Europe’s economy is ‘de facto stagnating,’ ECB board member

Chief strategist at Danske Bank downplays his remarks.

European Central Bank Executive Board member Fabio Panetta said economic expansion has almost ground to a halt in the euro area and faces further “high costs” as policy makers battle record inflation.

In the starkest warning yet from the ECB of the damage being wrought by the war in Ukraine, Panetta told Italy’s La Stampa newspaper that the region’s economy is “de facto stagnating.”

“This makes the choices facing the ECB more complicated, as a monetary tightening aimed at containing inflation would end up hampering growth that is already weakening,” he said.

The Ukraine war — on the euro area’s border — is hampering the pandemic rebound, with the International Monetary Fund slashing its 2022 growth forecast for the currency bloc to just 2.8%. Highlighting the malaise, German factory orders plunged in March, falling more than anticipated after Russia’s invasion darkened the prospects for Europe’s top economy.

Panetta’s comments strike a far more cautious note than some of his more hawkish ECB colleagues, who’ve raised the possibility of lifting interest rates from all-time lows starting in July, with bigger-than-normal hikes coming this week alone in the U.S., India and Australia.

The Italian official, who’s been on the Executive Board since 2020, said it would be “imprudent” to act without first seeing gross domestic product figures for the second quarter — signaling he favors waiting longer to make a decision.

The ECB’s next rate meetings are on June 8-9 and July 20-21. While second-quarter GDP data aren’t officially published until July 29, indicators on how the economy is doing are available earlier.

Asked about rate hikes, Panetta said “it does not make much of a difference whether it is two or three months earlier or later.” Under current circumstances, however, “negative rates and net asset purchases may no longer be necessary.”

Following a barrage of calls for faster ECB action, Piet Christiansen, chief strategist at Danske Bank, downplayed Panetta’s remarks.

“Given he’s the only dovish voice since the April meeting, I take him to be a lone-wolf at this stage,” he said by email. “I see the dovish camp as a minority.”

Panetta said inflation is being fanned by international factors that monetary policy can only address in a limited manner. That means the ECB “cannot tame inflation on our own without causing high costs for the economy.”

The euro zone’s pandemic rebound may already be faltering: Despite ECB Chief Economist Philip Lane saying Friday that there’s “still a lot of momentum,” first-quarter growth only inched up 0.2% from the previous three months, while inflation was almost four times the 2% goal.

Factories are signaling distress from those price gains and a fresh supply squeeze that’s being aggravated by Covid-19 lockdowns in China. Any catch-up in European consumption as virus restrictions are eased may fade, meanwhile, as spending power is eroded.

Fallout from President Vladimir Putin’s war remains the main concern. The European Union plans to ban Russian oil imports — likely bringing further upward pressure on consumer prices. The Kremlin halted natural gas flows to Poland and Bulgaria last week.

An end to the conflict “would ease tensions in international markets — for oil, gas and food — that are driving up inflation,” Panetta said.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.


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