ECB plays high-risk game with future of euro zone

Fear is the bank may be forced to pretend low inflation is not a threat because it cannot agree on what to do about it

European Central Bank president Mario Draghi  (centre) with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn attend an euro zone finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

European Central Bank president Mario Draghi (centre) with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn attend an euro zone finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Wed, Mar 12, 2014, 01:00

The European Central Bank is failing to hit its own target for price stability. The difficulty is that the bank’s governing council may be unable to agree on effective measures, largely because of splits on national lines. That might prove very dangerous.

Give credit where credit is due. The announcement of the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions programme in the summer of 2012 – and the statement by Mario Draghi, its president, that the bank would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency – restored confidence.

Bloodless coup
The ECB won the battle without having to fire a shot. After the announcement, yields on Italian and Spanish government bonds fell to far more tolerable levels.

But the ECB has been less successful in securing price stability. True, its target is not as unambiguous or as symmetrical as those adopted by other central banks. Its aim is to achieve inflation “below, but close to, 2 per cent over the medium term”.

Yet in the year to February 2014, headline inflation was 0.8 per cent. This is hardly close to 2 per cent. It is also highly dangerous, as is cogently argued in a blog by senior members of the IMF’s European department.

First, this low inflation has, as is to be expected, coincided with weak demand. In the fourth quarter of last year, euro zone real demand was 5 per cent below levels in the first quarter of 2008. In Spain, real demand fell 16 per cent. In Italy, it fell 12 per cent. Even in Germany, real demand stagnated from the second quarter of 2011: this is no locomotive. The failure to offset this has made recovery of crisis-hit economies more difficult, lowered investment and created long-term unemployment. All this will deeply scar the euro zone.

Second, there is a risk the euro zone will fall into deflation.

Mr Draghi has described deflation as a situation where price level declines occur in a significant number of countries, across a significant number of goods and in a self-fulfilling way. By this definition, deflation is absent: only three countries have negative inflation and only a fifth of items in the consumer price index have fallen in price. Longer-term inflation expectations are also stable at close to 2 per cent, though short-term expectations have fallen.

Short-term view
As the IMF authors argue: “One should not take too much comfort in the fact that long-term inflation expectations are positive”.

The data indicate that, in the long term, euro zone prices are expected to rise at a healthy 2 per cent a year. But long-term inflation expectations were also positive before three bouts of deflation in Japan. It was nearer-term expectations that turned more pessimistic – leading to falls in prices and wages that enabled deflation to take hold.

Put simply, the euro zone is just one negative shock away from deflation. The cushion is far too small. When negative short-term real interest rates are needed to avoid deflation, the situation is perilous.

Third, ultra-low inflation is itself costly. This is particularly true for countries that have to restore competitiveness. If inflation in core countries is low, then inflation in crisis-hit countries must be close to zero or negative.

Angel Ubide of the Peterson Institute for International Economics notes that average inflation in surplus countries is only 1.5 per cent, against 0.6 per cent in the adjusting economies. While falling prices would improve competitiveness, they would raise the real burden of private and public debt. This might well create another round of financial stresses.

If average inflation stood at 2 per cent, with the surplus countries on (say) 3 per cent and the adjusting countries on 1 per cent, the euro zone would be in far better shape: real interest rates would be lower, the economy would be stronger and internal adjustment would be faster.

If average inflation reached 3 per cent (roughly the level the Bundesbank achieved in Germany from 1980 to 1995), it would be still better.

The ECB has allowed the euro zone to fall into a deep and entrenched slump. The bank has also allowed the supply of money and credit to stagnate. The Bundesbank used to focus on these variables because over time they can put upward pressure on activity, wages and prices. But the ECB seems to be ignoring them. It is failing to do its job.

What can be done? The aim must be to raise demand and inflation in the euro zone as a whole, particularly in surplus countries. The aim must also be to improve credit markets.

The ECB should announce a symmetrical inflation target of 2 per cent, indicating that it will henceforth view excessively low inflation as a problem no less serious than rapidly rising prices. It should implement a programme of quantitative easing, purchasing the bonds of member governments in proportion to shares in the central bank.

Finally, it should announce a longer-term refinancing operation to unblock the flow of credit to SMEs.

Difficulties arise. Large-scale purchases of the bonds of crisis-hit countries are legal but may well trigger hysteria in surplus Europe.

The ECB would probably suffer a deep internal split if it sought to adopt such a policy. That could jeopardise its political legitimacy. The fear is that the ECB may be forced to pretend that low inflation is not a threat because it cannot agree on what to do about it.

The euro zone crisis is not over. Despite the emergence of a degree of stability, the situation remains very fragile. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014

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