. Without private investors, this innovative power will no longer exist in the future — what will we do then?”

The chief executive of Bristol Myers Squibb described the US government’s support for waiver as “very concerning” during an interview at the FT US Pharma and Biotech Summit on Thursday.

“Our industry depends on intellectual property protection in order to invest in R&D and make the investments needed to address crises like Covid,” Giovanni Caforio said. “The developments of the past 24 hours are very concerning and disappointing.”

As well as being important during the coronavirus crisis, Caforio said that IP protection is “critical for some of the areas of higher medical need where BMS invests like cancer care”.

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris

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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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