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Business News/ Economy / The Global Fight Against Inflation Has Turned a Corner
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The Global Fight Against Inflation Has Turned a Corner

wsj

Falling inflation across industrialized countries opens the door for central banks to start cutting interest rates next year.

Picture: Ashesh ShahPremium
Picture: Ashesh Shah

Inflation is falling faster than expected across advanced economies, marking a turning point in central banks’ two-year battle against surging prices.

Declines in consumer price growth, to below 5% in the U.K. last month and around 3% in the U.S. and eurozone, are fueling expectations that central banks could take their feet off the brakes and pivot to cutting interest rates next year.

That would provide welcome relief to a global economy that is struggling outside the U.S., increasing the prospects of a soft landing from a historic series of interest-rate increases without large increases in unemployment. Europe, in particular, is on the brink of recession.

Yields on government debt in Europe and the U.S. have slumped as investors start to price in earlier interest-rate cuts.

For months this year, economists puzzled over why growth and inflation hadn’t slowed more in response to interest-rate hikes. Now, there is growing evidence that higher borrowing costs are biting hard with a delay.

“It’s definitely a turning point for inflation," said Stefan Gerlach, a former deputy governor of Ireland’s central bank. “Investors may be surprised at how rapidly central banks cut interest rates next year, maybe by one-and-a-half percentage point."

The sharp declines in inflation across continents underscore how common factors drove up prices in the first place, especially the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. These crimped global supply chains, reduced the number of people in the workforce and fueled energy price increases, especially in Europe. As those forces subside, price pressures naturally ease.

Inflation was also given a boost by demand-side factors, such as trillions of dollars of government stimulus spending in the U.S., as well as pent-up demand and savings from consumers that accumulated during the pandemic. That, economists say, is why underlying inflation remains strong nearly four years after the start of the pandemic, and why rate increases were needed to bring it down.

Lower inflation “shows the effect of increasing rates by 4 or 5 percentage points," Gerlach said. “Team Transitory were wrong," he added, referring to a debate among economists over whether high inflation would subside by itself, a camp to which he belonged. “Our idea was that inflation would fall back without an increase in interest rates."

Even countries where inflation has proved the most stubborn, such as the U.K., have started to show progress. Consumer prices rose 4.6% in October compared with the year-ago month, a drop from the 6.7% rate of inflation recorded in September and the slowest increase since October 2021, the statistics agency said Wednesday. Economists had expected to see a decline to 4.8%.

“The U.K. no longer looks like such a major outlier when it comes to inflation," said Bruna Skarica, an economist at Morgan Stanley.

News of the U.K. decline followed Tuesday’s report of a larger than expected drop in U.S. inflation to 3.2% in October. The eurozone also reported a decline in inflation to 2.9% in October from 4.3% in September. Consumer prices were lower than a year earlier in Belgium and the Netherlands.

The cooling of consumer prices has persuaded some European policy makers that the battle to tame inflation has been won, and in a shorter period of time than in the 1970s, when a comparable surge in prices occurred.

“We’re in the process of exiting the inflationary crisis," said France’s Bruno Le Maire before meeting with his fellow European Union finance ministers last week. “In a little under two years, Europe will have managed to control inflation, which weighs on our citizens, which weighs on households, especially the less wealthy."

Investors are also more optimistic. They are pricing in interest-rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank starting next spring, and by the Bank of England next summer, according to data from Refinitiv.

Markets had priced a 30% probability of another rate increase by the Fed, from its current level of 5.25% to 5.5%, until publication of U.S. inflation data on Tuesday. That probability has now fallen to 5%, according to Deutsche Bank analysts. The prospect of a Fed rate cut by May soared from 23% on Monday to 86% by Tuesday‘s close.

Central bankers are more cautious after being surprised last year by the persistence of inflation. The Bank of England last month said it is too soon to think about cutting interest rates, having forecast that inflation would reach its 2% target in late 2025. Central bankers also point to the still-rapid rise in wages and the risk of higher energy prices if the conflict between Israel and Hamas spreads to other parts of the Middle East.

Morgan Stanley’s economists expect to see the Bank of England start to cut rates beginning next May, followed by the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank in June. Regardless of the exact timing, there is a growing consensus that inflation is on the wane and lower interest rates will follow.

“We expect widespread declines in inflation and interest rates in 2024 across advanced economies," Michael Saunders, a former BOE rate setter, wrote in a note to clients of Oxford Economics.

If so, it would raise the question of whether central banks overdid it with rate increases, especially in Europe.

Economists say those hikes are working their way through the economy, weighing on lending and spending. Job creation is slowing and unemployment is edging higher on both sides of the Atlantic, curbing wage growth. Households are becoming more reluctant to spend, as higher interest rates make it more advantageous to save, economists say. That weighs on growth prospects over the coming months.

U.S. retail sales fell 0.1% in October from a month earlier, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That is the first decline since March and comes after a 0.9% increase in September. In the eurozone, industrial output declined by 1.1% in September from the previous month, official data showed on Wednesday.

The decline in inflation will be welcome news for political leaders, even if it has yet to boost their popularity.

While global factors contributed to the worst of the inflation surge and most of the recent decline, domestic economic conditions are likely to matter most as central banks enter the final stage—the so-called “last mile"—of getting inflation down to their targets of around 2%.

In the U.S., inflation is ebbing, as the labor market and consumer spending cool but remain solid. This has bolstered forecasts that price pressures will keep easing without a recession.

In Europe, the economic backdrop is more challenging. The continent faces headwinds to growth, from slowing global trade and sluggish growth in China, a critical export market, to efforts by governments to slow spending. Germany’s constitutional court on Wednesday ruled against a move by Chancellor Olaf Scholz‘s government to repurpose €60 billion in unused pandemic funds to finance green energy initiatives, creating a large hole in the state budget.

European households have also been more reluctant than their U.S. counterparts to spend pandemic-era savings. All that could lead to a deeper downturn and sharper drop in inflation in Europe, prompting earlier rate cuts by the ECB.

Despite the likelihood of lower interest rates ahead, a return to the period of ultra low interest rates that preceded the pandemic is deemed unlikely by many economists and investors, reflecting rising geopolitical tensions and demographic pressures.

Workforces are likely to shrink across major economies, including China, over the coming years as millions of baby boomers retire, driving up wages. And friction between China and the West will likely raise manufacturing costs as companies shift factories to other countries.

Write to Tom Fairless at tom.fairless@wsj.com and Paul Hannon at paul.hannon@wsj.com

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