After the latest disappointing data on growth and
indeflation in the Eurozone, all eyes are on today’s ECB meeting. Politicians and commentators speculate about the shape that QE, Eurozone edition, will take. A bold move to contrast lowflation would be welcome news, but a close look at the data suggests that the messianic expectation of the next “whatever it takes” may be misplaced.
Faced with mounting deflationary pressures, policy makers rely on the probable loosening of the monetary stance. While necessary and welcome, such loosening may not allow embarking the Eurozone on a robust growth path. The April 2014 ECB survey on bank lending confirms that, since 2011, demand for credit has been stagnant at least as much as credit conditions have been tight. Easing monetary policy may increase the supply for credit, but as long as demand remains anemic, the transmission of monetary policy to the real economy will remain limited. Since the beginning of the crisis, central banks (including the ECB) have been very effective in preventing the meltdown of the financial sector. The ECB was also pivotal, with the OMT, in providing an insurance mechanism for troubled sovereigns in 2012. But the impact of monetary policy on growth, on both sides of the Atlantic, is more controversial. This should not be a surprise, as balance sheet recessions increase the propensity to hoard of households, firms and financial institutions. We know since Keynes that in a liquidity trap monetary policy loses traction. Today, a depressed economy, stagnant income, high unemployment, uncertainty about the future, all contribute to compress private spending and demand for credit across the Eurozone, while they increase the appetite for liquidity. At the end of 2013, private spending in consumption and investment was 7% lower than in 2008 (a figure that reaches a staggering 18% for peripheral countries). Granted, radical ECB moves, like announcing a higher inflation target, could have an impact on expectations, and trigger increased spending; but these are politically unfeasible. It is not improbable, therefore, that a “simple” quantitative easing program may amount to pushing on a string. The ECB had already accomplished half a miracle, stretching its mandate to become de facto a Lender of Last Resort, and defusing speculation. It can’t be asked to do much more than this.
While monetary policy is given almost obsessive attention, there is virtually no discussion about the instrument that in a liquidity trap should be given priority: fiscal policy. The main task of countercyclical fiscal policy should be to step in to sustain economic activity when, for whatever reason, private spending falters. This is what happened in 2009, before the hasty and disastrous fiscal stance reversal that followed the Greek crisis. The result of austerity is that while in every single year since 2009 the output gap was negative, discretionary policy (defined as change in government deficit net of cyclical factors and interest payment) was restrictive. In truth, a similar pattern can be observed in the US, where nevertheless private spending recovered and hence sustained fiscal expansion was less needed. Only in Japan, fiscal policy was frankly countercyclical in the past five years.
As Larry Summers recently argued, with interest rates at all times low, the expected return of investment in infrastructures for the United States is particularly high. This is even truer for the Eurozone where, with debt at 92%, sustainability is a non-issue. Ideally the EMU should launch a vast public investment plan, for example in energetic transition projects, jointly financed by some sort of Eurobond. This is not going to happen for the opposition of Germany and a handful of other countries. A second best solution would then be for a group of countries to jointly announce that the next national budget laws will contain important (and coordinated) investment provisions , and therefore temporarily break the 3% deficit limit. France and Italy, which lately have been vocal in asking for a change in European policies, should open the way and federate as many other governments as possible. Public investment seems the only way to reverse the fiscal stance and move the Eurozone economy away from the lowflation trap. It is safe to bet that even financial markets, faced with bold action by a large number of countries, would be ready to accept a temporary deterioration of public finances in exchange for the prospects of that robust recovery that eluded the Eurozone economy since 2008. A change in fiscal policy, more than further action by the ECB, would be the real game changer for the EMU. But unfortunately, fiscal policy has become a ghost. A ghost that is haunting Europe…
I just read an interesting piece by Nicolò Cavalli on the ECB and deflationary risks in the eurozone. The piece is in Italian, but here is a quick summary:
- Persisting high unemployment, coupled with inflation well below the 2% target, put deflation at the top of the list of ECB priorities.
- Mario Draghi was adamant that monetary policy will remain loose for the foreseeable horizon.
- As we are in a liquidity trap, the effect of quantitative easing on economic activity has been limited (in the US, UK and EMU alike).
- Then Nicolò quotes studies on quantitative easing in the UK, and notices that, like the Bank of England, the ECB faces additional difficulties, linked to the distributive effects of accommodating monetary policy:
- Liquidity injections inflate asset prices, thus increasing financial wealth, and the value of large public companies.
- Higher asset prices increase the opportunity costs of lending for financial institutions, that find it more convenient to invest on stock markets. This perpetuates the credit crunch.
- Finally, low economic activity and asset price inflation depress investment, productivity and wages, thus feeding the vicious circle of deflation.
Nicolò concludes that debt monetization seems to be the only way out for the ECB. I agree, but I don’t want to focus on this. Read more
Mario Draghi, in an interview to the Journal du Dimanche, offers an interesting snapshot of his mindset. He (correctly in my opinion) dismisses euro exit and competitive devaluations as a viable policy choices:
The populist argument that, by leaving the euro, a national economy will instantly benefit from a competitive devaluation, as it did in the good old days, does not hold water. If everybody tries to devalue their currency, nobody benefits.
But in the same (short) interview, he also argues that
We remain just as determined today to ensure price stability and safeguard the integrity of the euro. But the ECB cannot do it all alone. We will not do governments’ work for them. It is up to them to undertake fundamental reforms, support innovation and manage public spending – in short, to come up with new models for growth. [...] Taking the example of German growth, that has not come from the reduction of our interest rates (although that will have helped), but rather from the reforms of previous years.
I find it fascinating: Draghi manages to omit that German increased competitiveness mostly came from wage restraint and domestic demand compression, as showed by a current account that went from a deficit to a large surplus over the past decade. Compression of domestic demand and export-led growth, in the current non-cooperative framework, would mean taking market shares from EMU partners. This is in fact what Germany did so far, and is precisely the same mechanism we saw at work in the 1930s. Wages and prices would today take the place of exchange rates then, but the mechanism, and the likely outcome are the same. Unless…
Draghi probably has in mind a process by which all EMU countries embrace the German export-led model, and export towards the rest of the world. I have already said (here, here, and here) what I think of that. We are not a small open economy. If we depress our economy there is only so much the rest of the world can do to lift it through exports. And it remains that the second largest economy in the world deserves better than being a parasite on the shoulders of others…
As long as German economists are like the guy I met on TV last week, there is little to be optimist about…
Last Thursday the ECB cut rates, somewhat unexpectedly. This shows that it takes the risk of deflation very seriously. Good news, I’d say. But unfortunately, press conferences follow ECB Council meetings. And I say unfortunately, because Mr Draghi words often fail to match his actions. Here is what he said on Thursday (I could not resist adding some bold here and there):
If you look at the euro area from a distance, you see that the fundamentals in this area are probably the strongest in the world. This is the area that has the lowest budget deficit in the world. Our aggregate public deficit is actually a small surplus. We have a small primary surplus of 0.7%, compared with, I think, a deficit of 6 or 7% deficit in US, – 6 I think – and 8 % in Japan. This is the area with the highest current account surplus. And it is also the area, as we said before, with one of the lowest – if not the lowest – inflation rate.
Fascinating. Truly fascinating. I will pass on the fact that one of the strong “fundamentals” Mr Draghi quotes, low inflation, is actually the main source of worry for economists and policymakers worldwide, including the ECB, that had to rush into a rate cut that was not planned at least until December! I will also pass on his praise of high current account surpluses while the Commission itself is considering opening an infraction procedure against Germany, for perpetuating an important source of imbalances within the eurozone and worldwide.
No, what I find more shocking is the list of fundamentals Draghi gives: public debt and deficit; inflation; current account balance. Now, it dates back a little, but I remember all of those, in Econ 101, to be defined as instruments of economic policy, supposed to serve the final objectives of growth and employment. It is true that we do rather well in what Draghi calls fundamentals, but I continue preferring to call instruments. Look at this table:
I have reported, for ease of comparison, data from the IMF World Economic Outlook (October 2013), therefore they are not the latest (quarterly or monthly) data. Also, I have highlighted in red the worst performer, and in green the best. And boy, Draghi is right! (Notice incidentally that eurozone inflation was 2.5 percent on average in 2012. With the latest data at 0.7 percent, this suggests that we are running, not walking, towards deflation.)
But if we look at the supposed objectives of economic policy (how would Draghi call these?), the picture changes, quite a bit:
No other major advanced economy is doing nearly as badly as the eurozone in terms of unemployment and GDP. But according to the ECB President we have “the strongest fundamentals in the world”. Does this means that Draghi did not take Econ 101? No, I know for sure that he did take it, and he actually had excellent mentors. To understand Draghi’s claim, it may be useful to read his whole sentence. After arguing that the eurozone has strong fundamentals he goes on:
This does not translate automatically into a galloping recovery. But, actually, it gives you the fundamentals upon which you can pursue the right economic policies. Structural reforms are the necessary and sufficient condition for this to happen. In the absence of that, unfortunately, we are going to stay here for quite a long time.
Here is the answer. The only and one answer. Focusing on instruments instead of targets is the strategy of those who do not believe that a role exists for active economic policies. It is a pity that one of these guys is heading the second most important central bank of the world. And it is paradoxically reassuring that the situation is currently so bad that he is forced to abandon his creed and implement active monetary policies.
Advice for the next episodes: praise Mario Draghi actions, and avoid reading the transcripts of his press conferences.
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?
Il Sole 24 Ore just published an editorial I wrote with Jean-Luc Gaffard, on the structural problems facing the EU. Here is an English (slightly longer and different) version of the piece:
It is hard not to rejoice at the ECB announcement that it would buy, if necessary, an unlimited amount of government bonds. The Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program is meant to protect from speculation countries that would otherwise have no choice but to abandon the euro zone, causing the implosion of the single currency. As had to be expected, the mere announcement that the ECB was willing to act (at least partially) as a lender of last resort calmed speculation and spreads came down to more reasonable levels.
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.