As Germany loses battle for ECB, QE goes global

What is Super Mario up to?

First, he gave an unexpectedly dovish speech at the Jackson Hole conference, rather ungallantly upstaging the host, Ms Yellen, who was widely anticipated to be the most noteworthy speaker at the gathering (talking about the labor market, her favorite subject). Having thus single-handedly and without apparent provocation raised expectations for more “stimulus” at last week’s ECB meeting, he then even exceeded those expectations with another round of rate-cuts and confirmation of QE in form of central bank purchases of asset-backed securities.

These events are significant not because they are going to finally kick-start the Eurozone economy (they won’t) but because 1) they look rushed, and panicky, and 2) they must clearly alienate the Germans. The ideological rift that runs through the European Union is wide and deep, and increasingly rips the central bank apart. And the Germans are losing that battle.

As to 1), it was just three months ago that the ECB cut rates and made headlines by being the first major central bank to take a policy rate below zero. Whatever your view is on the unfolding new Eurozone recession and the apparent need for more action (more about this in a minute), the additional 0.1 percent rate reduction will hardly make a massive difference. Yet, implementing such minor rate cuts in fairly short succession looks nervous and anxious, or even headless. This hardly instils confidence.

And regarding the “unconventional” measures so vehemently requested by the economic commentariat, well, the “targeted liquidity injections” that are supposed to direct freshly printed ECB-money to cash-starved corporations, and that were announced in June as well, have not even been implemented yet. Apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, the ECB wanted to wait for the outcome of their “bank asset quality review”. So now, before these measures are even started, let alone their impact could even be assessed, additional measures are being announced. The asset purchases do not come as a complete surprise either. It was known that asset management giant BlackRock had already been hired to help the ECB prepare such a program. Maybe the process has now been accelerated.

This is Eurozone QE

This is, of course, quantitative easing (QE). Many commentators stated that the ECB shied away from full-fledged QE. This view implies that only buying sovereign debt can properly be called QE. This does not make sense. The Fed, as part of its first round of QE in 2008, also bought mortgage-backed securities only. There were no sovereign bonds in its first QE program, and everybody still called it QE. Mortgage-backed securities are, of course, a form of asset-backed security, and the ECB announced purchases of asset-backed securities at the meeting. This is QE, period. The simple fact is that the ECB expands its balance sheet by purchasing selected assets and creating additional bank reserves (for which banks will now pay the ECB a 0.2 percent p.a. “fee”).

As to 2), not only will the ECB decisions have upset the Germans (the Bundesbank’s Mr. Weidmann duly objected but was outvoted) but so will have Mr. Draghi’s new rhetoric. In Jackson Hole he used the F-word, as in “flexibility”, meaning fiscal flexibility, or more fiscal leeway for the big deficit countries. By doing so he adopted the language of the Italian and French governments, whenever they demand to be given more time for structural reform and fiscal consolidation. The German government does not like to hear this (apparently, Merkel and Schäuble both phoned Draghi after Jackson Hole and complained.)

The German strategy has been to keep the pressure on reform-resistant deficit-countries, and on France and Italy in particular, and to not allow them to shift the burden of adjustment to the ECB. Draghi has now undermined the German strategy.

The Germans fear, not quite unjustifiably, that some countries always want more time and will never implement reform. In contrast to those countries that had their backs to the wall in the crisis and had little choice but to change course in some respect, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy have so far done zilch on the structural reform front. France’s competitiveness has declined ever since it adopted the 35-hour workweek in 2000 but the policy remains pretty much untouchable. In Italy, Renzi wants to loosen the country’s notoriously strict labour regulations but faces stiff opposition from the trade unions and the Left, not least in his own party. He now wants to give his government three years to implement reform, as he announced last week.

Draghi turns away from the Germans

German influence on the ECB is waning. It was this influence that kept alive the prospect of a somewhat different approach to economic challenges than the one adopted in the US, the UK and, interestingly, Japan. Of course, the differences should not be overstated. In the Eurozone, like elsewhere, we observed interest rate suppression, asset price manipulations, and massive liquidity-injections, and worse, even capital controls and arbitrary bans on short-selling. But we also saw a greater willingness to rely on restructuring, belt-tightening, liquidation, and, yes, even default, to rid the system of the deformations and imbalances that are the ultimate root causes of recessions and the impediments to healthy, sustainable growth. In the Eurozone it was not all about “stimulus” and “boosting aggregate demand”. But increasingly, the ECB looks like any other major central bank with a mandate to keep asset prices up, government borrowing costs down, and a generous stream of liquidity flowing to cover the cracks in the system, to sustain a mirage of solvency and sustainability, and to generate some artificial and short-lived headline growth. QE will not only come to the Eurozone, it will become a conventional tool, just like elsewhere.

I believe it is these two points, Draghi’s sudden hyperactivity (1) and his clear rift with the Germans and his departure from the German strategy (2) that may explain why the euro is finally weakening, and why the minor announcements of last Thursday had a more meaningful impact on markets than the similarly minor announcements in June. With German influence on the ECB waning, trashing your currency becomes official strategy more easily, and this is already official policy in Japan and in the US.

Is Draghi scared by the weak growth numbers and the prospect of deflation?

Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.

Europe has a structural growth problem as mentioned above. If the structural impediments to growth are not removed, Europe won’t grow, and no amount of central bank pump priming can fix it.

Nobody should be surprised if parts of Europe fall into technical recessions every now and then. If “no growth” is your default mode then experiencing “negative growth” occasionally, or even regularly, should not surprise anyone. Excited talk about Italy’s shocking “triple-dip” recession is hyperbole. It is simply what one should expect. Having said this, I do suspect that we are already in another broader cyclical downturn, not only in Europe but also in Asia (China, Japan) and the UK.

The deflation debate in the newspapers is bordering on the ridiculous. Here, the impression is conveyed that a drop in official inflation readings from 0.5 to 0.3 has substantial information content, and that if we drop below zero we would suddenly be caught in some dreadful deflation-death-trap, from which we may not escape for many years. This is complete hogwash. There is nothing in economic theory or in economic history that would support this. And, no, this is not what happened in Japan.

The margin of error around these numbers is substantial. For all we know, we may already have a -1 percent inflation rate in the Eurozone. Or still plus 1 percent. Either way, for any real-life economy this is broadly price-stability. To assume that modest reductions in any given price average suddenly mean economic disaster is simply a fairy tale. Many economies have experienced extended periods of deflation (moderately rising purchasing power of money on trend) in excess of what Japan has experienced over the past 20 years and have grown nicely, thank you very much.

As former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa has explained recently, Japan’s deflation has been “very mild” indeed, and may have had many positive effects as well. In a rapidly aging society with many savers and with slow headline growth it helped maintain consumer purchasing power and thus living standards. Japan has an official unemployment rate of below 4 percent. Japan has many problems but deflation may not be one of them.

Furthermore, the absence of inflation in the Eurozone is no surprise either. There has been no money and credit growth in aggregate in recent years as banks are still repairing their balance sheets, as the “asset quality review” is pending, and as other regulations kick in. Banks are reluctant to lend, and the private sector is careful to borrow, and neither are acting unreasonably.

Expecting Eurozone inflation to clock in at the arbitrarily chosen 2 percent is simply unrealistic.

Conclusions

Draghi’s new activism moves the ECB more in the direction of the US Fed and the Bank of Japan. This alienates the Germans and marginally strengthens the position of the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. This monetary policy will not reinvigorate European growth. Only proper structural reform can do this but much of Europe appears unable to reform, at least without another major crisis. Fiscal deficits will grow.

Monetary policy is not about “stimulus” but about maintaining the status quo. Super-low interest rates are meant to sustain structures that would otherwise be revealed to be obsolete, and that would, in a proper free market, be replaced. The European establishment is interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost, and ultra-easy monetary policy and QE are essentially doing just that.

Under the new scheme of buying asset-backed securities, the ECB’s balance sheet will become a dumping ground for unwanted bank assets (the Eurozone’s new “bad” bank). Like almost everything about the Euro-project, this is about shifting responsibility, obscuring accountability, and socializing the costs of bad decisions. Monetary socialism is coming. The market gets corrupted further.