Risks remain despite recovery
Economic indicators in the euro area have recently shown signs of improvement as lockdown restrictions have eased and activity has picked up across the region. The ECB’s most recent forecasts see real GDP increasing by 4.6% in 2021, 4.7% next year and 2.1% in 2023.15 Sentiment is improving too, with the European Commission Economic Sentiment Indicator rising to its highest ever level in July.16
But despite this progress the ECB remains cautious, reaffirming that it is not prepared to change course on monetary support until it is satisfied that the economic recovery is firmly in place.17 Should the central bank decide to leave accommodative policy unchanged, this prolonged stimulus may heighten additional risks.
Potential for higher inflation
The most talked about risk to the outlook in Europe is inflation. Prices have ticked up in recent months with the consumer price index for the euro area hitting 3% in August, its highest rate for a decade. And in some key European markets inflation is even higher. In Germany, July CPI hit 3.1%, its highest level since June 2008.
While the ECB forecasts that the current rise in inflation will be temporary, institutional investors are increasingly concerned about the level and direction of inflation if monetary policy remains loose.18 Investors are aware that inflation may be seen in asset prices as well as in goods and services. European equity indices currently stand at record levels, having risen by 18% y-t-d, and 69% since mid-March 2020 when equity markets crashed as the pandemic took hold.19
Higher interest rates are a likely response to a more sustained threat from higher inflation. And more persistent inflation could be supportive for gold investment among European investors (Chart 4). German investors, who are particularly sensitive to inflation, have shown they value gold as a hedge against inflation.
Destabilisation as support withdrawn
The prospect for expansionary monetary policy to have unintended consequences increases the longer the policy is in place. ECB purchases under PEPP could distort asset prices (Chart 5). Any sign of a slowdown in these asset purchases could lead to a correction in asset prices, destabilising the recovery that the central bank has been trying to support.
Higher inflation could also force policymakers to increase interest rates from their current ultra-low levels sooner than expected, while higher borrowing costs could stunt the economic recovery by making debt more costly to obtain and service, both at a private and public sector level.
Sustainability of higher indebtedness
Unprecedented levels of spending have been unleashed as governments across Europe have looked to support their economies through the pandemic. Government deficits have ballooned as a result – euro area sovereign debt to GDP now exceeds 100% (Chart 6). And this excessive indebtedness is not just a potential concern at the sovereign level; corporate debt levels in Europe have grown too.
While borrowing costs remain low – allowing some nations to re-adjust the maturity profiles of their debt – these burdens have been manageable. But a rise in interest rates, especially at a faster rate than expected, could curtail spending and investment, putting the economic recovery at risk. In this scenario investors may look to diversifiers, such as gold, to help them weather any further uncertainty.