The European Central Bank has found itself caught in the crossfire of a battle raging between the world’s leading macroeconomists.
The Bank for International Settlements’ call last month for the world’s central bankers to hurry up and raise interest rates has reignited the debate over how to explain – and tackle – the financial and economic turmoil that has persisted over the past six years.
Last month, students from four continents joined forces to call for reform of the economics curriculum.
In an open letter, the students said they wanted their courses to delve into a wider range of economics theories and methodologies than the standard neo-classical model that dominates undergraduate teaching, and to learn more about the implications of policy-making.
Speaking to those students was a heartening experience – all of them struck me as extremely thoughtful and articulate. Their desire for reform seemed driven by a curiosity about the world and what economics could do to improve it.
I suspect they’ll be encouraged by comments made in a speech today by the similarly thoughtful and articulate Benoît Cœuré, who sits on the European Central Bank’s executive board.
With the eurozone facing the threat of a prolonged period of “low-flation”, the European Central Bank has been urged to stretch its monetary policy toolkit further and deploy more unconventional measures. One widely flagged option would be to cut the interest rate that banks receive for parking their money with the central bank to below its current zero level. Frankfurt would then replicate an experiment first tried by Denmark’s central bank, which in 2012 cut its deposit rate to -0.20 per cent.
As of Thursday, however, Denmark is no longer a valid comparison. The Danish National Bank has announced that, with effect from Friday, it will raise its deposit rate by 15 basis points to 0.05 per cent (it had already increased it to -0.10 per cent in January). Meanwhile, the central bankers in Copenhagen left the lending and the discount rate unchanged at 0.2 and 0 per cent respectively.
Blue sky thinking reaches Frankfurt (Getty)
Mario Draghi, European Central Bank president, has revived the idea of “reform contracts” — a policy that emerged in Brussels wonk circles last year and entails the EU contractually binding eurozone countries to economic reforms.
Speaking in Berlin on Monday, Mr Draghi told an audience of businesspeople that the eurozone needed two things to achieve sustainable growth: stabilisation and greater competitiveness.
To achieve the latter, he mentioned the need for “better ways of measuring economic performance – for example, more structural indicators of competitiveness.” And went on:
Not the ECB (Getty)
The Bundesbank has weighed in on what forward guidance means for the European Central Bank and if you want the short version it boils down to: we have not forgotten about inflation.
The ECB pledged in July to keep interest rates at or below current levels “for an extended period of time,” which, as we’ve noted before has caused some confusion as to what precisely it means.
According to Germany’s central bank, that promise does not actually mean that interest rates cannot rise or that they will necessarily remain low for a long time. As it writes in its latest monthly report:
The decisive point in correctly interpreting this statement is that it is conditional on the unchanged obligation of the Eurosystem [the ECB and the eurozone’s 17 national central banks] towards its mandate of maintaining price stability (which means, operationally, medium term inflation that is below, but close to 2 per cent)… It follows that the ECB’s governing council has not bound itself. If higher price pressures become apparent in future compared to those expected now, forward guidance in no way rules out a rise in interest rates.
Graffiti outside the ECB's future headquarters. (Getty)
Could the European Central Bank be learning a thing or two about managing the message? Ahead of Thursday’s interest rate-setting meeting, when policymakers will want to do nothing more than say “we’re holding steady”, it looks like the bank may come up with an eye-catching announcement to give everyone something to write about.
That something is the long-running and vexed question of why the bank that loves to tell you how transparent it is (well, at certain times, once you’ve cleared security and as long as you understand no quotes should be used from this conversation) keeps the minutes of its governing council meetings secret for 30 years. The practice makes it an outlier – the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and Bank of Japan all publish minutes of their monetary policy meetings within a month of the meeting that they cover.
After ditching its long-standing policy of never commenting on future interest rates in order to launch “forward guidance” last week, the European Central Bank has landed itself into something of a pickle as to what it really means when it says rates will stay at or below their current level for an “extended period”.
Mario Draghi, ECB president, was pressed on the question immediately after launching the policy last Thursday and said:
Well, I said an extended period of time is an extended period of time: it is not six months, it is not 12 months – it is an extended period of time.
That is from the official ECB transcript and has punctuation that helps to suggest that Mr Draghi was refusing to say it was any given period of time. However it was also clearly open to misinterpretation and that is why a certain amount of briefing took place after the press conference in which officials made clear that what Mr Draghi meant to do was avoid giving an answer on a time frame, rather than suggest rates would be low for at least 12 months.
So today’s comments by Jörg Asmussen, a member of the six-person ECB executive board and close ally of Mr Draghi, were all the more surprising.
Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, pulled off the feat of sounding incredibly doveish today while keeping rates on hold and actually making sure his room for manoeuvre remains as wide as possible. Here are five quick takeaways from the press conference following this month’s meeting:
Last week anti-capitalist protesters outside the European Central Bank were dominating (at least the local) news in Frankfurt, this week it was the turn of the policymakers inside the building. The ECB is keeping its rates on hold at 0.5 per cent and Mario Draghi, president, has been quizzed on where the eurozone is headed.
The ECB staff’s quarterly economic forecasts have been tweaked, so this year’s contraction is greater than previously forecast at 0.6 per cent and next year’s growth forecast creeps up to 1.1 per cent (but then a year is a long, long time in economic forecasting.)
What else have we learnt?
You still need a strong constitution or a taste for gallows humour to read most eurozone economic statistics, as today’s release of the preliminary Q1 gross domestic product
growth contraction data shows.
The bloc is now in its longest recession since the birth of the single currency, beating the post-Lehman Brothers slump in duration, though not in the depth of the downturn.