ECB Traversing outer limits of Policy

The ECB has travelled a long way in its thinking over the last few years, and following the latest round of measures is now at the outer limits of monetary policy, with little left in its armoury. Indeed, we may be moving closer to the point where European policy makers decide that putting all the pressure on monetary policy is a mistake, and that fiscal policy has to be more active when faced with a balance sheet recession and its aftermath.

Inflation in the euro area has been below the ECB’s 2% target for some time and Draghi has often emphasized the fragile nature of the limp economic recovery but the past month has seen a much more negative perspective emerge, as crystallised in the Bank’s economic projections; growth is expected to remain below 2% for the next three years and inflation is forecast to rise to just 1.4% in 2016 from 0.7% this year. Deflation is not seen as likely but such a prolonged period of low inflation is seen to carry  the risk that expectations of sub-2% inflation become embedded.

The ECB can only directly influence very short term interest rates ( the market determines longer rates) and Europe depends heavily on bank credit to finance private sector spending ( as opposed to bond financing) so any policy levers are largely dependent on the banking sector as the transmission mechanism, with the added complication that lending rates are much higher in some parts of the zone than others. The Bank tried to address that fragmentation by providing 3-year cash to the banks in late 2011 but over half of that has been repaid and many banks used it to fund the purchase of government debt, with the result that bank lending to non-financial corporations in the euro area is still contracting. That is due in part to the economic cycle ( demand for loans is low) but the ECB has copied the Bank of England’s  Funding for Lending scheme in seeking to influence the supply of credit  via the  provision of  funds aimed directly at the private sector. Under the targeted scheme (TLTRO)   euro area banks can access funds for up to four years, starting in September, at an initial rate of 0.25%, with an initial limit of some €400bn (7% of the outstanding loan stock ex mortgages) implying a figure in excess of €5.5bn for Irish banks given the €78bn outstanding in loans to non-financial firms (the figure could be higher if one includes personal debt ex mortgages). Draghi talked about monitoring the loans but at first site the penalty for not lending to the private sector is early repayment so it is not clear how much of a stick exists alongside the carrot. Further tranches can be drawn down depending on meeting benchmark targets on net credit growth.

The UK scheme did not have a huge impact and  it remains to be seen whether demand for loans will pick up particularly in depressed economies. Banks are also due to repay some €500bn of the remaining 3-year funding although the ECB has also decided to stop sterilizing the bonds purchased under the SMP, meaning it will no longer drain the equivalent amount of money from the system. The buying of private sector debt, via Asset Backed Securities, is also on the cards, although that will take some time to organise and the market there is small.

As noted the ECB can directly affect short rates and it cut the main refinancing rate by 10 basis points to 0.15%, which  will bring some modest gains to anyone on  a tracker loan and to banks borrowing from the ECB. Lower rates may also put some downward pressure on the currency on the FX markets and to aid in that the ECB cut its deposit rate to negative territory (-0.1%) and will supply as much short term liquidity as banks demand at a fixed rate out till the end of 2016. This puts some flesh on the pledge to keep rates at current levels for an extended period and seeks to influence longer term rates in the market. The euro had weakened in the weeks before the ECB meeting in early June as traders built up  short positions in anticipation of negative rates, but has not fallen further, at least as yet, highlighting that measures that are seen to reduce fragmentation in the euro area often serve to bolster the currency.

The forward guidance issued by the ECB also now excludes any reference to even lower rates and Draghi explicitly stated that we are at the end of the line in terms of rate reductions. Consequently, the  main weapon the ECB has left is full QE, but that is unlikely to have much affect on euro domestic demand given the importance of banking credit. Hence the TLTRO but if that does not work ( and it will take some time anyway for any impact to be felt) the conclusion has to be that fiscal policy may be revisited, with the current conventional wisdom on the need for debt reduction overturned in favour of fiscal expansion. That may be a long shot now but who would have predicted  a few year ago an ECB Funding for Lending scheme, forward guidance and a refinancing rate of 0.15%?

 

Press Conferences, the ECB and the Fed

The ECB and the Fed differ at many levels, including their respective mandates (the latter is charged with  maintaining full employment as well as price stability ) and the frequency of policy-setting meetings (one a month for the ECB but only eight a year for its US counterpart). The Fed’s Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy, has twelve voting members and releases minutes of its deliberations, including the voting pattern, whereas the ECB Governing Council’s  membership is double that, with no published minutes, at least to date. They do have one thing in common though- press conferences hosted by the Head of the institution- although the Fed has only recently adopted that practice and limits it to one a quarter, as against the ECB’s regular slot on the first Thursday of the month.

The press conferences also differ markedly however. Ben Bernanke has held court at all of the Fed’s to date, and things may change when Janet Yellen takes over, but  there is a much more open  atmosphere than in Frankfurt and it probably reflects more than the personalities involved. This may in part be due to the nature of the audience, which is smaller in number than for the ECB and made up largely of ‘Fed-watchers’, who like the Kremlinologists of old are attentive to the slightest hint of any change in policy. Few, if any, foreign journalists appear to be present and the questions are usually to the point and illicit equally straightforward responses from the Chairman. One senses that there is an implicit belief that the population have a right to know what the Fed is thinking and the questioners seek to tease out any areas where there is a lack of clarity, although of course central bankers are not omniscient and any statement of intent is always contingent on events.

The ECB conference is more formulaic ( the President opens by reading a much longer statement than that issued by the Fed ) and the atmosphere feels very different, at last as viewed on television,  with the ECB President often striking a defensive and sometimes peevish tone, with attempts to justify past policy decisions (‘ the events of the past month have vindicated our  stance’). One is always left with the impression of an audience seeking to illicit answers from a Bank reluctant to elaborate,  which leaves an unsatisfied taste. A good case in point is OMT, which is regularly raised and is met with the response that all has been explained at some earlier meeting  although if that were the case the question would not arise. The sheer numbers involved in setting ECB rates inevitably makes for differing views in the Council and that may explain the President’s  caution in response to some questions but at times the dichotomy between the Bank’s  current stance  and its stated policy aims is glaring; the ECB is  forecasting inflation in 2015 at 1.3%, for example, which does not appear consistent with its definition of price stability (‘below but close to 2%’) and implies monetary policy is too tight, even after the recent rate reduction.

Monetary policy in the euro area is  certainly more pragmatic under Draghi and the ECB has moved a long way from its Bundesbank-centred roots. The  press conference has  also ditched some of  the rituals common in President Trichet’s time, when everyone listened for some key words, like ‘strongly vigilant’, as a signaling mechanism- what’s wrong with saying  that ‘ we are likely to raise rates at the next meeting in the absence of unforeseen events’ rather than use some code?. The questions  also vary in quality and relevance it also has to be said, with some journalists seeking comments on specific country issues which are beyond the remit of the ECB (‘Draghi praises Ireland’s/ Portugal’s/ Italy’s/  stoic adherence to fiscal rectitude’). One final point. President Draghi’s pledge ‘to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro’ was queried by a (German) journalist at one press conference, with the latter pointing out that Governments and ultimately electorates would decide the single currency’s fate. An unusual intervention , highlighting that the ECB is ultimately accountable to the citizens of the  euro area, and that it is their Central Bank.