Eurozone inflation surged to 7.5 percent in March, hitting another record high with months still left before it is set to peak, making grim reading for the European Central Bank, which needs to reconcile sky-high prices with vanishing economic growth.
Consumer price growth in the 19 countries sharing the euro accelerated from 5.9 percent in February, Eurostat said on Friday, far beyond expectations for 6.6 percent, as war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia pushed fuel and natural gas prices to record highs.
Although energy was the chief culprit, inflation in food prices, services and durable goods all came in above the ECB’s two percent target, further proof that price growth is increasingly broad and not merely a reflection of expensive oil.
The news sparked fury in the Netherlands where inflation hit 11.9 percent.
Nexit Denktank campaigners blasted: “Inflation in the Netherlands rose to 11.9 percent in March.
“Inflation will remain high for a long time, regardless of the lies the ECB continues to spread about the ‘temporality’ of this inflation.
“Outside the EU inflation is lower.
“In Switzerland 2.2 percent and in Norway 3.7 percent.”
Underlying prices, which filter out volatile energy and food prices, accelerated too, raising the risk that high inflation will become entrenched, a hard-to-reverse phenomenon.
Inflation excluding food and fuel prices, closely watched by the ECB, picked up to 3.2 percent from 2.9 percent while a narrower measure that also excludes alcohol and tobacco products jumped to 3.0 percent from 2.7 percent.
All this leaves the ECB with a difficult policy dilemma.
Its main task is to get inflation to two percent but tightening policy now would risk crashing an economy already reeling from the fallout of the war in its neighbour and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The ECB estimates that growth in the first quarter was positive, but barely, while second-quarter growth will be near-zero, as high energy prices dent consumption and hurt corporate investment.
That would suggest the bloc is near a state of stagflation, where rapid inflation is coupled with stagnating growth.
High energy prices are traditionally a drag on growth and will thus actually weigh on inflation once the immediate spike passes, raising the risk that price growth will later fall back below target.
But the ECB can hardly ignore high inflation, especially since it says the peak is still three to four months away.
The eurozone’s labour market is the tightest it has been in decades so wage inflation, a precondition of durable consumer inflation, is already in the pipeline.
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And ECB inaction would also boost inflation expectations, likely making price growth more permanent.
The ECB has underestimated price growth throughout the past year, so its credibility is on the line.
The likely compromise will be for the bank to tighten monetary policy this year, but by the smallest increments.
Markets are now pricing in 63 basis points of rate hikes by the end of the year but policymakers have been more cautious, with not a single one calling for moves so large.
The risk, however, is that big inflation surprises could force the ECB to tighten more quickly, forcing the bank to play catch-up later on.