Bank of England's next move on interest rates

What's the risk -- inflation or slowdown?

Interest rates, data, question mark Interest rates, data, question mark

The BOE kept rates on hold when it concluded its May meeting last week; it also allowed the asset purchase program to come to an end. Since the UK slipped back into recession in Q1 2012 and the growth figures at the start of the second quarter have continued to look weak, the decision to hold interest rates was mostly down to the sticky outlook for inflation. The attention now turns to Wednesday’s Inflation Report.

The focus will be on the Bank’s growth and inflation forecasts. The growth forecasts are likely to be revised lower. Even if the Bank believes that the underlying strength of the UK economy is stronger than the official figures suggest it is likely to revise down its growth forecast as it had expected the economy to expand by 0.5% in Q1, when in fact it contracted by 0.2%. Thus, we could see a slight reduction in the Bank’s 3% GDP forecast for 2013.

The bigger risk in our view is for inflation. The BOE had expected inflation to fall sharply in the first few months of the year, when in fact it has remained fairly static between 3.4 and 3.6%. The bank’s central forecast from its February Inflation Report was for a rate around 3% by this stage of the year. The February report it said that it expected “inflation to decline sharply in the near-term, as the impact of past increases in VAT and petrol prices drop out of the twelve month comparison”. While inflation has undoubtedly fallen, it hasn’t fallen as “sharply” as the Bank had forecast. However, we doubt that the Bank will adjust its inflation forecast too much as the strength of the pound will be taken into account since this could dampen import price pressures going forward.

So in the immediate term, we believe the focus will be on the downward revision to growth, however we expect the report to reaffirm the sticky inflation problem in the UK, which may stop the Bank from re-starting its QE program.

A major driver of FX markets at the moment is relative interest rate differentials. Thus, if it looks like the UK is going to remain on hold then we may see the pound continue to out-perform in the ugly contest between the pound, the euro and the dollar. Thus, an Inflation Report that is deemed “hawkish” by the market could see another leg lower in EURGBP. A weekly close around the 0.8015/20 mark is significant as it is the 100% retracement from the July 2011 high when this pair was trading just above 0.90. GBPUSD also looks well supported above 1.6060, however we are more wary of potential strength in this pair due to 1, the sharp rejection of 1.6300 – a key resistance level , - last month, and 2, the safe haven status of the dollar could keep the greenback in demand especially if the Eurozone debt crisis remains at fever pitch.

Is this the beginning of the end for the Eurozone?

As we start a new week there are three things that could impact the Eurozone debt crisis: 1, the political situation in Greece, 2, the Spanish banking sector and 3, growth. Looking at Greece first, at the end of last week the country was still leaderless. Rumors throughout Friday suggested at one stage that a moderate coalition may be formed, before this was re-buffed. Thus it looks increasingly likely that Greece will need to go back to the polls in the near future. While Greece’s immediate financing needs have been dealt with the longer-term picture is more uncertain as the EU and IMF seem unwilling to allow Greece to move its strict austerity targets in return for bailout cash.

So it all hinges on the Greek people and who they decide to lead the country through this fiscal disaster. But their decision could have much wider implications for the currency bloc. The rating agency Fitch said on Friday that all euro-area countries would face the risk of a credit downgrade if Greece exits the currency bloc. Fitch said that a Greek exit would “break a fundamental tenet” of the Eurozone, which was designed to be a permanent political structure. However, it didn’t say that a Greek exit would be all bad, as in a benign situation Greece could provide the catalyst for closer fiscal and political unity – something that many people believe are the missing links in the currency union. However, Greece remains a wild card, and while investors can’t make up their mind if a Greek exit is good or bad for risk assets euro-based assets are likely to remain vulnerable to further dips in investor sentiment.

Contagion from Greece is a huge risk for Spain, which is trying to deal with its troubled banking sector. On Friday it announced some drastic reforms to try and draw a line under the real estate bubble that burst with horrific consequences for Spain’s lenders. Firstly Madrid nationalized Bankia, next it announced two independent auditing firms have been charged with evaluating the banking sector’s true exposure to domestic real estate in an attempt to make things completely transparent. The government will also force its banks to set aside EU 30bn of funds against property loan losses. Non –performing loans will also be put in a “bad bank” allowing them to be sold off at “market prices”.

The Spanish government has (finally) opted to hear the worst news – it wants to know the true extent of losses and by creating a separate entity for non-performing loans it wants to try and get rid of these assets quickly and efficiently allowing the banking sector to wipe the slate clean. The risk is two-fold. Firstly it means that banks are likely to suffer large losses on the non-performing loans especially if they are being sold off at “market” prices. Secondly, the government said it would lend banks money if they did not have enough funds to cover their loan-loss provisions. This would be a loan, but it could still hurt Spain’s public finances and thus weigh on its credit rating. Banks have 15 days to submit plans on how they will meet the reform targets, so expect volatility in Spain’s bond and equity markets over the next few weeks as the results of the bank reviews trickle out to the market.

The third issue is growth. This week we will get Q1 GDP data and CPI data. If the contraction in the economy is greater than the 0.2% expected then the disappointment may weigh on the euro. However, there were some encouraging signs from Germany last week that may boost growth in the currency bloc. Officials in Berlin hinted they may be willing to allow inflation to increase, especially wage growth, throughout Germany to try and help “re-balance” the Eurozone’s economy. This may open the way to rate cuts from the ECB in the coming months, which could help boost peripheral bond markets in the short-term. We need to hear more about this, but if Germany is softening its stance towards inflation this is a major shift in the currency bloc and would help to deal with the key structural issues that have so far been neglected during this crisis.

European stocks were sold heavily last week; however the pace of decline slowed as we headed into the weekend. The Spanish index, which has been hit particularly hard in recent weeks, recovered after falling sharply during the banking reform announcement on Friday. This suggests that the market has welcomed the moves by Spain and would rather see complete transparency of the state of Spain’s problems even if they are worse than expected. Spanish banks recovered in the pm on Friday along with the overall European equity indices.

The euro was trading just below the key 1.2950 level versus the dollar at the close of the European markets on Friday. This is below a key resistance level and suggests there may be further losses in the coming days. However, if Greece can form a moderate coalition government then expect a relief rally in the short-term. We continue to see EURUSD move lower, but we think it will be an incremental decline rather than a prolonged downtrend.

Next page: Fed officials and Japanese rhetoric

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