European Central Bank Raises Key Interest Rate to Record High | Kanebridge News
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European Central Bank Raises Key Interest Rate to Record High

Central bank signals this might be enough to combat inflation, but doesn’t rule out further increases

Fri, Sep 15, 2023 8:25amGrey Clock 4 min

FRANKFURT—The European Central Bank raised interest rates by a quarter percentage point to a record high but signalled that eurozone borrowing costs may have peaked, sending the euro tumbling.

In a split decision, ECB officials raised the bank’s deposit rate to 4%, the 10th increase in a row and a vertiginous rise from below zero last year.

At a news conference, ECB President Christine Lagarde signalled that Thursday’s rate increase might be the last, although she didn’t rule out further hikes if economic data disappoint.

ECB officials judge that rates “have reached levels that, maintained for a sufficiently long duration, will make a substantial contribution” to reducing inflation to their 2% target, Lagarde said, repeating language used in the bank’s policy statement.

The comment prompted investors to downgrade their expectations for future ECB rates, sending the euro down by almost a cent against the dollar to below $1.07, its lowest level since March. Bond yields slid, with yields on the benchmark 10-year government bonds of Germany, France and Italy down between 0.05 and 0.10 percentage point. European stocks rallied, with the benchmark Stoxx Europe 600 index rising more than 1%.

The eurozone still has lower interest rates than the U.S., as well as higher inflation and a struggling economy that contrasts with relatively healthy economic growth in the U.S.—all factors that are weighing on the euro.

“In all likelihood the ECB is done,” said Frederik Ducrozet, head of macroeconomic research at Pictet Wealth Management in Geneva.

Major central banks including the Federal Reserve are signalling a possible halt to a historic series of interest-rate increases over the past 18 months aimed at tackling a surge in inflation unseen since the 1970s.

Ending rate increases would favour borrowers amid uncertainty in the global economy, declining international trade and faltering industrial output. However, signalling a peak in interest rates now risks letting excessive inflation on both sides of the Atlantic become entrenched. Some central banks, including those of Australia and Canada, signalled a pause in recent months, only to start raising rates again.

Recent market movements suggest investors are now betting that rates will peak and even start falling as early as next spring as inflation and economic growth both come down.

They expect the ECB to hold interest rates at about 4% through next summer before starting to cut them, according to data from Refinitiv. They think the Fed will hold rates steady in a range between 5.25% and 5.5% at its meeting next week, and to start cutting rates early next year. The Bank of England is expected to increase interest rates at least once more this year before cutting them later next year.

Investors had been unusually divided before Thursday’s decision over whether the ECB would pause already or unveil one last rate increase. That disagreement reflects uncertainty over how much a slowdown in eurozone growth, together with the ECB’s past rate increases, will cool the region’s inflation rate, which stood at 5.3% in August, unchanged from a month earlier.

Lagarde said some of the central bank’s governors would have preferred to hold rates steady at this month’s meeting. However, a “solid majority” of them agreed on the decision to take rates higher, she said.

New economic forecasts published by the ECB Thursday suggested that eurozone growth will slow significantly more than previously expected this year and next, while inflation will remain markedly above the ECB’s target of 2% through next year. The bank raised its forecast for inflation next year from 3% to 3.2%, mainly to reflect “a higher path for energy prices.”

Asked about the prospect of rate cuts, Lagarde replied that “is not even a word we have pronounced.”

“The longer they can keep interest rates at elevated levels, the more insurance they buy against a downturn down the road,” said Robert Dishner, a senior portfolio manager at Neuberger Berman. “If they end up cutting too soon, they risk reigniting inflation.”

Central banks in Europe face a particularly daunting challenge because while recent interest rate rises have weighed heavily on lending and probably lowered economic growth, they have yet to show a marked effect on underlying inflation. This contrasts with the U.S., where the Fed has taken interest rates higher than the ECB and underlying inflation has fallen significantly while the nation’s growth remains robust. Underlying inflation in August was 5.3% in the eurozone and 4.3% in the U.S.

Recent data and business surveys signal a darkening economic outlook for Europe amid weak growth in China and a decline in global manufacturing. The eurozone economy has largely stagnated since late last year, and industrial production declined in July, dragged down by weakness in Germany, the region’s largest economy.

Lagarde warned that Europe is currently going through a phase of very sluggish growth and suggested that the ECB’s rate hikes are filtering through to the economy. “We are beginning to see weakness in the volume of hires particularly in the services sector that is related to manufacturing,” she said.

Meanwhile, a recent increase in oil prices is pushing inflation in the wrong direction. The euro has slumped against the dollar in recent weeks, to around $1.07 from $1.12 in July, as the eurozone’s economic prospects have soured. That increases the cost of imported goods, making the ECB’s job harder.

Matthew Ryan, head of market strategy at financial-services firm Ebury, said the ECB would likely start cutting rates later, and possibly at a more gradual pace, than the Fed, which should support the euro.

Some of the economic weakening is as intended. The ECB expects its rate increases to slow the region’s economy by weighing on asset prices and demand for loans. However, it isn’t clear if inflation is starting to fall because of the ECB’s actions or because of other factors, such as the fact natural-gas prices are dramatically lower compared with last year, when Russia throttled Europe’s gas supplies. This makes it hard to predict if the region’s economic slowdown will push inflation all the way down to 2%.

Market confidence in the ECB’s ability to achieve its objectives is gradually eroding, with the closely watched five-year, five-year inflation swap—a gauge of expected inflation over a 10-year horizon—standing at 2.6%, according to Franck Dixmier, global chief investment officer for fixed income at Allianz Global Investors.

High current and expected future inflation could mean that investors are underestimating the potential for further ECB rate increases, Dixmier said.


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First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.

Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher.

Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.

More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show upIn August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.

But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk.

Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes.

Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week.

The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data.

Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.

“It feels a little fuller but at the margins,” said Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.

Lax enforcement of return-to-office rules is one reason employees feel they can still work from home. At a roundtable business discussion in Houston last week, only one of the 12 companies that attended said it would enforce a return-to-office policy in performance reviews.

“It was clearly a minority opinion that the others shook their heads at,” said Kris Larson, chief executive of Central Houston Inc., a group that promotes business in the city and sponsored the meeting.

Making matters worse, business leaders and city officials say they see more forces at work that could slow the return to office than those that could accelerate it.

Covid-19 cases are up and will likely increase further in the fall and winter months. “If we have to go back to distancing and mask protocols, that really breaks the office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the business group Partnership for New York City.

Many cities are contending with an increase in homelessness and crime. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are struggling with these problems, are among the lowest return-to-office cities in the Kastle System index.

About 90% of members surveyed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said that the city couldn’t recover until homelessness and public safety problems were addressed, said Rachel Smith, chief executive. That is taken into account as companies make decisions about returning to the office and how much space they need, she added.

Cuts in government services and transportation are also taking a toll. Wait times for buses run by Houston’s Park & Ride system, one of the most widely used commuter services, have increased partly because of labor shortages, according to Larson of Central Houston.

The commute “is the remaining most significant barrier” to improving return to office, Larson said.

Some landlords say that businesses will have more leverage in enforcing return-to-office mandates if the economy weakens. There are already signs of such a shift in cities that depend heavily on the technology sector, which has been seeing slowing growth and layoffs.

But a full-fledged recession could hurt office returns if it results in widespread layoffs. “Maybe you get some relief in more employees coming back,” said Dylan Burzinski, an analyst with real-estate analytics firm Green Street. “But if there are fewer of those employees, it’s still a net negative for office.”

The sluggish return-to-office rate is leading many city and business leaders to ask the federal government for help. A group from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., lobbying for incentives for businesses that make commitments to U.S. downtowns.

Baruah, from the Detroit chamber, was among the group. He said the chances of such legislation being passed were low. “We might have to reach crisis proportions first,” he said. “But we’re trying to lay the groundwork now.”


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