On July 26th 2012, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi told a London conference of bankers : “the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to save the euro”. He paused, somewhat theatrically. “And believe me, it will be enough.” His comments were an exercise in expectations management. The ECB was trying to convince financial markets that betting on the euro’s downfall would be a fool’s errand.
To all appearances, the plan seems to have worked. In the first half of 2012, investors had been withdrawing capital at an accelerating pace from Spain and Italy. Banks had been finding it increasingly difficult to get funding. Borrowing costs for the Spanish and Italian governments had risen to unsustainable levels. After Draghi’s comments in July, the ECB announced it would buy government bonds in Spain and Italy in unlimited quantities, if necessary (a plan it dubbed Outright Monetary Transactions, or OMT). This plan has not yet been activated, but Spanish and Italian borrowing costs have fallen by a fifth. This has led some to claim that the worst of the euro crisis is behind us. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president, said that “the existential threat to the euro has essentially been overcome”. The Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, said the crisis is “almost over”. Is this so ?
Before the ECB announced its plan, markets had been pushing for it to act more like the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England. Countries whose central banks had bought government bonds in exchange for newly created money – quantitative easing (QE) – have not suffered from capital flight, unlike the euro’s periphery. In 2009, the British government faced a banking bust and public sector deficit of a similar scale to those of Spain, Portugal and Ireland, but has since avoided their financial woes.
QE provided monetary stimulus, even as central bank interest rates could not go any lower. Moreover, it served to put a ceiling on government borrowing costs. This helped governments to fund their deficits in the short term. It also helped domestic banks get cheaper funding : they use government bonds as collateral and as safe assets that they can easily sell in exchange for money or more risky assets. When government borrowing costs rise, government bonds fall in value. This covers the balance sheets of the banks that hold them in red ink. QE also changed expectations : investors knew that if they dumped American or British government bonds, the Fed or the Bank of England would simply buy them up, swapping them for new money. So there was little point in trying it.
Thus, the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England defined investors’ expectations, and made government borrowing safe and financial markets stable. The ECB’s interventions so far have been less far-reaching. It has lent money to banks at very low interest rates, and it has continued to accept the periphery’s government bonds as collateral. It has bought some government bonds – but exchanged them for money already in the system, so that there was no further monetary stimulus. But it has not done as much as its counterparts to make government debt safe.
The ECB’s OMT plan amounts to a promise to do QE, in a limited way, at some point in the future. The central bank said it would buy up the bonds of troubled governments if the integrity of the euro were threatened. The quid pro quo : governments must sign up to budget management by the Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the ECB. Spain and Italy have so far been reluctant to do so : borrowing costs came down after Draghi’s announcement, and governments have preferred to wait and see.
Will the current rally continue without the plan being activated ? It seems unlikely. The eurozone as a whole is in recession. Spain and Italy’s economies are likely to shrink for most of next year : the European Commission projects GDP to fall by 1.4 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively. The Commission has consistently underestimated the impact of austerity on growth, and so these figures may turn out to be quite a lot worse, further undermining government finances. Little progress has been made on banking union, which would help to shore up banks’ and governments’ books. Given these conditions, markets are likely to test the ECB’s commitment to hold the currency together.
If Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs spike again, they will quickly sign up to budgetary oversight and the ECB will start buying bonds. If the ECB buys enough, it should secure the currency from immediate break-up. But there would still be grinding economic stagnation, years of high unemployment, and a fraught federalising process to create a currency union that works. A party committed to withdrawal from the single currency could win power and fulfil its mandate, pulling the eurozone apart. And this possibility, even if it failed to materialise, would hold back economic growth, because private investors would be deterred. The peripheral countries, which desperately need investment if they are to grow, would still be forced to pay premiums by financial markets to cover the risk of exit, even if those premiums were smaller than they are now. The eurozone would still be caught in a trap.
Is there anything the ECB could do in such a situation ? Not by a narrow interpretation of its mandate. The ECB’s role, as currently constituted, is to keep inflation low and stable. All other objectives – unemployment, economic growth, financial stability, and so on – are subordinate. Draghi has interpreted the mandate flexibly, to mean that prices will not be stable if the single currency breaks up or if financial markets are not working. This makes the OMT plan legal. But the OMT is primarily a plan to keep the single currency together, rather than to promote growth.
However, other central banks have made growth the priority. The Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan have indicated that loose monetary policy will continue, irrespective of (moderately) higher inflation. The Federal Reserve is committed to monetary stimulus until unemployment falls to 6.5 per cent of the workforce, which it expects to happen in 2015. This shifts its priority from inflation to unemployment, although it has a mandate to tackle both. The Bank of England has been silent on what it will do in the future, other than its commitment to set policy to meet its 2 per cent inflation target. But it has consistently allowed inflation higher than this – it has averaged 3.5 per cent over the last five years – without tightening. The Bank of Japan has raised its inflation target, and is considering more QE. A consensus is forming : central bankers should favour employment over inflation, at least for now.
The ECB is the odd man out, because it was constructed in the Bundesbank’s image. Germany, given its corporatist wage-setting process and high savings rates, is allergic to price rises. Unions and businesses have agreed to keep wage growth low to maximise employment – and higher inflation would reduce living standards. German employees and businesses have very high savings rates, and savings are eroded away by price rises. But the eurozone faces years of low growth, not high inflation. Inflation in the eurozone is just above the 2 per cent target, but it has been pushed up by high energy prices and governments raising value-added tax rates, not higher wage demands by workers. The gap between the current rate of growth and its potential rate is large. There are 26 million people unemployed in the eurozone, which should hold wages and prices down. All of these reasons suggest that if the ECB eases monetary policy further it will not push inflation to unsustainable levels. By starting a QE programme – buying up all government bonds in proportion to their economies’ contribution to eurozone GDP – it would raise the bloc’s growth rate. And it would make clear to investors that the ECB will keep monetary policy loose until growth is restored, which would allay fears of break-up.
Political opposition from the Bundesbank and the German public would have to be overcome. A legal fix would have to be worked out to get over the prohibition on the ECB financing member-states. But the alternatives are far worse. Looser monetary policy through QE, with an explicit focus on growth, must be an important part of any plan to make the eurozone escape the trap of constant speculation about its future.