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Whatever it Takes Cannot be in Frankfurt

March 11, 2016 3 comments

Yesterday I was asked by the Italian weekly pagina99 to write a comment on the latest ECB announcement. Here is a slightly expanded English version.
Mario Draghi had no choice. The increasingly precarious macroeconomic situation, deflation that stubbornly persists, and financial markets that happily cruise from one nervous breakdown to another, had cornered the ECB. It could not, it simply could not, risk to fall short of expectations as it had happened last December. And markets have not been disappointed. The ECB stored the bazooka and pulled out of the atomic bomb. At the press conference Mario Draghi announced 6 sets of measures (I copy and paste):

  1. The interest rate on the main refinancing operations of the Eurosystem will be decreased by 5 basis points to 0.00%, starting from the operation to be settled on 16 March 2016.
  2. The interest rate on the marginal lending facility will be decreased by 5 basis points to 0.25%, with effect from 16 March 2016.
  3. The interest rate on the deposit facility will be decreased by 10 basis points to -0.40%, with effect from 16 March 2016.
  4. The monthly purchases under the asset purchase programme will be expanded to €80 billion starting in April.
  5. Investment grade euro-denominated bonds issued by non-bank corporations established in the euro area will be included in the list of assets that are eligible for regular purchases.
  6. A new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO II), each with a maturity of four years, will be launched, starting in June 2016. Borrowing conditions in these operations can be as low as the interest rate on the deposit facility.

Items 1-3 depict a further decrease of interest rates. Answering a question Mario Draghi hinted that rates will be lower for a long period, but also that this may be the lower bound (sending markets in an immediate tailspin; talk of rational, well thought decisions). The “tax” the ECB imposes on excess reserves, the liquidity that financial institutions keep idle, is now at -0,4%. Not insignificant.

But the real game changer are the subsequent items, that really represent an innovation. Items 4-5 announce an acceleration of the bond buying program, and more importantly its extension to non-financial corporations, which changes its very nature. In fact, the purchase of non-financial corporations’ securities  makes the ECB a direct provider of funding  for the real sector. With these quasi-fiscal operations the ECB has therefore taken a step towards what economists call “helicopter money”, i.e. the direct financing of the economy cutting the middlemen of the financial and banking sector.

Finally, item 6, a new series of long-term loan programs, with the important innovation that financial institutions which lend the money to the real sector will obtain negative rates, i.e. a subsidy. This measure is intended to lift the burden for banks of the negative rates on reserves, at the same time forcing them to grant credit: The banks will be “paid” to borrow, and then will make a profit as long as they place the money in government bonds or lend to the private sector, even at zero interest rates.

To summarize, it is impossible for the ECB to do more to push financial institutions to increase the supply of credit. Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that credit will increase and the economy rebound. There is debate among economists about why quantitative easing has not worked so far. I am among those who think that the anemic eurozone credit market can be explained both by insufficient demand and supply. If credit supply increases, but it is not followed by demand, then today’s atomic bomb will evolve into a water gun. With the added complication that financial institutions that fail to lend, will be forced to pay a fee on excess reserves.

But maybe, this “swim or sink” situation is the most positive aspect of yesterday’s announcement. If the new measures will prove to be ineffective like the ones that preceded them, it will be clear, once and for all, that monetary policy can not get us out of the doldrums, thus depriving governments (and the European institutions) of their alibi. It will be clear that only a large and coordinated fiscal stimulus can revive the European economy. Only time will tell whether the ECB has the atomic bomb or the water gun (I am afraid I know where I would place my bet). In the meantime, the malicious reader could have fun calculating: (a) How many months of QE would be needed to cover the euro 350 billion Juncker Plan, that painfully saw the light after eight years of crisis, and that, predictably, is even more painfully being implemented. (b) How many hours of QE would be needed to cover the 700 million euros that the EU, also very painfully, agreed to give Greece, to deal with the refugee influx.