Mixed Messages From Philippines' BSP Confound Analysts

(Bloomberg) -- Life is getting harder for Philippine central bank watchers.

Governor Nestor Espenilla has veered between statements that analysts say are both hawkish and dovish in the past month. While he’s voiced concern about price pressures broadening out in the economy and his own forecasts show inflation will breach the central bank’s target, the central bank has been reluctant to tighten policy.

And even though the economy may be at risk of overheating as it grows more than 6 percent, the reserve ratio was cut in March, injecting more liquidity in the market.

“There is a communication issue from the central bank that’s making it harder to predict what they’re going to do next and making it more difficult to price securities,” said Jomar Lacson, head of equity research at Atram Trust Corp. in Manila. “When you talk to people, there’s a consensus that the central bank is behind the curve.”

A growing number of economists expect some tightening soon, possibly as early as Thursday. Six of the 17 economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict the benchmark rate would be raised to 3.25 percent from a record-low 3 percent this week, while the rest expect no change.

After the release of a new consumer price series in March that showed the inflation target may be under threat, Espenilla said the central bank won’t necessarily respond to one month’s data since monetary policy acts with a lag. Later that same day, the governor said they will do “everything necessary to protect our inflation target,” comments that were considered hawkish.

Add to that are recent statements from Deputy Governor Diwa Guinigundo, who said he sees no need to tighten policy “at this point” and monetary board member Felipe Medalla, who said this week the central bank doesn’t need to follow the Federal Reserve in raising rates.

Currency Slump

The currency, which has taken a knock since last year because of a widening current-account deficit, has continued to underperform as the central bank drags its feet. The peso has dropped more than 4 percent against the dollar this year, the worst performer in Asia.

The peso was little changed at 52.084 per dollar as of 3:35 p.m. in Manila on Tuesday, while the Philippine Stock Exchange index fell for third day, dropping 1.9 percent to its lowest since August.

“Signals from policy makers have been mixed,” said Gundy Cahyadi, an economist at DBS Group Holdings Ltd. in Singapore. “We continue to think that rate hikes are crucial, on the back of higher inflation and sustained depreciation pressure on the peso.”

Espenilla, who took office in July, declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg News.

A switch in the base year to 2012 helped to keep inflation at 3.9 percent last month, compared with 4.5 percent in the old series. The central bank’s target is to keep inflation at an average of 2 percent to 4 percent from 2018 to 2020.

Inflation Expectations

Both data series show persistent price pressure that point to higher rates, Atram’s Lacson said, and core inflation is also rising.

The central bank’s view is that the pickup in prices is temporary, so it can afford to wait. Espenilla has said inflation will probably be well within the target in 2019, while the cut in the reserve requirement shouldn’t be considered an easing measure.

“There is no need to raise at this time,” said Ruben Carlo Asuncion, chief economist at Union Bank of the Philippines in Manila. “Inflation is within expectations, and macroeconomic stability and prospects are intact.”

The policy meeting on Thursday is making traders anxious. Bangko Sentral has surprised economists only four times out of 84 scheduled decisions in the last decade.

“We’re on the edge of our seats,” said Dave Estacio, head of government securities trading at First Metro Investment Corp. in Manila. “While expectations of higher rates remain, dealers would stay defensive.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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