European Central Bank Raises Key Interest Rate to Record High
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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

By TOM FAIRLESS
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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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

By CAROL RYAN
Tue, Mar 5, 2024 3 min

The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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