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QE infinity? Economists believe ECB bond buying could run for years

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The shape and size of the European Central Bank’s new bond-buying program caught market participants off guard, with some now predicting it’ll be years until the euro zone is back to anything approaching normality.

Starting in November, the ECB will make 20 billion euros ($21.9 billion) of net asset purchases per month for as long as it takes for the euro zone’s inflation and growth outlooks to return to satisfactory levels. The purchasing will only end “shortly before” the next rate hike.

ECB President Mario Draghi pointed out Thursday that a major reason for the re-launch of net asset purchases was that inflation expectations remained consistently below the ECB’s target of just below 2%, but implored governments to deploy fiscal policy to supplement his actions.

This will be the second round of quantitative easing (QE) from the ECB, the first coming four years ago in response to the calamitous euro zone debt crisis.

Shweta Singh, managing director of global macro at TS Lombard, said the second round of asset purchases would likely have a “milder impact than QE-I, when borrowing costs were higher, fragmentation across the euro area was severe and domestic risks were far greater.”

“Crucially, there may be much less scope this time for the euro to edge lower and thus boost inflation expectations, while the pool of eligible assets that the ECB can buy has shrunk since QE-I was launched.”

QE infinity?

The smaller increments but open-ended timescale of this second package (QE-II) surprised many, and was well below the 60 billion euro per month implemented at the beginning of QE-I in 2015. The open-ended commitment to continue until the inflation outlook improves carries several implications.

“The sequencing reference also signals that there would only be a short gap between the end of QE and the onset of rate hikes,” Ken Wattret, chief European economist at IHS Markit, said in a note Thursday.

“As we believe rate hikes are well down the line — we have the first DFR (deposit facility rate) hike only in late 2022, with an even later start increasingly likely — this implies a very long period of net asset purchases.”

The ECB forecasts inflation at 1.5% in 2021 which is still below what the ECB regards as “sufficiently close to, but below, 2%,” Berenberg senior European economist Florian Hense pointed out in a note.

“Thus, the ECB seems highly unlikely to raise rates before 2022 — unless inflation were to surprise a lot on the upside,” Hense projected.

“The asset purchase program could therefore last for at least 24 months with a total volume of 480 billion euros. More likely it will last longer.”

Barclays head of economic research Christian Keller anticipates that the asset purchase program will continue at least until the end of 2020.

“We expect the ECB will remain accommodative for a very prolonged period of time. We continue to think that risks to the EA (euro area) growth outlook are skewed to the downside and we do not expect core inflation will re-accelerate in the near term,” Keller said in a research note Thursday.

“As the euro area has arguably entered the mature stage of its economic cycle, we expect interest rates to stay low for a prolonged period and firms’ pricing strategies to remain conservative, and we believe fiscal policy is unlikely to reflate the euro area economy.”

Against this backdrop, Barclays economists do not expect businesses to feel immediate pressure to increase final output prices, and therefore project that core consumer prices are unlikely to catch up to levels consistent with the ECB’s medium-term price stability target. Keller thus expects underlying prices to remain on a “slow recovery trend.”

‘Strong signal for governments’

ECB policymakers unanimously agreed that fiscal policy rather than monetary policy should be the main tool to combat the economic downturn. The duration of the QE program may hinge on the willingness of national governments to take action.

Draghi on Thursday urged “governments with fiscal space” to act in “an effective and timely manner.”

Ana Andrade, Europe analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a statement that the open-ended nature of the asset purchase program will be a “strong signal for governments, as it will increase their fiscal space.”

“It could potentially lead them to engage on more fiscal stimulus,” she added.

Hense agreed that by lowering funding costs further, governments may find it easier to finance a “modest fiscal expansion” and the policy might nudge countries with some extra fiscal space, such as Germany, to use it.

“On their own, purchases of 240 billion (euros) in one year will raise the balance sheet of the eurosystem by circa 2 percentage points of GDP (gross domestic product) in a year from its current level of close to 40%.”

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Hit China with new tariffs or hold off?

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U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photo with China’s President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

In this multifront, multiyear trade war, with shifting deadlines and political headwinds, it has paid for investors to beware the ides of March. May. August. October. And now, December.

In less than two weeks, President Donald Trump must decide whether to slap tariffs on $156 billion in consumer goods made in China — including toys, phones, laptops and clothes, right before the holidays — or move the goal post yet again in lieu of the comprehensive trade deal he’s been seeking.

“If enough substantive progress had been made, he might” be willing to delay, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC this week. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the two sides were still “on track,” for a deal and still talking, but he did not say whether the tariffs would be shelved.

During the Oval Office announcement of the latest truce, Mnuchin assured the public there would be more than enough time to finish the deal and permanently avert further tariffs.

That was two months ago.

Trump now has a complicated calculus to consider: Postponing the tariffs would avoid a market sell-off and higher holiday prices — and the ire of CEOs like Tim Cook and Jamie Dimon whom Trump has come to not only trust but revere. But doing so with anything short of a deal-signing — which Trump said in October was the next step — would mark the fifth instance this year that he delayed or canceled tariffs as a gesture of goodwill, further exposing him to criticism that the “phase one” deal exists only as a talking point.

Enacting the tariffs would cause its own problems. Republicans and Democrats alike would worry the White House was gambling with a U.S. economy already seeing some cracks in its strength. American farmers, many in swing states, would see exports further shrink and endure deeper financial suffering, not to mention continued retaliation.

Washington doublespeak

And Chinese negotiators, already frustrated with Washington doublespeak and insisting that tariffs be removed would likely walk from negotiations, says Stephen Myrow, managing partner at Beacon Policy Advisors.

“Most people around President Trump are telling him that’s a big risk,” the former Treasury official told CNBC. “Throwing everything on right now would be a pretty big political miscalculation.”

Dan DiMicco, a former steel executive who shares Trump’s propensity for tariffs and often shares trade advice with him, said the president will win in either outcome.

“Going into this date, President Trump has a lot of latitude depending on where the talks are really at, which no one outside of him and his team know,” DiMicco said. “He really is in a no-lose situation.”

Since the October truce, information about the state of talks has been nearly impossible to glean. U.S. readouts of principal-level calls stopped in early November, leaving interested parties to rely on information funneled to Chinese state media.

U.S. officials have used phrases like “short strokes” and “millimeters away” to emphasize that a deal is in the home stretch — without indicating what, exactly, is left to negotiate of the deal that was announced as complete on Oct. 11.

Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic advisor, said Friday that there are a “few buttons that have to be buttoned” to wrap up talks, but acknowledged that there could be a watershed mid-month.

“The fact remains that Dec. 15 is a very important date with respect to a ‘go,’ or a ‘no-go,'” Kudlow said on Squawk on the Street.

And Trump has given mixed signals about his inclination to do a deal: Within the space of one day this week, he suggested a deal could be more than a year away, then after a 400-point market sell-off, he suggested the talks were going well.

Dan Clifton of Strategas Research Partners says Trump stands to benefit politically if a deal is reached in the near-term that solves a limited number of low-hanging issues, like rolling back tariffs and restoring export markets. American incomes would rise – and the manufacturing- and ag-heavy states would see their fortunes reverse.

“Not coincidentally, these are the states Trump needs to win the most in the electoral college,” Clifton tells CNBC.

Positive signs emerging

Business groups have leaned on their executive members to provide dispatches from the ground. Anna Ashton, director of business advisory at the US-China Business Council, says positive signs have been emerging.

“We hear from both sides that the negotiators are close to a deal, so there is reason for optimism that we will not see new tariffs this month,” Ashton said. “But as you know, they’ve been close to a deal before, only to have intractable differences resurface.”

Officials have acknowledged the pain this particular round of tariffs could exact on the U.S. economy. Originally set to go into effect Sept. 1, White House officials urged Trump to delay them to limit the economic impact going into the Christmas season. They are now set for Dec. 15.

The list includes items that were excluded from prior tariffs primarily because of a potential impact on consumers and voters. In May, Mnuchin told lawmakers that the U.S. economy had been largely insulated from the tariffs because of this structure but acknowledged that would change if the goods in the December list were hit by tariffs.

“The way these tariffs were designed was, the last tranche is really the consumer issue,” Mnuchin told the House Financial Services Committee. “The last tranche is subject to the president’s approval.”

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Oil rises as OPEC and allies announce deep production cut

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Oil moved higher on Friday as OPEC and its allies agreed to deepen oil production cuts to 500,000 barrels a day through to March 2020. This brings the total production cut to 1.7 million barrels a day.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures gained 1.2% to trade at $59.13 a barrel. Brent gained 1.5% to trade at $64.31 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told reporters on Friday that the oil-rich kingdom’s quota would be an additional 167,000 barrels per day. He also said that the kingdom would continue to exceed its quota by 400,000 barrels a day, which means the overall production cut will actually be closer to 2.1 million barrels a day.

The country is OPEC’s de facto leader, and has been adamant that those who were previously overproducing — such as Iraq and Nigeria — comply with the group’s quota. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said that the country’s additional and voluntary cut would be contingent on other countries abiding by their allocation.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Moscow’s quota would be 300,000 b/d during the first three months of 2020. This measurement excludes gas condensate — a high-value light crude extracted as a by-product of gas production.

The energy alliance said it plans to review the policy at an extraordinary meeting on March 5-6.

Ahead of the decision

On Thursday the 14-member cartel, as well as its allies, which is known as OPEC+ and includes Russia, agreed in principle to reduce output by an additional 500,000 barrels per day.

But as day two of meetings in Vienna kicked off Friday, there were still many questions, including how the quota would be allocated, and how long the agreement would stretch for. Friday’s meeting followed a tumultuous and marathon session Thursday. Talks stretched on for hours, and the customary press conference held after the meeting wraps was abruptly cancelled.

The duration of the deal was one of the key unknowns. On Friday OPEC said it would meet again on March 5-6. The cartel typically meets every six months, so the announcement had led some on the Street to believe the increased cut would only extend through the first quarter.

“It remains unclear what would occur in 2Q20, potentially reflecting Saudi’s new stance that they could walk away from this deal if other countries did not comply fully,” Goldman Sachs analyst Damien Courvalin said in a note to clients Thursday.

Another key factor was compliance. Currently several members including Iraq, Nigeria and Russia are over-producing. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, exceeds its current target cut, and signaled ahead of OPEC’s meeting that stricter rules should be implemented.

“The Saudi message is compliance,” Mizuho managing director Paul Sankey said in a note to clients Friday.

The deeper-than-expected cut might not have all that much of an impact on oil prices, however, since ahead of Thursday’s meeting OPEC+, as a whole, was not even pumping as much as allotted.

“While we await full details from OPEC and non-OPEC, we think a 0.5MMbls/d announced cut relative to existing quotas is just enough to keep markets balanced for 2020,” Bernstein analyst Neil Beveridge said Friday. “Overall, a satisfactory outcome but investors will likely want to see evidence cuts are being delivered before getting too excited.”

Russia had also reportedly asked that condensates no longer be quoted as part of output for countries, a move which would reduce the total impact of the cuts.

“Everyone’s starting to do math. Between the condi [condensates] exemption and the current rate of over compliance, it’s not really a new larger cut,” Again Capital’s John Kilduff said to CNBC Thursday.

– CNBC’s Brian Sullivan, Patti Domm, Michael Bloom and Sam Meredith contributed reporting.

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Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz defends US shale producers

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Saudi Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman shakes hands with staff during his visit to an Aramco oil facility one day after the attacks in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 15, 2019.

Saudi Press Agency | Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman played down any rivalry between U.S. shale producers and more established oil producers in the Middle East.

Speaking to CNBC’s Hadley Gamble following an OPEC decision in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, Abdulaziz said: “They (U.S. shale producers) didn’t do anything wrong, they produced more barrels, they put the U.S. on the map in terms of its energy requirements, they are growing the economy, they are creating jobs.”

The U.S. is now the world’s largest oil producer hitting 12.3 million b/d in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, up from 11 million b/d in 2018. It now produces more oil than Saudi Arabia and Russia, although there are signs that production growth is slowing in the States.

Due to the boom in U.S. shale production, alongside other factors, the OPEC energy alliance was prompted to act after global oil prices tumbled in mid-2014. U.S. shale producers were not part of that deal and shale oil supply grew exponentially as OPEC producers curbed output.

“They did a remarkable job,” Abdulaziz told CNBC regarding the U.S. energy industry. He spoke of “legal limitations” when asked whether there could be pact with shale producers in the future, but said that Saudi Aramco — his country’s state-owned oil firm — “would go more and more international.”

In May, Aramco signed an agreement to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas from San Diego-based utility Sempra Energy, which helped to advance its ambitions to become a player in the growing international gas market.

Rampant shale supply and faltering demand due to a global economic slowdown have threatened to unbalance oil supply and demand dynamics. OPEC and non-OPEC allies, often referred to as OPEC+, decided on Friday to implement even tighter oil production policy at the biannual meeting in Vienna.

The new deal, which is much larger than many analysts had expected, will see OPEC+ reduce total oil output by 1.7 million b/d. However, Abdulaziz told reporters on Friday that his country — the de facto leader of OPEC — would also extend a voluntary cut of 400,000 b/d, saying that the energy alliance’s total cuts would effectively amount to 2.1 million b/d.

—CNBC’s Sam Meredith and Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.

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