For some months Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), has been signalling the ECB’s potential to take more radical measures akin to those previously taken by the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve Bank and currently being pursued by the Bank of Japan. After much anticipation and the need to overcome reported German reluctance to deviate from the narrative of austerity, this week the ECB has finally announced the launch of a €60 billion monthly bond buying blitz, commencing in March and lasting until the end of September 2016 – or until inflation nears a 2% target. The aim of this action is to increase the amount of money supply in Europe.
The experience of such actions by central banks elsewhere, has been that de-facto money printing is strongly supportive for riskier investments, notably equities. Indeed, the meteoric rise in the US stock market since 2011, which has propelled the S&P 500 Index to a record high, has in large part been due to the distortions caused by the US Federal Reserve Bank’s own bond-purchasing programme. This helped keep the cost of borrowing very low for companies, enabling them to boost profits through refinancing their debts cheaply. In turn, investors have been encouraged to invest in riskier assets as yields on bonds have remained low.
Of course markets have increasingly anticipated these measures by the ECB. Seemingly every bad piece of economic news of late for the European economy has perversely been treated as good news by the markets, since it has strengthened the case for a radical stimulus programme. In our view, the measures announced by the ECB should continue to be supportive for European equity markets. Alongside this, the slump in energy prices seen over the last year, while on the one hand adding to the downward pressure on inflation, should also benefit European companies and consumers, as Western Europe is a major net importer of oil and gas.
While there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential for European shares, a pitfall is that significant stimulus programmes like this by other central banks have led to a dramatic weakening in their currencies – a phenomenon acutely played out in Japan where the equity market and the value of the yen have moved in opposite directions since the onset of its own ‘Abenomics’ programme of aggressive monetary expansions. The euro has already fallen to a nine-year low versus the US dollar ahead of the ECB’s announcement. While it is difficult to know for sure whether there is further weakening to come or if everything is now priced in, further euro weakening remains a risk at a time when the US and the UK have emerged from their own bond-buying programmes and have seen their economies recover.
While the odds are stacked in favour of the Euro remaining weak versus the US Dollar, the outlook versus the Pound became a little more uncertain this week with the news that key hawks on the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee have backed off voting for an interest rate rise, which has pushed expectations of a hike out until 2016. This, and the political uncertainty of the forthcoming UK General Election could weigh on the Pound over the coming months.