The ECB’s Daunting Task

Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, and the members of the ECB’s Governing Council are receiving praise for the initiatives they announced last week to avoid deflation (see here and here). The immediate impact of the announcement was a rise in European stock prices. But the approval of the financial sector does not mean that the ECB will be successful in its mission to rejuvenate the Eurozone’s economy.

The ECB is taking several expansionary steps. First, it has cut the rate paid on the deposits of banks at the ECB to a negative 0.1%, thus penalizing the banks for not using their reserves to make loans. Second, it is setting up a new lending program, called “Targeted Longer-Term Refinancing Operations (TLTROs),” to provide financing to banks that make loans to households and firms. Third, it will no longer offset the monetary impact of its purchases of government bonds, i.e., no “sterilization.” Moreover, Draghi’s announcement included a pledge that the ECB will consider further steps, including the use of “…unconventional instruments within its mandate, should it become necessary to further address risks of too prolonged a period of low inflation.”

Draghi’s promise to take further steps are reminiscent of his announcement in 2012 that the ECB was “…ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” That promise was successful in calming concerns about massive defaults and a break-up of the Eurozone. Consequently, the returns that sovereign borrowers in the Eurozone had to pay on their bonds began a decline that has continued to the present day.

But the challenges now facing the ECB are in many aspects more daunting. The current Eurozone inflation rate of 0.5% is an indicator of the anemic state of European economies. Achieving the target inflation target of the ECB of 2% will require a significant increase in spending. The latest forecast for 2014’s GDP Eurozone growth from The Economist is 1.1%, which would be a pick-up from the 0.7% in the latest quarter, with an anticipated inflation rate for the year of 0.8%. Unemployment for the area is 11.7%, and this includes rates of 25.1% in Spain, 26.5% in Greece and 12.6% in Italy.

More bank lending would encourage economic activity, but it is not clear that European banks are willing to make private-sector loans. Many banks are still dealing with past loans that will never be repaid as they seek to pass bank stress tests. And Draghi’s success in calming fears about sovereign default has (perhaps paradoxically) resulted in banks holding onto government bonds, which are now seen as relatively safe compared to private loans.

There is one other aspect of the European situation that can derail the ECB’s efforts: the distribution of financial wealth. The recent publication of House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi has led to discussions of the deterioration of household balance sheets during the global financial crisis, and the economic consequences of the massive decline in household wealth. Larry Summers has praised the authors’ contribution to our understanding of the impact of the crisis on economic welfare by focusing on this channel of transmission.

Mian and Sufi have claimed that income distribution has a role in the response of households to policies that seek to boost spending. Low-income households, they point out, will spend a higher fraction of fiscal stimulus income checks than high-income households. They would most likely also spend a higher proportion of a rise in their financial worth. A concentration of such wealth in the hands of a small proportion of European households, therefore, limits the increase in spending due to higher asset prices.

The ECB, therefore, may find that the plaudits they have earned do not translate to a better policy outcome. The situation they face is not unique, and resembles in many ways the challenges that the Bank of Japan has faced. Draghi and the ECB may have to follow their lead in devising new measures if European spending and inflation do not pick up.