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The ECBâs Inflation Economics
Wages, wages, wages. If Jean Claude Trichet has never actually paraphrased
the real estate clichĂ© he certainly knows what it means. For the European
Central Bank (ECB) the inflation fight has been all about preventing consumer
inflation from becoming wage inflation. It is a fight the ECB may be losing.
In the first quarter of 2008 total labor costs in the Eurozone were 3.3%
higher on the year; in the first quarter of 2007 the gain had been only 2.3%.
The rise in labor expense was driven by wage costs which accelerated 1.3%
over the year, moving from 2.4% in May of 2007 to 3.7% in May 2008.
In comparison the non-wage component of total labor costs gained only 0.4%,
over the year, rising from 1.9% in the first quarter of 2007 to 2.3% in 2008.
Labor costs, which are the largest portion of the price of any good or
service, are being driven higher in the Eurozone by a rapid increase in
These wage costs are the âsecond round effectsâ of inflation that keep Jean
Claude Trichet awake at night.
Long term union contracts tend to lock inflation expectations into the
economy. Instead of responding to the changing inflation environment a
multi-year contract assumes inflation rates for the life of the agreement.
The rates are most often based on current inflation conditions. The natural
tendency is to seek inflation protection for union members by erring on the
side of caution, that is on the side of higher inflation.
A three year contract that incorporates a 2.5% wage increase per year is saying
one of two things. Either, our workers are more productive, they produce more
goods per unit of cost, therefore a rise in wages is justified. Or, prices
will be 2.5% higher a year from now, our workers will need more money to
retain their existing compensation level. Reality of course is a combination
of the two effects. Workers are somewhat more productive as industry strives
to find better and more efficient methods of production. And even in the best
of times, inflation is never completely absent.
For the ECB the problem is that Eurozone productivity gains in most
industries have not kept pace with wage increases. Unit labor costs have
risen more than 3.0% in financial services in the past year and even more in
the construction trades. These increases have been spurred by fear of rising
It might seem eminently fair that with inflation running at 3.6% in the
Eurozone, almost twice the official target rate of 2.0%, workers and their
unions would seek compensation in line with their actual increase in living
costs. But the inflation situation is more complicated.
Because contracts are usually in force for several years and are often
uniform across industries, the annual wage increase provides large groups of
workers with more cash to spend. If that cash increase is based on
productivity improvements there is little effect on inflation. Workers have
more money to spend and there are more goods to buy. If however, the wage
increase is inflation based, it can institutionalize inflation by providing
more money to chase the same number of goods. This remains true even if the
original cause of inflation subsides. In effect a temporary increase in
prices from a commodity shock becomes ingrained in societyâs inflation
expectations through the wage mechanism, producing a permanently higher
inflation rate in the economy.
It is the ECB belief that the current European inflation rate is a product of
just such a transitory effect â the rapid rise in the price of oil. And there
is more than a reasonable expectation that they are right.
The economics or at least the price effects of the crude oil market are
visible to all. But the key historical factor in oil prices is their
volatility. One year ago oil was trading at $65 a barrel, less than half its
current price. A year hence it may not be $65, but it is a good bet that it
will be lower than it is now. This is simple economics, often forgotten in
the hue and cry over inflation. High prices for any good brings three things:
new supplies; substitution and efficiency. All three inevitably reduce the
price of the good. Oil may not return to $65 dollar a barrel by June 2009,
(its price in May 2007) but barring a conflagration in the Middle
East it will be below its current price.
In planning their long term economic forecasts and rate policy, ECB planners
take a traditional approach to oil and commodity prices, the simple scenario
Predictions of $200 oil prices notwithstanding, there is little in the
current world economic situation to warrant such dire forecasts. The world is
not running out of oil. Many of the constraints on oil exploration and
production are, or were, cost related. Some restrictions on development are
political. The cost factors have been obviated by the rise in oil prices. Oil
reserves that were not profitable at $40 or $60 a barrel are suddenly very
profitable at $90 or $120. Political restraints may or may not be removed by
public pressure but the important fact is that they can be eliminated by a
change in law. They are not inherent in the supply and demand equation.
Sustained high oil prices will bring increased production from both sources:
the marginally profitable fields and from previously off limits productive
Oil and commodity prices have been the main cause of inflation volatility. In
one year the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices, (HICP) the uniform Eurozone
measure of consumer inflation has risen from 1.9% in May 2007 to 3.6% in
The ECB uses the so called âheadline inflation numberâ, which includes energy
and food prices, for its inflation calculation. The American Federal Reserve
prefers the âcore inflationâ number, the inflation rate without energy and
For comparison, the US
âheadline inflationâ rate has risen from 2.7% to 4.2% since May 2007, but the
core rate has barely budged. Last year it was 2.2%, this year is 2.3%.
Similar disparities exist in Europe.
One can easily make the argument that since consumers have to pay the
headline rate, the core rate is irrelevant. But when choosing which rate to
use for multi year projections, or wage contracts, or central bank rate
policy, the core rate is clearly not irrelevant. If oil prices retreat to
considerably lower levels by next year, which, though not guaranteed, is
certainly possible, a central bank that had based its rate policy solely on
headline inflation would be out of step with the economy. If the bank had
hiked rates to counter headline inflation, it would have probably caused far
more economic pain than necessary.
This is the dilemma that is behind the ECBâs rather peculiar threat to hike
rates once in July and no more -- once and only by a âsmallâ amount. Since
the standard ECB rate move has been 25 basis points, and that has never been
called small, does âsmallâ mean the hike will be less than 25 basis points?
The ECB is clearly determined to prevent the writing of price inflation into
the Eurozone economy through wage inflation. But their rate threat is really
no different than the recent Federal Reserve jawboning against inflation in
It is just that ECB spokesmen have remonstrated so often and so vehemently
against inflation that they have no way to ratchet up their warnings except
to threaten a rate increase. A âsingle small rate hikeâ is just rhetoric by
Chief Market Analyst
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