The good news in Europe is that the freefall in the periphery has been arrested and an anemic recovery has begun. The bad news is that the risk of deflation still hangs in the air.
Indeed, the latest eurozone inflation numbers came in under expectations. Eurostat reports that the December annual inflation rate was 0.8% (vs. an expected 0.9%) and core inflation was 0.7% (vs. an expected 0.8%). The undershoot raised the question of whether the ECB could take action to further stimulate the eurozone economy. The comment from Joe Wiesenthal of Business Insider is typical of the concerns raised by many market analysts:
The big fear in Europe used to be that the economy would collapse.
Now the big fear is that Europe is going to become Japan, an economic bloc mired in deflation and horrible growth.
What can the ECB do?
With an ECB rate decision looming Thursday, the market's expectations is that no tangible changes in policy will be announced. However, I would watch Mario Draghi's body language in the press conference afterwards. In particular, one of the trial balloons that had been floated is the implementation of a conditional LTRO program with the intent of raising lending to small and medium enterprises (SMEs):
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said Monday [December 16, 2013] that any future long-term financing operation will be tailored to ensure the money reaches the real economy but warned it was a complicated scheme that the ECB must consider carefully.
Draghi went on to say that the ECB was considering an LTRO of a different sort, which targets SME lending [emphasis added]:
On the possibility of a conditional long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), Draghi said the ECB's original LTROs already included elements of the Bank of England's Funding for Lending scheme and noted there were "operational complications" involved in implementing such programs among 17 countries, rather than one country.
Draghi said that if the ECB were to engage in another LTRO, it would be "making sure that this money reaches the real economy and doesn't stop in the banks, or [result in] the banks buying bonds only."
The ECB had been monitoring SME lending and, in November, found that conditions were deteriorating despite the ample availability of liquidity. The ECB conducted a survey and came to three major conclusions:
Finding customers and access to finance remain the dominant concerns for euro area SMEs
SMEs report a marginal deterioration in the perceived availability of bank loans
Survey points to an increase in interest rates offered to SMEs, while conditions still differ significantly across countries
SME aid is small cap bullish
These concerns about SME lending are not new to the ECB. On Thursday, I would watch the ECB statement and Draghi's language as to how they might move on a conditional LTRO program. While no action is likely this week, we may get greater clarity on this issue as any central bank stimulus targeted at the real economy would be tremendously bullish for eurozone small cap stocks (see my previous post More reasons to buy Europe).
Any hints of further ECB action in support of SME lending would likely spur further outperformance in European small cap stocks.
Full disclosure: Long DFE
Cam Hui is a portfolio manager at Qwest Investment Fund Management Ltd. ("Qwest"). The opinions and any recommendations expressed in the blog are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions and recommendations of Qwest. Qwest reviews Mr. Hui's blog to ensure it is connected with Mr. Hui's obligation to deal fairly, honestly and in good faith with the blog's readers."
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