Eurozone

Tuesday’s extremely weak German industrial production figures published for August have come an awkward time for the German government. An informal “employment conference” including some EU leaders has been called by Italian Prime Minister Renzi, and it is scheduled to take place, amid little advance publicity, in Milan on Wednesday. This will presumably set the stage for the next European Council meeting on October23. In between will be the International Monetary Fund/World Bank annual meetings in Washington, when the German approach to economic policy in the euro area will be heavily scrutinised.

The official German line heading into these meetings is that the recovery is proceeding well, both in Germany and in the euro area as a whole, implying that the recent marked weakening in both gross domestic product and inflation data are just a temporary aberration. There is no sign that the Merkel administration is ready to change its longstanding formula for economic success in the eurozone: member states should stick to the fiscal targets in the Stability and Growth Pact, and should accelerate structural reforms, so that the expansionary monetary stance provided by the European Central Bank can bear fruit. Read more

Mario Draghi (DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)

  © Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty

Mario Draghi’s remarkable speech at Jackson Hole has raised expectations that ECB purchases of sovereign debt will be soon announced by the governing council, if not this Thursday, then perhaps by the end of the year. In all the excitement about QE, the importance of Mr Draghi’s remarks about fiscal policy have gained less attention in the markets.

Mr Draghi’s speech broke new ground for an ECB president, and this could herald a significant change in the stance of fiscal policy in the entire euro area. Unusually, fiscal policy could be as interesting for markets as monetary policy in the months ahead.

Traditionally, ECB presidents have always argued in favour of fiscal austerity, and have of course refused to countenance any form of monetisation of budget deficits. The stance on monetisation changed a few months ago, and now even the Bundesbank accepts that QE is within the terms of the treaties.

But the Germanic approach to the fiscal stance (ie the level of budget deficits, as opposed to how they are financed), is only now being seriously questioned by the ECB for the first time. Not surprisingly, this is reported to have triggered consternation in Germany, and approval in France.

Mr Draghi’s new views on fiscal policy stem from a change in his underlying analysis of the economic problem facing the euro area. This has led the ECB president to throw his weight behind a fiscal plan which is slowly emerging from the European Commission, in conjunction with France and Italy. Now that the ECB has gone public on this, the pressure on Germany to give ground has increased markedly. The debate on this subject within Germany itself is clearly becoming crucial. Read more

Although the European Central Bank took no concrete action on Thursday in the face of a decline in consumer price inflation to only 0.5 per cent in March, president Mario Draghi’s statement contained new language which has moved the goalposts for future action by the bank. By stating that the governing council is now unanimously willing to adopt quantitative easing in order to cope with prolonged low inflation, the statement substantially alleviates the risk of secular “lowflation” that has been worrying investors for some time.

To recognise the importance of this change of stance, consider what the ECB has said about QE in the past. A few years ago it tended to dismiss the option on the grounds that it was too close to direct financing of government budget deficits, and was therefore against the terms of the euro treaties. More recently, while becoming gradually less dismissive of QE on constitutional grounds, it has been unwilling to concede that unconventional monetary easing was necessary, saying that conventional measures were still available, and would be used first. Read more

The governing council of the European Central Bank meets on Thursday amid rising expectations in the market that it will signal another easing in monetary policy, either in February or March. Most ECB watchers now expect the council to cut the refinance rate by around 15 basis points before quarter end (from 0.25 per cent to 0.10 per cent), and some expect the deposit rate to be reduced into negative territory for the first time. This action would be in response to recent volatility in money market rates, and an unexpectedly low inflation rate of 0.7 per cent for the euro area in January.

If the ECB was to follow this course of action in the next couple of months, it would represent another relatively minor adjustment in its policy stance in response to surprisingly low inflation data. It is still thinking in terms of incremental changes in policy, rather than anything more dramatic. This, of course, follows from the fact that the ECB has a pessimistic view of the growth in potential output since 2008, implying that the output gap is fairly small, and that inflation in the medium term will gradually return to the target of “below but close to” 2 per cent.

This view is, however, being increasingly challenged by the data. Some forecasters now see the 12-month inflation rate falling to only 0.5 per cent in the spring, depending on the behaviour of oil prices. More importantly, core inflation also continues to drop. After the next round of interest rate cuts, the central bank will genuinely be at the zero lower bound for the first time ever. The ECB will therefore face a major problem if the inflation data confound again, and head towards zero. Read more

In recent months, inflation has again reared its head as a problem in the developed economies. But this is not because it is too high. In most countries, headline CPI inflation has been falling significantly since the end of 2011, and it has now dropped to less than 1 per cent in both the US and the euro area.

Furthermore, the pervasive decline in headline inflation has been accompanied by a similar decline in core inflation rates, which are also hovering at worryingly low levels in most countries. In fact, out of the 25 developed economies that publish regular data on Haver Analytics, only Iceland is currently experiencing an inflation rate that could be considered markedly too high by any of these measures. Read more

The ECB decided yesterday against “going negative” by reducing its deposit rate from zero to -0.25 per cent. The Governing Council again debated the pros and cons of such a measure, which would represent the first time that any of the major four central banks would ever have reduced a key policy rate to below zero [1]. Mr Draghi said again that the ECB was “technically ready” to take this action, and that the option remains “on the shelf”.

Many in the markets believe that this is just a bluff to prevent the euro from rising in the foreign exchange markets. There have been several unsupportive comments from leading members of the Governing Council (Asmussen, Mersch, Noyer and Nowotny) and Mr Draghi admitted that disagreements exist in the Council. Nevertheless, the President has deliberately left the option on the table, so it is important to understand the debate.

The technical aspects of negative rates have been very well covered in FT Alphaville recently, but I would like to focus on the broader policy implications. Why would a central bank want to take this action, and could it back-fire on them? Read more

Fiscal austerity, a concept which German Chancellor Merkel says meant nothing to her before the crisis, may have passed its heyday in the eurozone. This week, the European Commission has published its country-specific recommendations, containing fiscal plans for member states that are subject to excessive deficit procedures. These plans, which will form the basis for political discussion at the next Summit on 27-28 June, allow for greater flexibility in reaching budget targets for several countries, including France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Furthermore, there have been rumblings in the German press suggesting that Berlin is beginning to recognise that fiscal consolidation without economic growth could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. If true, this could mark the beginning of a new approach in the eurozone, helping the weakest region in the global economy to recover from a recession that has already dragged on far too long. So how real is the prospect of change? Read more

Martin Wolf’s column on Wednesday and his subsequent blogpost have once again focused attention on the importance of trade flows in the eurozone. Martin’s argument is that the German strategy of fiscal austerity and internal reform to fix the imbalances needs to change. I would like to ask a different question, which is what happens in the likely event that it does not change?

Investors, ever more optimistic that the worst of the euro crisis is over, are asking whether the German strategy might actually work. Largely unnoticed by some, eurozone trade imbalances have in fact improved dramatically in recent years. But this has happened mainly for the wrong reasons, ie recession in the south rather than any large narrowing in the competitiveness gap. The eurozone is engaged in a race between the gradual pace of internal devaluation and the mercurial nature of democratic politics. It is still not obvious how this race will end.

When the euro was launched in 1999, its supporters believed that the balance of payments crises which had plagued its weaker members for decades would become a relic of the past. The crisis revealed this view to be entirely complacent. The current account imbalances which were generated by the peripheral economies during the boom of the 2000s soon became impossible to finance after the crash. It was only the growth of so-called “Target2″ imbalances on the ECB’s balance sheet which provided the official financing which held the system together. No Target2, no euro.

However, some of the contingent credits which the Bundesbank has acquired against the rest of the ECB in the course of this process might become worthless under certain break-up scenarios, and this has become a political hot potato inside Germany. The solution, many in Germany believe, is to foster an improvement in the balance of payments positions of the troubled economies so that no further rise in the Target2 imbalances will be needed. Read more

Market expectations about Thursday’s ECB meeting had become quite bullish in the past couple of weeks (see this blog), and Mr Draghi went just far enough to justify those expectations by cutting the main repo rate by 0.25 per cent and the marginal lending rate by 0.5 per cent. This is a clever way of directing more help to those banks which need it most in the south.

Adding to his dovish tone, he talked about cutting deposit rates at the ECB into negative territory, as Denmark has already done (with moderate success), and he hinted that the ECB still has one further repo rate cut in the locker. At the less dovish end of the spectrum, he said that the ECB will not buy government bonds, which does not sound promising for Fed-style QE, should the eurozone economy continue to weaken. Read more

The recent rise in eurozone equities, along with a sharp further decline in peripheral bond spreads, has occurred in the face of continuing disappointing data on economic activity. Real GDP in the eurozone seems to be declining at a 2 per cent annualised rate in the current quarter, and the pivotal German economy is showing worrying signs of being dragged into the mire with the troubled south (see this earlier blog).

Markets are in one of those periods (which usually prove temporary) where they interpret bad economic news as being good news for asset prices, because weaker growth will result in easier policy from the central banks. In the eurozone, expectations are high that the European Central Bank will deliver lower interest rates on Thursday, and specific measures designed to address the provision of liquidity to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the south seem probable.

But a more radical easing in monetary conditions may prove necessary to drag the economy out of recession, and prevent inflation from falling further below the target, which is defined as “below but close to 2 per cent”. In March, the ECB staff forecast for inflation in 2014 was 0.6-2.0 per cent, which seems barely consistent with the mandate, especially as the recession shows no sign of ending and fiscal policy is still being tightened. Any other major central bank would be urgently reviewing its options for aggressive easing, and the markets could become very disillusioned if they sense that the ECB is unwilling to do the same.

So what, realistically, can the ECB do? The following table gives a fairly comprehensive list of the options which are definitely available within the mandate [A], those which might be available if the ECB chose to interpret its mandate more widely [B], and those which are clearly unavailable under any circumstances [C]:

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