By William Watts, MarketWatch
For many investors and economists, it’s time for European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to acknowledge growing risks to the eurozone economic outlook.
The ECB is widely expected to announce no new actions when it concludes its first policy meeting of 2019 on Thursday. The central bank has already declared that rates won’t be lifted until at least the end of summer. In December it ended its monthly asset purchases, the ECB’s version of quantitative easing, or QE, while committing to maintaining the size of its bulked up balance sheet by reinvesting the proceeds of maturing bonds.
That means Draghi’s postmeeting news conference will be the main event. And as is often the case with monetary policy and financial markets, words count nearly as much as actions. In this case, an acknowledgment that risks to the economic outlook are skewed to the downside would set the stage for an eventual round of cheap loans designed to bolster financial conditions, though any concrete action would be unlikely to come before the next policy meeting in March, said Oliver Rakau, chief German economist at Oxford Economics, in a note.
Much attention will likely be paid to the portion of Draghi’s opening statement dealing with the ECB’s assessment of the risks to the eurozone economic outlook, which in central bank parlance are typically described as being either skewed to the upside, balanced, or skewed to the downside.
In December, Draghi acknowledged that risks to the economy were moving to the downside but could “still be assessed as broadly balanced.”
Draghi said that while economic data had been disappointing in the face of slowing global demand, the ECB’s accommodative monetary policy stance and solid private-sector consumption tied in part to a tight labor market pointed to strong domestic demand.
Since then, however, data have continued to disappoint. While full-year 2018 data has led some analysts to expect that German avoided meeting the loosely used definition of a recession of two consecutive quarters of contracting gross domestic product (official fourth-quarter data won’t be released until February), a broad range of data indicates the eurozone continues to struggle following a third-quarter slowdown that saw GDP fall in Germany and Italy.
“Speaking [Thursday] — in the shadow of the World Economic Forum, which is obsessed with mounting evidence of a slowing global economy, slowing world trade and other dark subjects — we expect President Draghi to finally mouth the words, ‘The eurozone economy is slowing,’” said Carl Weinberg, chief international economist at High Frequency Economics, in a Wednesday note.
Such remarks would likely serve to further flatten yield curves across eurozone bond markets as investors continue to push out expectations for the first ECB rate increase, he said, predicting that even if Draghi disappoints by continuing to talk about underlying economic strength, market participants will increasingly mark down growth and inflation forecasts while pushing back expectations for the first rate rise to 2020.
A more dovish tone would likely also spell pressure for the euro /quotes/zigman/16008136/realtime/sampled EURUSD -0.1425% , said analysts, which has slid around 0.7% versus the dollar so far this month.
Remarks could also underline worries about global economic growth, particularly with Germany’s slowdown tied in part to weaker exports to China and elsewhere along with softer demand at home.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Draghi and the ECB will make the rhetorical shift. Some economists argued that Draghi held back in December because an acknowledgment that risks were skewed to the downside would have made it hard to justify ending asset purchases at the end of the month.
To say so now, would still suggest a potential “deviation from the path of policy normalization,” wrote Spyros Andreopoulos, senior European economist at BNP Paribas, in a note.
“We think that this would require evidence of a more permanent downshift in growth and weakening in the inflation outlook. In any case, the market is still pricing a more-than-50% probability of hikes for this year,” he said. “Were the council to change the language, it would have to spell out what it would do to mitigate against the downside risks. We do not think it is in a position to do so yet.”
But economists at Bank of America Merrill Lynch argued that it would be very difficult for the ECB not to acknowledge a shift in the balance of risks and “keep a straight face” given the shape of the economic data since mid-December.
That said, a shift would likely come with a number of qualifiers, they said. These would likely include an “insistence on the number of one-offs that paint an overly dark picture of the current cyclical position, while the fiscal easing in some key countries, coupled with a solid labor market and oil-driven disinflation, should provide some support to the domestic side of the economy.”
That could buy time until the March meeting, with the ECB waiting for signs of “peak stress” before signaling any additional accommodation given its limited room for maneuver, the BAML economists said.
And the notion of peak stress in March doesn’t seem far-fetched, they said, given the potential for another debt-ceiling showdown in the U.S., regardless of the state of current partial government shutdown; the lack of any sign so far that policy easing by China has stimulated demand; and the possibility of a “no-deal Brexit” on March 29, with the U.K. crashing out of the European Union.