Monthly Economic Update: A new year for the economy as well

The warm weather in Europe is helping the region to get through the energy crisis, though many central bankers across the globe are still not done with rate hikes.

We are gradually returning from holiday and sharpening our minds and pens again for another year of economic excitement. The Christmas break is traditionally a period with very little economic news and data, which allows us to keep the first economic update of the year brief. Still, there have been some important developments since the release of our outlook in early December. 

Covid in China

China has made a full U-turn on its zero-Covid strategy and is now experiencing a surge in Covid cases. For Western economies, an end to zero-Covid in China has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that after a wave of surging Covid cases, the Chinese economy could open earlier and faster than initially thought, lowering the risk of new supply chain frictions. On the other hand, this reopening will very likely push up demand and prices for energy.

Energie prices

In Europe, warm temperatures and strong winds since mid-December have not only led to lower wholesale prices for gas but also lowered gas consumption and filled up national gas reserves again. Unless the continent gets caught out by a severe winter in the coming months, the risk of an energy supply crisis has become extremely low. As a result of lower energy prices and government intervention, headline inflation came down more significantly than initially expected in December. If energy prices stay at their current levels throughout the year, headline inflation could come down quickly. Just taking the energy base effects into consideration, eurozone headline inflation could temporarily even touch 2% towards the end of the year. However, let’s not forget that there are still many “pass-throughs” at play and that it is almost normal for headline inflation to drop significantly after energy price shocks, while core inflation could still increase further and stay stubbornly high.

Before getting overly enthusiastic remember that energy prices are highly volatile and recent developments cannot be extrapolated to the entire year. We have revised down our energy price assumptions but still expect an increase in the second half of the year when China starts to accelerate and Europe prepares for next winter.

Central banks

The central bank meetings in December hinted at a possible central bank divergence in 2023. While the Bank of England turned more dovish and even the Federal Reserve lost some of its uber-hawkishness, the two most dovish central banks of the last decade – the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan – became more hawkish. The ECB, in particular, seems determined to continue hiking rates whether or not the economy falls into recession, and headline inflation could retreat faster than expected. As much as many central banks got carried away with ultra-loose monetary policy when inflation was low, there is now the risk that they will get carried away with overly restrictive monetary policy. Maybe it is just human for central bankers to want to secure their place in history as the slayers of inflation. In any event, don’t expect recent positive inflation developments to change central bankers’ minds anytime soon.

Many people start the new year expecting the best but preparing for the worst. We take a different stance. We still expect a difficult macroeconomic year but are clearly preparing for the best.

Full analysis

Learn more about central banks monetary policy, inflation forecasts, the global economy and more in the full version of our Monthly Economic Update.

Energy: mild weather eases natural gas concerns

The European natural gas market has come under significant pressure recently with TTF falling by around 50% since early December. Milder weather has reduced heating demand and as a result, Europe is seeing an unusual build in gas storage in the middle of winter. Gas storage is around 84% full compared to a five-year average of around 70%. It appears as though Europe will enter the injection season with comfortable storage, although there are still plenty of risks around the remaining Russian supply and also the potential for increased competition for LNG from China, as the country drops its zero-Covid policy. A more comfortable European market has meant that prices are unlikely to be as strong as initially expected.

However, prices will still need to remain elevated to ensure demand destruction keeps the market in balance through the 2023/24 winter. We expect TTF to average EUR125/MWh in 2023, but uncertainty and lingering supply risks mean the market will remain extremely volatile.

The outlook for the oil market remains bullish. China’s Covid policy change should prove supportive for demand in the medium to long run, although admittedly rising Covid infections could weigh on demand in the immediate term. Russian oil supply is still expected to fall due to the EU ban on Russian seaborne crude and refined products. As a result, the oil market is expected to tighten from the second quarter onwards, which supports our view for Brent to average a little over US$100/bbl over 2023.

Eurozone: ECB moves into uber hawkish zone

The fall in sentiment indicators was partially reversed in December on the back of lower energy prices, courtesy of the extremely mild winter weather. That said, the strong fall in industrial production in October still suggests negative GDP growth in the fourth quarter and falling orders, high inventories and weakening hiring activity point to a further contraction in the first quarter. We expect only a weak recovery thereafter, leading to, at best, stagnating GDP for the whole of 2023. The more subdued energy prices and resolving supply chain frictions will push inflation down further, though core inflation is likely to prove more stubborn.

We therefore don’t expect headline inflation to fall below 3% before 2024. After a hawkish monetary policy meeting in December, members of the ECB’s Governing Council have continued to emphasise a very hawkish message, pencilling in 50bp rate hikes for “a period of time”. On the back of this, we expect a 50bp rate hike both in February and March, followed by another 25bp rate hike in May. Bond yields have less upward potential and might fall again in the first half of the year.

US: Fed nears end of hiking cycle as recession draws closer

Recession worries are mounting in the US as the Federal Reserve continues hiking interest rates despite the economy already bracing itself for a deep housing market downturn and American CEOs being as pessimistic as they were in the depth of the Global Financial Crisis. With more companies adopting a defensive posture we expect to see hiring and investment plans cut back aggressively. The combination of job worries, lingering inflation and falling asset prices are likely to lead to sizeable falls in consumer spending while residential construction will also drag output lower.

We look for a further 50bp of rate hikes in the first quarter given that inflation remains the Federal Reserve’s focus. Nonetheless, we believe that the composition of the CPI basket (heavy weighting towards housing and vehicles) is helpful in bringing about sharp falls in inflation from the second quarter onwards. Remember, too, that the Fed has a dual mandate that places a strong emphasis on the job market as well as targeting 2% inflation. With more flexibility to respond to the recession than most other central banks, we see significant scope for interest rate cuts and falling Treasury yields later in the year.

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