Europe‘s economic recovery: More like Japan, China or the US?
We have a first-time QuickHit guest for this episode, Daniel Lacalle, a well-respected economist, author and commentator. Daniel shares his expertise on the eurozone and European Union. What is happening there in terms of Covid recovery? How does the region compare to other economies like Japan, China, or the USA? Will the ECB follow what the BOJ did? Will there be talks of deflation or inflation in Europe? How about the quantitative easing especially with a possibility of a more conservative ECB chair? Also, will Europe suffer the same power crisis as China and will Europeans be able to absorb inflation?
Daniel Lacalle started his career in the energy business and then moved on to investment banking and asset management. Right now, he’s into consulting and also macroeconomic analysis and teaches in two business schools.
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This QuickHit episode was recorded on November 18, 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this Europe’s economic recovery: More like Japan, China or the US? Quickhit episode are those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Complete Intelligence. Any contents provided by our guest are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any political party, religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.
TN: We spoke a few weeks ago on your podcast, and I’ve really been thinking about that since we spoke, and I wanted to circle back with you and talk about Europe. There’s a lot happening in Europe right now, and I think on some level, the US and China get a lot of the economic commentary. But really, Europe is where a lot of things are happening right now. And I’d like to generally talk about what is the near term future for Europe. But I guess more importantly, in the near term, what are some of Europe’s biggest economic impediments right now? I’m really curious about that. So what do you see as some of their biggest economic impediments.
DL: When we look at Europe, what we have to see from the positive side is that countries that have been at war with each other for centuries get along and they get along with lots of headlines. But they’re getting along sort of in a not too bad way. Good. Yeah, that’s agreed. But it is true that the eurozone is a very complex and a very unique proposition in terms of it’s, not the United States, and it’s not unified nation like China. It’s a group of countries that basically get together under the common denominator of a very strong welfare state. So unlike China or the United States, which were built from different perspectives. In the case of the eurozone, it’s all about the welfare state as the pillar.
DL: From there, obviously, productivity growth, job creation, enterprises, et cetera, are all, let’s say, second derivative of something that is a unique feature of the European Union. No, the European Union is about 20% of the world’s GDP, about 7% of the population, probably. And it’s about 55% of the social spending of the world. So that is the big driver, 7% of the population, 20% GDP, 55% of the government spending in social entitlements.
So that makes it a very different proposition economically than the United States or China. Where is the eurozone right now? The eurozone and the European Union in particular were not created for crisis. It’s a bull market concept. It’s a Bull market agreement. When things go swimmingly, there’s a lot of agreement. But we’ve lived now two crisis. And what we see is that the disparities between countries become wider when there is a crisis, because not everybody behaves in the same manner. Cultures are different. Fiscal views are different. So that is a big challenge. The situation now is a situation that is a bit of an experiment because the Euro has been an incredible success. When I started.
DL: When I started in the buy side, everybody said the Euro is not going to last. And there it is. And it’s the second world reserve currency in terms of utilization, significantly behind the United States. So it’s been a big success. But with that big success comes also a lot of hidden weaknesses. And the hidden weaknesses are fundamentally a very elevated level of debt, a very stubborn government spending environment that makes it very difficult for the European Union and the eurozone to grow as much as it probably could. And it also makes it very difficult to unify fiscal systems because we don’t have a federal system. We don’t have like the United States is.
The situation now is the eurozone is recovering. It’s recovering slowly. But some of those burdens to growth are obviously being very clear. Think about this. When Covid19 started, estimates from all global entities expected China to get out of the crisis first, the eurozone to get out of the crisis second, and the United States to be a distant third. It’s… the United States has surpassed its 2019 GDP levels. The eurozone is still behind. So it’s interesting to see how the expectations of recovery of the eurozone have been downgraded consistently all of the time. And therefore, what we find ourselves in is in a situation in which there’s almost a resignation to the fact that the eurozone in particular, but also the European Union. The eurozone is a small number of countries. The European Union is larger, for the people that are watching. It’s going to recover in a sort of almost L shape. It was going to recover with very low levels of growth, with much weaker levels of job creation and with a very significant and elevated level of debt. So that’s basically where we are right now.
Obviously, the positives remain. But it’s almost become custom to accept low growth, low job creation, low wage growth and low productivity.
TN: It seems to me that if we switch to say, looking at the ECB in that environment, how does the ECB deal with that in terms of higher inflation, lower growth, a weakening Euro? Now, I want to be careful about saying weakening Euro. I don’t necessarily think the bottom is going to fall out. I know there are people out there saying that’s going to happen. But we’ve seen over the past, particularly three weeks, we’ve seen some weakness in the Euro. What does that look like? Do we see kind of BOJ circuit 2012 type of activity happening? Or is there some other type of roadmap that the ECB has?
DL: It’s a very good comparison. The ECB is following the footsteps of the Bank of Japan. In my opinion, in an incorrect analysis of how the ECB the European Central Bank behaved in the 2008 crisis. There is a widespread of mainstream view that the ECB was too tight and too aggressive in its monetary policy. Aggressive in terms of hawkishness in the previous crisis. And if it had implemented the aggressive quantitative easing programs that the Federal Reserve implemented, everything would have gone much better. Unfortunately, I disagree. I completely disagree.
The problems of the eurozone have never been problems of liquidity and have never been problems of monetary policy. In fact, very loose monetary policy led to the crisis. Bringing interest rates from 5% to 1%. Massively increasing liquidity via the banking channel, but increasing liquidity nonetheless. And so the idea that a massive quantitative easing would have allowed the eurozone to get out of the crisis faster and better has been also denied by the reality of what has happened once quantitative easing has been implemented aggressively.
So now what the ECB is doing is pretty much what the Bank of Japan does, which is to monetize as much government debt as possible with a view that you need to have a little bit of inflation, but it cannot be high inflation because in the United States, with 4% unemployment, 4.6% unemployment, you may tolerate 6% inflation. For a while. But I can guarantee you that in the European Union, in the Eurozone with elevated levels of unemployment and with an aging population, very different from the United States. Very different in the European Union almost 20% of the population is going to be above 60 years of age pretty soon. Aging population and low wages with high unemployment or higher unemployment than in the United States. A very difficult combination for a very loose monetary policy.
The Bank of Japan can sort of get away with being massively doveish because it always has around 3% unemployment. So structural levels of unemployment. But that’s not the situation of the eurozone. So I think that the experiment that the ECB is undertaken right now is to be very aggressive despite the fact that the level of inflation is significantly higher than what European citizens are able to tolerate. Obviously, you say, well, it’s 4% inflation. That’s not that high. Well, 4% inflation means that electricity bills are up 20%, that gasoline bills are up another 20%, that food price are up 10% so we need to be careful about that.
So very dangerous experiment. We don’t know how it’s going to go. But they will continue to be extremely doveish with very low rates. That’s why the Euro is weaker, coming back to your point. Extremely dovish despite inflationary pressure.
TN: So it’s interesting central banks always act late and they always overcompensate because they act late. So do you think that maybe a year from now because of base effects, we’ll be talking about deflation instead of inflation like, is that plausible in Europe, in the US and other places, or is that just nonsensical?
DL: Well, we will not have deflation, but they will most certainly talk about the risk of deflation, because let’s start from the fact that the eurozone has had an average of 2% inflation. In any case, most of the time. There’s been a very small period of time in which there was sort of flat inflation. Right. So will they talk about the risk of deflation? Absolutely they will. I remember the first time I visited Japan. I remember talking to a Japanese asset manager and saying, “well, the problem of Japan is deflation, isn’t it?” And he said to me, you obviously don’t live in this country. So will they talk about deflationary pressures? Maybe. Yes.
Think about this. If you have 5% inflation in 2021 and you have 3% inflation in 2022, that is 8.1% inflation accumulative. But falling inflation.
TN: Right. Exactly. Yeah. And it could be a way to justify central banks continuing to ease and continuing to intervene. And so Japan’s found itself in a really awkward position after eight, nine years of really aggressive activity. It’s just really hard to get out once you stop, right? So I do worry, especially about the heritage of the ECB, with kind of the Dutch and German chairs being very conservative. This is a pretty dramatic change for them, right?
DL: Huge. Because you’ve mentioned the key part is that everybody says, well, the ECB will do this. The ECB will do that. But the problem is that the ECB cannot do most of what they would consider normalizing. Because Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, it would be an absolute train wreck if the ECB stops purchasing sovereign bonds of those countries. Because the ECB is… This is something that you don’t see in the United States. The ECB is purchasing 100% of net issuances of these countries.
So what’s the problem? Is that? Think about this. Who would buy Spanish or Portuguese government bonds at the current yields if the ECB wasn’t buying them? Nobody. Okay. Let’s think of where we would start to think of purchasing them. We would probably be thinking about a 300–400% increase in yields to start thinking whether we would purchase Portuguese, Greek, Italian, French bonds? Not just the Southern European, but also France, et cetera.
So I think that is a very dangerous situation for the ECB because it’s caught between a rock and a heart place. Very much so. On the one hand, if it normalizes policy, governments with huge deficit appetite are going to have very significant problems. And if it doesn’t normalize, sticky inflation in consumer goods and nonreplicable goods and services is going to generate because it already did in 2019, protests. Because we tend to forget that in 2018 and 2019, we had the gilets jaunes, you probably remember the Yellow Vests in France. You probably remember the protest in Germany about the rising cost of living. The protests in the north of Spain. So it’s not like everybody is living happily. It’s that there were already significant tensions.
TN: Right? Yeah. I think the pressure is, the inflationary pressures that say consumers are feeling here in the US and Europe and parts of Asia, definitely acute, and people are talking more and more about it.
If we move on to say specifically to energy, since that’s where you came out of, right? So we’re seeing some real energy issues globally and energy prices globally. But when we look at gas, natural gas, specifically in Europe, do you expect to see a crisis in Europe like we’ve seen in China over the last three months where there are power outages, brownouts, hurling blackouts, that sort of thing? Or do you think there’ll be a continuity of power across Europe?
DL: In my opinion, what has happened in China is very specific to China because it’s not just a problem of outages because of lack of supply. Most of the lack of supply problem comes from a shortage of dollars. So many companies in China have been unable to purchase the quantities of coal that they required in a rising demand environment because they had price controls and therefore they were losing money.
They would have to purchase at higher prices and generate at a loss. That is not the case in Europe. In Europe, the problem of gas prices is a problem of price definitely, obviously. It’s very high and it’s also feeding to our prices because of the merit order. But it’s not a problem of supply in the sense that getting into an agreement with Russia to increase 40% their supplies of natural gas into the European Union was extremely quick. From the 1st November to beginning of this week, gas form has increased exports to Europe by 40%.
Problem? Prices have not fallen as much as they went up before. For the south of Europe, it’s a problem fundamentally, of access to ships because LNG obviously is very tight. Vessels are not available as they used to be. There might be a certain tightness in terms of supplies, but I find it very difficult to see, let’s say, a Chinese type of shortage of supply because it’s a matter of price. Will we have to pay significantly more for natural gas and significantly more for power, but not necessarily feel the problem that the Chinese did because they had lost making generation in coal.
TN: Great. Okay, that’s very good. That’s what I’d hoped you say, but it’s great to hear that. Let’s switch just a little bit and talk about kind of European companies because we talked about rising prices, like energy. We talked about inflation and consumers say bearing inflationary pressures.
In European companies, we’ve seen that American companies have been able to raise prices in America quite a lot, actually. And consumers have borne that. Chinese companies haven’t really been able to do that. Their margins are really compressed because consumers there haven’t been able to bear the price rises. What are you seeing in Europe, and how do you think that impacts in general European companies, their ability to absorb price rises or pass them on to consumers? And how long can they continue to bear that?
DL: Yeah. One of the things that is very distinct about Europe is the concept of the so called, horrible name, “National Champions.” In power, in telecommunications, in banking, in oil and gas, etc. Etc. We tend to have each country a couple of dinosaurs, most of them, that are so called National Champions. These cannot pass increases of inputs to final prices because they receive a call from the red phone from the Minister in the country. And no my friend, the prices are not going up as they probably should.
So the automotive sector? Very difficult because there’s a lot of over capacity and at the same time, tremendous cost pressure that you cannot pass because of the lack of demand as well, or the lack of demand relative to supply. The airline sector? Cannot pass the entire increase of cost to consumers. The power sector? Very difficult, big companies, very close to governments. They’re suffering immensely from regulatory risk. So very difficult. So you have those.
However you would say, okay, so that sort of shields inflationary pressures out of consumers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t because those are very large companies, but they’re very small in terms of how much they mean, for example, the prices of food or the prices of delivered natural gas. Even though you purchase natural gas, there’s a strict pass through in those, for example. You might not increase your margins. You might lose a little bit, but the pass through happens. It goes with a delay. In the United States, everything happens quickly. In the United States, shut down the economy, unemployment goes to the roof, then it comes down dramatically like V shape, opposite V shape. In the Eurozone, things happen slower. And that’s why it’s a bigger risk, because the domino effect, instead of being very quick and painful and quickly absorbed is very slow.
TN: Interesting. Okay. Very good. Well, Daniel, thank you for your time. Before we go, I’d like to ask everyone watching. If you don’t mind, please follow us on our YouTube channel. That helps us a lot in terms of adding features to our podcast.
Daniel, thank you. As always, this has been fantastic, and I hope we can come back and speak to you sometime in the future. It will be a great pleasure. Always a fantastic chat. Thank you very much.
DL: Thank you very much.
This QuickHit is originally published at https://www.completeintel.com/quick-hits/europe-economic-recovery.