Mario Draghi

Mario Draghi

  © CARLO HERMANN/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s press conference by ECB President Mario Draghi left the markets disappointed and somewhat perplexed about the shift towards quantitative easing that had just been sanctioned by the governing council (GC). Because this was focused on private sector assets, in the form of asset backed securities and covered bonds, there were doubts about whether the new policy could be implemented in sufficient size to deal with the deflationary threat in the euro area.

Mr Draghi was noticeably hesitant about giving any firm indication about the likely scale of the programme. Although private sector quantitative easing (QE) is likely to suit the needs of the euro area rather well, as I argued here, the absence of any firm guidance on scale certainly undermined the beneficial announcement effects of the policy change.

The ECB president addressed this issue on Thursday in an appearance at Brookings in Washington. This time, freed from the need to speak for the entire GC, he clearly changed his tune on the scale of the programme. But this highlighted the extent of the gap between his view and that of Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, who presented his position in a revealing interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday. It is far from obvious how this disagreement will be bridged. 

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. 

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. 

The leading central banks in the developed economies have, of course, been the main actors underpinning the global bull market in risk assets since 2009. For long periods their stance has been unequivocally dovish as they have deliberately tried to strengthen an anaemic global economic recovery by boosting asset prices.

In the past week, we have had major statements of intent from Janet Yellen, the new US Federal Reserve chairwoman; from the European Central Bank; and from the Bank of England. After multiple hours of fuzzy guidance about forward guidance, the clarity of previous years about the global policy stance has become much more murky. Central banks are no longer as obviously friendly to risk assets as they once were – but they have not become outright enemies, and they are unlikely to do so while they are concerned that price and wage inflation will remain too low for a protracted period.

It is now quite difficult to generalise about what central bankers think. However, a few of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slotted into place in the past week. 

For many years, one of the most enduring mantras of central banking was along the lines of “we never pre-commit to future actions, because all of the information we have about the state of the economy is already contained in the actions we have just announced”. Now that has been completely abandoned. With the ECB and the BoE changes announced today, the central banks are shouting from the rooftops that “we are all forward guiders now”.

In the old days, if the central banks wanted to ease or tighten policy, they just adjusted the size of the change in interest rates at any given meeting, and allowed their actions to speak for themselves. The forward path for short rates was generally very sensitive to any given change in the policy rate, so they did not have to worry too much about the impact of their policy on the yield curve. 

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]:

 

The IMF on Tuesday repeated its call for the ECB to reduce policy rates in the eurozone, and Mario Draghi came fairly close to promising action in May at his press conference after the governing council meeting on April 4. But no-one really believes that the expected 0.25 percentage point cut in the main refinancing rate will do very much to solve the eurozone’s most pressing problem, which is the lack of bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the troubled economies.

Monetary conditions in the eurozone are fragmented. Bank lending rates are, perversely, much higher in the weakest economies than they are in the core. Unless this is solved, the eurozone economy will remain in trouble.

In order to address this issue, the ECB needs to think in ways which are unconventional, and therefore unpalatable for many of the conservatives on the governing council. However, both Mario Draghi and his colleague Benoît Cœuré have recently hinted that they view measures to eliminate fragmented lending rates as essential to fulfil the mandate of the ECB. This is how they justified the introduction of the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme, which saved the euro last autumn.

They have also said that the power of the ECB in this area is limited, and have argued repeatedly that effective action will require co-operation from member governments and from the European Investment Bank (EIB). It is therefore probable that discussions are under way between the ECB and member states to decide what can be done. There are two options which could have significant beneficial effects. 

Gavyn has made some changes to the presentation of the table due to readers’ comments summarised in the footnote. The argument is not changed.

Another week, another summit. Once again, we are being told, this time by Italian prime minister Mario Monti, that there is only one week left to save the euro. Yet the crisis still does not seem sufficiently acute to persuade eurozone leaders that a full resolution is necessary.

The next summit on June 28 and 29 will unveil a long term road map towards fiscal and banking union, which in better economic circumstances could appear highly impressive. But the market is currently focused on the shorter term. Unless there is some form of debt mutualisation at the summit, resulting in a decline in government bond yields in Spain and Italy, the crisis could rapidly worsen.

Debt mutualisation can come in many forms. The European Redemption Fund, proposed by the Council of Economic Experts in Germany (and discussed here) seems to have receded into the background this week but could still have an eventual role. More immediately, the main option on the table seems to be the use of the eurozone firewall (ie a combination of the EFSF and ESM) to buy secondary government debt, or inject capital directly to the banks. But the problem here is simple: a lack of money. 

Today’s governing council meeting at the ECB marked a return to “business as usual” after the dramatic injections of liquidity into the banking system in December and February. The ECB understandably wants to return to its regular duties, where it focuses on keeping inflation below its 2 per cent long term target, and is desperate to shift the burden for other aspects of managing the eurozone economy back to member governments.

Mario Draghi’s main message in recent weeks has been that “the ball is in the court of governments” in three different ways: the need for fiscal consolidation, bank recapitalisation and a “growth strategy” involving labour and product market reform. Assuming satisfactory progress on these three objectives, the ECB would retire to the relative obscurity of inflation control, a place where it is always happy to find itself. “Non standard” monetary measures, which involve the use of the ECB balance sheet to finance troubled banks and sovereigns, would no longer be needed.

Unfortunately, it is improbable that the ECB will be granted its wish to remain on the sidelines for very long. The key question is how, when and where it will be called back into action. 

In the second half of 2011, the twists and turns in the eurozone crisis dominated global markets to such an extent that nothing else seemed to matter. This remained true in January and February of this year, when the strong rally in peripheral bond spreads in the eurozone coincided with an equally strong rally in global equities. But in recent weeks, the umbilical link between the eurozone crisis and global risk assets seems to have broken down. As the graph shows, peripheral bond spreads (proxied by the average of Spanish and Italian spreads over German bunds) have returned towards crisis mode, while global equities have fallen only slightly.