Yesterday, like many, I was appalled by the ECB announcement that it would stop accepting Greek bonds as collateral for loans. The timing, right after Greek finance minister Varoufakis met Draghi, but before he met German finance minister Schauble, seemed a clear signal: the ECB sides with Germany and EU institutions, and the only possible outcome it expects is a complete rolling back of Syriza electoral promises, and a renewed Greek commitment to austerity and troika-style structural reforms (privatizations plus labour market reform, to say it simply). This would of course be terrible news for Europe (these recipes simply did not work, this is acknowledge everywhere from the IMF to the White House, passing by Downing Street). And terrible news for democracy as well. The signal to voters would be “Enjoy your day at the polls. Then we decide in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin”.
Appalling, I said. This morning I have read a different, very interesting interpretation by Frances Coppola. Please read the piece. Is wonderfully written. In a few sentences, it says that the ECB move may not be pressure just on Greece, but on both sides involved, i.e. on Germany as well. In a sort of mega game of chess, by weakening Greece, by pushing it closer to the edge of the cliff, the ECB forces both sides to actively look for a deal, in order to avoid the catastrophic effect of Grexit. Coppola mentions the principle of “coercive deficiency” (famously applied to nuclear deterrence): a weaker Greece makes it run out of options, and hence a deal unavoidable.
Boy, I hope Frances is right! The alternative interpretation, United Creditors Against Greece, would mean the end of the Euro. And it is true that the practical implications of yesterday’s decision are in the end limited. But I remain worried, for at least two reasons.
- The first is that if the ECB were trying (in a convoluted way) to set the stage for a deal, it should push Greece closer to the cliff, while at the same time showing at least some willingness to negotiate. Now, it seems that the ECB is not willing even to grant an extension of maturities. This is at odds with the interpretation of the ECB as setting the ground for a deal
- Second, even assuming the ECB were in fact trying to crate the conditions for a deal, the game would be dangerous indeed, because it relies on Germany’s leaders to be good chess players! Leaving metaphors aside, it seems that Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble are trapped in their own narrative of debt as a morality tale, in which punishment of the sinners is by definition impossible. So the question becomes whether they would recognize that pushing Greece off the cliff would entail huge costs for the EU at large. And even if they recognize it, they may be willing to pay the price “to teach the sinners a lesson”
Difficult times ahead. I am not optimist
It seems that we finally have our Bazooka. Quantitative Easing will be put in place; its size is slightly larger than expected (€60bn a month), and Mario Draghi, once again, seems to have gotten what he wanted in his confrontation with hawks within and outside the ECB (I won’t comment on risk sharing. I am far from clear about the consequences of that).
And yet, something is just not right. I am afraid that QE will end up like LTRO and all the other liquidity injections the ECB performed in the past. What bothers me is not the shape of the program (given the political constraints, one could hardly imagine something more radical), but Draghi’s press conference. Here is a quote from the introductory statement:
Monetary policy is focused on maintaining price stability over the medium term and its accommodative stance contributes to supporting economic activity. However, in order to increase investment activity, boost job creation and raise productivity growth, other policy areas need to contribute decisively. In particular, the determined implementation of product and labour market reforms as well as actions to improve the business environment for firms needs to gain momentum in several countries. It is crucial that structural reforms be implemented swiftly, credibly and effectively as this will not only increase the future sustainable growth of the euro area, but will also raise expectations of higher incomes and encourage firms to increase investment today and bring forward the economic recovery. Fiscal policies should support the economic recovery, while ensuring debt sustainability in compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact, which remains the anchor for confidence. All countries should use the available scope for a more growth-friendly composition of fiscal policies.
And here the answer to a question, even more explicit:
What monetary policy can do is to create the basis for growth, but for growth to pick up, you need investment. For investment you need confidence, and for confidence you need structural reforms. The ECB has taken a further, very expansionary measure today, but it’s now up to the governments to implement these structural reforms, and the more they do, the more effective will be our monetary policy. That’s absolutely essential, as well as the fiscal consolidation side. So structural reforms is one thing, budget and fiscal consolidation is a different issue. It’s very important to have in place a so-called growth-friendly fiscal consolidation for confidence strengthening. This combined with a monetary policy which is very expansionary, which has been and is even more so after our decisions today, is actually the optimal combination. But for this now, we need the actions by the governments, and we need the action also by the Commission, both in its overseeing role of fiscal policies and in its implementing the investment plan, which was launched by the President of the Commission, which was certainly welcome at the time, now has to be implemented with speed. Speed is of the essence.
The message could not be any clearer: Draghi expects the QE program to impact economic activity through private spending. What we have here is the nt-th comeback of the confidence fairy: accommodative monetary policy, structural reforms and fiscal consolidation, will cause a private expenditure surge (“[..] but will also raise expectations of higher incomes and encourage firms to increase investment today and bring forward the economic recovery“). We have been told this many times since 2010.
Unfortunately, it did not work like this, and I am afraid it will not this time either. The private sector signals in all surveys available that it is not ready to resume spending. If governments are not given the possibility to spend more, most of the liquidity injected into the system will remain idle, exactly as it was the case for the (T)LTRO.
The concept of countercyclical policies is so trivial as to become commonsensical: Governments should step in when markets step out, and withdraw when markets step in again. Filling the gap will actually sustain economic activity, and crowd-in private expenditure; more so, much more so, than filling the pockets of agents with money they are not willing to spend. This is the essence of Keynes. Since 2010 in Europe governments rushed to the exit together with markets; joint deleveraging meant depressed economy. How could one be surprised that confidence does not return?
I would like to add that invoking more active fiscal policy within the limits of the Treaties has the flavour of a bad joke. Just so as we understand what we are talking about, the EMU 18 in 2014 had a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 2.6% (preliminary estimates by the Commission, Ameco database); this means that to remain within the Treaty a fiscal stimulus would have to be limited to 0.4% of GDP. How large would the multiplier have to be, for this to lift the eurozone economy out of deflation? Even the most ardent Keynesian would have a hard time claiming that!! And also, so as we don’t forget, at less than 95% of GDP EMU, Gross public debt can hardly be seen as an obstacle to a serious fiscal stimulus. Even in the short run.
The point I want to make is that QE is all very good, but European governments need to be put in condition to spend the money. It is tiring to repeat the same thing again and again: in a liquidity trap monetary policy can only be a companion to the main tool that could be used by policy makers: fiscal policy.
But in Europe, bad economic policy is today considered a virtue.
Tomorrow’s ECB decision on Quantitative Easing is awaited like a messiah (it would be interesting to see what happens if the ECB does not announce QE). We’ll see the shape this takes, but I already argued some time ago that excessive expectations on ECB action stem from the suicidal neglect of fiscal policy, the instrument of choice at times of liquidity traps. Mario Draghi and the ECB Governing Council are given an excessive burden by the inertia of governments trapped in ideology and/or in a crazy fiscal rule.
There will be time to assess the shape and the impact of tomorrow’s decisions. Here I want to focus on one aspect of all this that is not sufficiently emphasized. Even the bolder and more effective Quantitative Easing program would come unacceptably late. The ECB should have stepped in to sustain economic activity much earlier, at least in 2012, when its counterparts launched their own programs; or possibly earlier, given the Eurozone specific sovereign debt crisis. But it did not, mostly because it was politically impossible to take such a decision without the threat of deflation looming on the eurozone.
And I get to my point. I just saw a paper by Philippe Martin and Thomas Philippon (here a VoxEU column presenting its main results) that tries to disentangle the impact of different shocks on the crisis, and runs a number of counterfactual experiments. Its conclusion are interesting and commonsensical. The first is that except for Greece, more prudent fiscal policies in the early 2000s would not have been effective in preventing or softening the private deleveraging shock that happened from 2008. Only if more prudent fiscal policies had been coupled with macroprudential policies (i.e., curbing private leverage in the first place), there would have been an impact on the crisis. The counterfactual I found more interesting is the one on the “Whatever it Takes” OMTs program. The authors ask whether the OMT, if implemented in 2008 and not in late 2012, would have made a difference, and the answer is a clear yes. If through ECB insurance spreads had been kept low, peripheral countries would have had the fiscal space to counter the crisis, and unemployment would have been reabsorbed. Interestingly, the authors neglect the impact of the 3% limit on public deficits. Of course, had they introduced a fiscal rule limiting fiscal space, the impact of OMT would have been less glorious.
The way I see it (I am not sure the authors would have the same interpretation), Martin and Philippon show that the roots of EMU problems are institutional. If we had a normal central bank, capable of acting as a Lender of Last Resort, and of insuring the euro denominated debt; if we had normal governments, capable of using fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool, then… well, then we would be the US! The crisis would have hit hard because excessive leverage did not depend on macroeconomic governance, but policy could have been reactive and coordinated, thus leading to a recovery like the one we saw in the US (while I hear those who complain about policy and about the state of the economy in the US, it is undeniable that their economic performance is orders of magnitude better than our own!). Of course, the US also have a system of fiscal transfers that we can only dream of…
So our problem is that we don’t have normal institutions for macroeconomic governance. Macroeconomic policy in the EMU is the result of political skirmishes, and rests more on the diplomatic capacities of Mario Draghi Angela Merkerl, or Alexis Tsipras, than on a clear assessment of problems and solutions. Furthermore, this (mal)functioning yields last-minute decisions, only if under threat (OMT because of speculation on periphery’s debt; QE because of deflation).
We are in the eight year of the crisis, and the trending topics among European elites are QE, and the Juncker plan. The former will likely be a byzantine compromise between Mario Draghi and the German government (as a side note: what about central bank independence, Mrs Merkel? Wasn’t that one of the things that you kept in such high consideration that you did not want it endangered by debt monetization?); the Juncker plan is simply an empty box. And they both come into the picture way too late, as the need for expansionary fiscal and monetary policies was clear at least since 2010.
The new European motto should be too little too late.
Update: The Court ruled the OMT “Legal in Principle“. The final ruling will be later this year, but it is safe to assume that it will confirm the preliminary one.
Today is an important day for the ECB, as the European Court of Justice will issue an interim ruling on the Outright Monetary Transactions program launched in the fall of 2012. The Court needs to rule, upon demand by the German Constitutional Court, whether the program overstepped the boundaries set by the Treaties to ECB action. The ruling of course may have an impact on furture action by the ECB, notably the decision to launch a round of QE.
I think it is important to clarify once more that QE and the OMT (welcome to the wonderful world of EU acronyms) are not the same thing. If Mario Draghi manages to rally the Governing Council behind him, QE will consist of a vast program of sovereign bond purchases, in order to try to lift the European economy out of deflation. A European version in short, of what was done three years ago by the Fed and other major central banks in the world.
The OMT responded to a very different need, notably the need to defuse speculation on sovereign debt markets and to protect peripheral countries (at the time Spain and Italy) from the risk of default. The summer of 2012 was very difficult, as economic and political problems in Greece caused investors to flee from peripheral countries and spreads on sovereign bonds to increase at unprecedented levels. After the “whatever it takes” speech in July (But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough), the ECB in September engaged almost unanimously to step in the market for sovereign bonds and, if necessary, to stretch its mandate by acting as a lender/buyer of last resort for countries in trouble.
With the OMT program, the ECB commits to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds of countries in trouble that request assistance, thus de facto transforming itself into a lender of last resort. In exchange for ECB protection countries need to engage in a program of fiscal austerity and structural reforms. In other words with the OMT program the ECB offered insurance in exchange for reforms and austerity. A deal that would entail the loss of a good deal of sovereignty. It is not by chance that Spain always refused to apply for the program, in spite of heavy pressure, and that as of today no country ever used it. At the time the OMT program was wrongly interpreted as a clumsy attempt to implement quantitative easing in the Eurozone. It was instead clear, since the beginning that, as with any insurance scheme, its success would be measured precisely by the fact that the ECB would not have to intervene on bond markets.
So we need to be clear here. The European Court of Justice today and in the next months will not be deciding on QE and macroeconomic management. It will be deciding whether the EMU has the right to rely on an insurance mechanism that all countries have . It will be deciding whether EMU governments borrow in their own currency, or in a foreign one. A major decision indeed.
I have just read Mario Draghi’s opening remarks at the Brookings Institution. Nothing very new with respect to Jackson Hole and his audition at the European Parliament. But one sentence deserves commenting; when discussing how to use fiscal policy, Draghi says that:
Especially for those [countries] without fiscal space, fiscal policy can still support demand by altering the composition of the budget – in particular by simultaneously cutting distortionary taxes and unproductive expenditure.
So, “restoring fiscal policy” should happen, at least in countries in trouble, through a simultaneous reduction of taxes and expenditure. Well, that sounds reasonable. So reasonable that it is exactly the strategy chosen by the French government since the famous Jean-Baptiste Hollande press conference, last January.
Oh, wait. What was that story of balanced budgets and multipliers? I am sure Mario Draghi remembers it from Economics 101. Every euro of expenditure cuts, put in the pockets of consumers and firms, will not be entirely spent, but partially saved. This means that the short term impact on aggregate demand of a balanced budget expenditure reduction is negative. Just to put it differently, we are told that the risk of deflation is real, that fiscal policy should be used, but that this would have to happen in a contractionary way. Am I the only one to see a problem here?
But Mario Draghi is a fine economist, many will say; and his careful use of adjectives makes the balanced budget multiplier irrelevant. He talks about distortionary taxes. Who would be so foolish as not to want to remove distortions? And he talks about unproductive expenditure. Again, who is the criminal mind who does not want to cut useless expenditure? Well, the problem is that, no matter how smart the expenditure reduction is, it will remain a reduction. Similarly, even the smartest tax reduction will most likely not be entirely spent; especially at a time when firms’ and households’ uncertainty about the future is at an all-times high. So, carefully choosing the adjectives may hide, but not eliminate, the substance of the matter: A tax cut financed with a reduction in public spending is recessionary, at least in the short run.
To be fair there may be a case in which a balanced budget contraction may turn out to be expansionary. Suppose that when the government makes one step backwards, this triggers a sudden burst of optimism so that private spending rushes to fill the gap. It is the confidence fairy in all of its splendor. But then, Mario Draghi (and many others, unfortunately) should explain why it should work now, after having been invoked in vain for seven years.
Truth is that behind the smoke screen of Draghinomics and of its supposed comprehensive approach we are left with the same old supply side reforms that did not lift the eurozone out of its dire situation. It’ s the narrative, stupid!
Update (9/30): Eurostat just released the September figures for inflation: Headline: 0.3%, Core, 0.7%
Hans Werner Sinn did it again. In the Financial Times he violently attacks Mario Draghi and the ECB. To summarize his argument (but read it, it is beyond imagination):
- The ECB gave too much liquidity to banks in peripheral EMU countries since 2008, thus fueling a spending boom.
- Then, with the SMP and the OMT programs it “lowered the interest rates at which overstretched eurozone members could obtain credit and reversed the losses of their foreign creditors, triggering another borrowing binge”
- Finally, “The ECB’s plan to purchase [private borrower’s] debt could end up transferring dozens if not hundreds of billions of euros from eurozone taxpayers to the creditors of these hapless individuals and companies.”
- Last (but not least!!) he claims that deflation is necessary in EMU peripheral countries to restore competitiveness
I am shocked. Let me start from the last point. Even assuming that competitiveness only had a cost dimension, what would be required is that the differential with Germany and core countries were negative. Deflation in the periphery is therefore only necessary because Germany stubbornly refuses to accept higher inflation at home. And no, the two things are not equivalent, because deflation in a highly leveraged economy increases the burden of debt, and triggers a vicious circle deflation-high debt burden-consumption drop-deflation. I refuse to believe that a respected economist like Hans Werner Sinn does not see such a trivial point…
As for the rest, the spending binge in peripheral countries began much earlier than in 2008, and it is safe to assume that it was fueled by excess savings in the core much more than by expansionary monetary policies.
Further, does Sinn know what a lender of last resort is? Does he know what is “too big to fail”? Where was he when European authorities were designing institutions incapable of managing the business cycle, while forgetting to put in place a decent regulatory framework for banks and financial institutions?
And finally, does Mr Sinn remember what was the situation in the summer of 2012? Does he remember the complete paralysis of European governments that were paralyzed in front of speculative attacks to two large Eurozone economies? Does he realize that were it not for the OMT and the “whatever it takes”, today Spain and Italy would not be in the Euro anymore? Which means that probably the single currency today would not exist? Maybe he does, and he decided to join the AfD…
Yesterday I quickly commented the disappointing growth data for Germany and for the EMU as a whole, whose GDP Eurostat splendidly defines “stable”. This is bad, because the recovery is not one, and because we are increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for that growth that we should be able to generate domestically.
Having said that, the real bad news did not come from Eurostat, but from the August 2014 issue of the ECB monthly bulletin, published on Wednesday. Thanks to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard I noticed the following chart ( page 53):
The interesting part of the chart is the blue dotted line, showing that the forecasters’ consensus on longer term inflation sees more than a ten points drop of the probability that inflation will stay at 2% or above. Ten points in just a year. And yet, just a few pages above we can read:
According to Eurostat’s flash estimate, euro area annual HICP inflation was 0.4% in July 2014, after 0.5% in June. This reflects primarily lower energy price inflation, while the annual rates of change of the other main components of the HICP remained broadly unchanged. On the basis of current information, annual HICP inflation is expected to remain at low levels over the coming months, before increasing gradually during 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, inflation expectations for the euro area over the medium to long term continue to be firmly anchored in line with the aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% (p. 42, emphasis added)
The ECB is hiding its head in the sand, but expectations, the last bastion against deflation, are obviously not firmly anchored. This can only mean that private expenditure will keep tumbling down in the next quarters. It would be foolish to hope otherwise.
So we are left with good old macroeconomic policy. I did not change my mind since my latest piece on the ECB. Even if the ECB inertia is appalling, even if their stubbornness in claiming that everything is fine (see above) is more than annoying, even if announcing mild QE measures in 2015 at the earliest is borderline criminal, it remains that I have no big faith in the capacity of monetary policy to trigger decent growth. The latest issue of the ECB bulletin also reports the results of the latest Eurozone Bank Lending Survey. They show a slow easing of credit conditions, that proceed in parallel with a pickup of credit demand from firms and households. While for some countries credit constraints may play a role in keeping private expenditure down (for example, in Italy), the overall picture for the EMU is of demand and supply proceeding in parallel. Lifting constraints to lending, in this situation, does not seem likely to boost credit and spending. It’s the liquidity trap, stupid!
The solution seems to be one, and only one: expansionary fiscal policy, meaning strong increase in government expenditure (above all for investment) in countries that can afford it (Germany, to begin with); and delayed consolidation for countries with struggling public finances. Monetary policy should accompany this fiscal boost with the commitment to maintain an expansionary stance until inflation has overshot the 2% target.
For the moment this remains a mid-summer dream…