I must say I am puzzled by today’s decision of the ECB to leave rates unchanged. It simply does not fit with what Mario Draghi said during the press conference. Let me quote him.
Inflation expectations for the euro area continue to be firmly anchored in line with our aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term. At the same time, weak economic activity has extended into the early part of the year and a gradual recovery is projected for the second half of this year, subject to downside risks. Against this overall background our monetary policy stance will remain accommodative for as long as needed.
If words actually mean what they mean, Draghi informed us that (a) inflation, and inflation expectations, are in line with forecasts and objectives; (b) at the same time, economic activity is weaker than expected, and the future recovery is at risk; (c) the ECB is willing to have an accommodative monetary stance.
Two considerations: first, the king is naked; it was obvious from the very beginning that the recovery in the second half of the year was not in the cards. I already discussed the systematic bias in official forecasts. It turns out that simply saying to markets that things will go well, is not sufficient to make them act accordingly. The confidence fairy, as Krugman calls it, is nowhere to be seen. I would add that this systematic bias risks making EMU institutions less credible, and hence further weaken their capacity to anchor private sectors’ expectations…
And then the puzzle: if inflation is under control, and if economic activity is weak, and if the ECB deems accommodation to be needed, why, why on earth are rates kept constant? Should we remind to Mario Draghi what is written in article 127 of the Lisbon Treaty?
The primary objective of the European System of Central Banks, hereinafter referred to as “ESCB”, shall be to maintain price stability. Without prejudice to the objective of price stability, the ESCB shall support the general economic policies in the Union with a view to contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the Union as laid down in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union.
Among the general policies that the ECB should support there is growth and employment. And lowering the rates today would certainly not lead to “prejudice to the objective of price stability”
Why is the ECB so frightened to send the signal to markets that it is ready to boost economic activity? Is there an hidden agenda we are unaware of?
There are signs of optimism around. Cautiously, policy makers and commentators start discussing the shape (and the fragility) of the future recovery. Martin Wolf on the Financial Times already speculates on the timing of reversal to a normal state of affairs. Wolf is rightly worried by the temptation to reverse policies too fast, a mistake we made already at the end of 2009, when stimulus plans were reversed into consolidation far too soon.
As a rule of thumb, I’d argue that exceptional involvement of governments in the economy should stop when the private sector is ready to take the witness. Stimulus plans and monetary easing should be rolled back once private spending resumes (or is ready to resume), and when the credit market is sufficiently loose. So the question is, how does private sector behaviour fit, within this moderate optimistic mood? Not too well I am afraid… Read More
Two articles on today’s Financial Times puzzle me. The first (Weidmann warns of currency war risk) offers yet another example of how economic analysis sometimes leaves the way to ideological beliefs. The Bundesbank’s president argues (as he already did in the past) that giving up inflation targeting hampers central bank independence. How? Why? He does not bother explaining.
What I think he has in mind is that once the objective of the central bank goes beyond strict inflation targeting, monetary policy needs an arbitrage between often conflicting objectives (typically unemployment and inflation). It is the essence of the dual mandate. This of course moves monetary policy out of the realm of technocratic choice, and makes it a political institution (Stephen King explains it nicely). I would argue that this is normal once we abandon the ideal-type of frictionless neoclassical economics, and we accept that we may have a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment. But this is not the issue here. The issue, and the puzzle, is why transforming the choice from technocratic to political, should necessarily lead to giving up independence. Read more
I have read an interesting article by Wolfgang Münchau, on the Financial Times. To summarize, Münchau argues that because of politician’s complacency, there is a chance that the new OMTs program launched by the ECB will never be used, and hence prove ineffective in boosting the economy. He therefore argues that the ECB should have done like the Fed, and announce an unconditional bond purchase program (private and public alike).
The piece is interesting because Münchau is at the same time right, and off the target. It is worth trying to clarify.
What to do of yesterday’s decision of the ECB? The tree looks
very rather nice, the forest much less. First, a look at what Mario Draghi announced:
- “[...] the Governing Council today decided on the modalities for undertaking Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs) in secondary markets for sovereign bonds in the euro area. [...] We aim to preserve the singleness of our monetary policy and to ensure the proper transmission of our policy stance to the real economy throughout the area. OMTs will enable us to address severe distortions in government bond markets which originate from, in particular, unfounded fears on the part of investors of the reversibility of the euro. [...] we act strictly within our mandate to maintain price stability over the medium term.” The technical note accompanying the decision explicitly states what markets wanted to know: “No ex ante quantitative limits are set on the size of Outright Monetary Transactions” In other words, bond purchases will be unlimited.The technical note also specifies the conditionality, the fact that the purchases will be on short maturities, and that they will be fully sterilized.
- Let’s go back to Draghi: “we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged. [...] inflation rates are expected to remain above 2% throughout 2012, to fall below that level again in the course of next year and to remain in line with price stability over the policy-relevant horizon.“
To summarize, the ECB will try to bring down the spreads, acting within its mandate, because speculation is perturbing the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and threatening stability. This can also help explain the decision to keep the rates unchanged: there is no point in using that lever, unless it is sure it works.
Why is the tree rather good? And what makes the forest more worrisome? The tree first.
Countries like the United States, Japan or the United Kingdom can finance their debt at zero or negative real interest rates. This in spite of debt levels higher than those of the euro area, and growth forecasts that are not necessarily better. Meanwhile, the eurozone peripheral countries have to deal on a daily basis with the mood of markets, and to pay interests on debt at the limit of sustainability.
The reasons for this state of affairs are clear, and have been repeatedly mentioned. Eurozone countries are forced to borrow in a currency that they do not issue: the euro is in effect a foreign currency. To quote Paul de Grauwe,
In a nutshell the difference in the nature of sovereign debt between members and non-members of a monetary union boils down to the following. Members of a monetary union issue debt in a currency over which they have no control. It follows that financial markets acquire the power to force default on these countries. This is not the case in countries that are no part of a monetary union, and have kept control over the currency in which they issue debt. These countries cannot easily be forced into default by financial markets.
In other words, peripheral eurozone countries are in the same situation of Latin America in the eighties: they are forced to pay high risk premia to markets fearing the risk of default, induced by the vicious circle austerity-recession-debt burden.
The Brussels EU Summit is extremely negative for the decisions that have been taken:
- We are going to converge towards a “German Europe”, based on fiscal austerity and on compression of domestic demand. The stubbornness in rejecting any role for active macroeconomic policies is scary, especially as we are still engulfed into a crisis that could have been substantially worse, were it not for the stimulus packages of 2009. Just ask a question: where would the EU be, if the rules Germany wants, were already in place in 2008?
- The eurozone emerges from the Summit, once again, as the only major economy of the world that does not have a properly functioning central bank. With the support of ECB President Mario Draghi, it was once again made clear that the ECB should and would not act as a lender of last resort.
There will be time to discuss these issues, and to ask where does the EMU go (or does not go) from here.
Here I want to underline the only positive aspect of the meeting: The (self) exclusion of the UK from the process of further integration. This is seen as dangerous by most commentators. I’d argue that it is the only good news that we got from the sleepless night in Bruxelles.
The European leaders could not afford to emerge from negotiations empty-handed, and this forced them to refuse the British vetoes. For the past 38 years the UK has been constantly pushing on the brakes of European integration, obtaining (should I use the term ‘blackmailing’?) compensations and opt-out clauses for every advance that it reluctantly allowed.
The looming Armageddon gave European leaders the strength to finally break free from this grip.
Europe is finally advancing towards increased cooperation. In the wrong direction, for the reasons recalled above, but it is advancing. It is to be hoped that last night we set a precedent, and that in the future the method of enhanced cooperation will become the norm each time that a country blocks the process for selfish reasons.
I made this point in an interview this morning.
There was a lot of noise, yesterday, about the main central banks’ decision to coordinate in maximizing liquidity provision (in dollars) to households and firms. An excellent and clear explanation of what they exactly did can be found here.
Are we effectively at a turning point? I am afraid not, for essentially two reasons:
- The first is that, after an initial moment of euphoria, markets may realize what really happened, i.e. that central banks are preparing for a major Lehman-like event: If the euro breaks down, and if investors flee from it, central banks are ready to act to avoid contagion. This is reassuring, but it also informs us that the main monetary authorities of the planet are seriously considering the possibility of such an event occurring.
- Second, this move, per se, does nothing to address the main source of the problem: the lack of proper Eurozone governance, and the unwillingness of the ECB to act as a lender/buyer of last resort. Major changes on these issues would be a turning point, reducing the risk of a euro crisis, and hence making liquidity in dollars unnecessary.
A safe bet: Financial market euphoria will be short-lived.
I think it is useful to list, and assess, the main arguments advanced against an enhanced role of the ECB as a lender/buyer of last resort. I can think of four of them: credibility, inflation, irrelevance, ineffectiveness.