Yet another sign that the northern European conservative and liberal dogmatic creeds against using the ECB as a true central bank are not so widely spread outside their own little hub. Leaving ECB executive board member Lorenzo Smaghi said today that he doesn’t understand the “quasi-religious” discussions about letting the ECB use the money printing press, if necessary, just like every other central bank in the world does.
Note that Smaghi says that the ECB should do this only to combat deflation (and not to reduce unnecessary exposure to the financial markets). Yet it was already predicted a while ago that policymakers would increasingly try to give the ECB a more prominent role in solving the short-term crisis by framing it as an inflationary matter - which is in tune with the central task of the ECB. Also note that the ECB is increasingly pumping money into the tightening European credit system, to battle the credit squeeze.
So slowly, the ECB is after all – despite the resistance of Merkel and the Dutch – gaining a more prominent role in solving the crisis. Let’s hope this continues and, if it’s true, also becomes more openly admitted, so that governments don’t have to fend off the financial markets and impose budget cuts with one hand tied behind their back. To really fix the system, however, the ECB must have a structurally bigger role, f.e. as issuer of eurobonds. Otherwise we’re transferring huge powers to the pan-European level while still being overly exposed to the financial markets, killing economic growth, and not getting any deepening of democracy in return.
European Central Bank Executive Board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi said that policy makers shouldn’t shirk from using quantitative easing if deflation becomes a danger to the euro region.
“I do not understand the quasi-religious discussions about quantitative easing,” Bini Smaghi, who will leave his post at the end of the month, said in an interview published yesterday by the Financial Times. The ECB confirmed the comments. “It is appropriate if economic conditions justify it, in particular in countries facing a liquidity trap that may lead to deflation.”
Unlike the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, the ECB has offset liquidity created by purchases of government bonds so that such operations don’t amount to quantitative easing that stokes inflation. ECB Executive Board member Juergen Stark told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper in an interview published today that the central bank doesn’t “have a mandate” for unlimited purchases of government bonds.
Growth prospects in Europe “have deteriorated” since September, U.K. central bank Governor Mervyn King said yesterday after a risk assessment by European officials. Stark, who resigned in September to protest bond purchases, said while the euro-region economy could shrink at the end of 2011, deflation threats are “significantly lower” than after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008.
“Central banks are given a clear mandate, to achieve price stability, and the independence to achieve it through the instruments they consider most appropriate,” Bini Smaghi said. “If conditions changed and the need to further increase liquidity emerged, I would see no reason why such an instrument, tailor made for the specific characteristics of the euro area, should not be used.”
Quantitative easing “is implemented in the U.K. and U.S., where the central banks consider that there are risks of deflation and where the policy rate is constrained by the zero lower bound,” Bini Smaghi said. “This is currently not the case in the euro area because the ECB currently sees no risk of deflation.”
Instead of more bond purchases, the ECB has so far opted to grease the banking system with unlimited liquidity of up to three years, hoping financial institutions will lend the money on to companies and households. The institution loaned banks a record 489 billion euros ($636 billion) for three years on Dec. 21 to avert a credit crunch from the sovereign debt crisis.
As I’ve blogged before, I’m kinda tired of writing about the eurozone debt crisis. The results of the once again ”crucial” European summit that starts today are fairly predictable: announcements of more, even radical, fiscal discipline and sanction mechanisms across the European Union (or the eurozone), a further integration of tax and labour market policies, and no hopes whatsoever for an expanded role of the ECB in the form of it acting as lender of last resort or as issuer of eurobonds. Everything that Germany wants, happens.
In other words: in order to please the financial markets, only one of the structural deficiencies of the eurozone is being addressed: the disparity in budgetary policies across member states. The other ones - the existence of separate bonds markets and the absence of a true central bank, which leads to Europe’s heightened exposure to the judgment of financial markets and credit rating agencies - are not addressed at all. All this because of Germany’s fear of inflation.
The European debt crisis is now starting to become a democratic crisis as well. This is happening on two levels. First, in order to please the financial markets, “reforms” and budget cuts are being imposed on southern European countries at huge social and economic costs without the population having any say in it. Elected politicians are removed not by elections or the people on the street, but replaced by so-called “technocrats” under pressure of the financial markets. Moreover, across the entire eurozone radically tightened fiscal discipline, which will have a huge bearing on social and economic policies, is being imposed without the population having any say in it; once again, to please the markets. The German, i.e. the conservative/(neo-) liberal policy solution for everything – fiscal discipline, budget cuts and market reforms - is imposed throughout the eurozone by Diktat.
Whether you like this particular economic policy package or not (I’m personally not against it), there’s no escaping the fact that the past months we’ve witnessed a huge shift in sovereignty from democracy to the market. Financial markets dictate what must be done; and it is reinforced by those policy-makers in charge who happen to walk in tune with those markets.
The second level at which democracy is under attack is in the transfer of powers from the national level to the European one. It is by now accepted that the only solution for the eurozone is a further federalization of fiscal, social and economic policies. The European Commission (EC) is likely the institution that will benefit the most from this. Yet, whether you are in favour of the European project or not, the EC is ultimately a technocratic institution; it is a super-regulator that issues “directives” and “regulations” to be imposed uniformly across member states without interference of national parliaments. The European Parliament (EP), the only European institution that is truly democratically legitimized (but only by a minority of voters), does not have the right of initiative; it is the barely legitimized EC that is the one policy ”motor” of the European Union. This situation will only be exacerbated by the current eurozone crisis.
In short, there’s a double crisis of democracy going on: one in the shift of decision-making power from the political sphere to the market, and a second in the transfer of powers from the national level to a barely legitimized European one. In between, the voice of the people is crushed. Particularly worrying is the talk, to be heard here and there, that “democracy” really is just one way to govern a country, that it was a nice experiment, but that it doesn’t really work in an age of globalized financial markets and much-needed technocratic European governance. Have we now really entered a 1930s-style “crisis of democracy”? Is the democratic principle itself being questioned?
To me, the need for a more unified Europe if the single currency is to be saved is clear. But the democratic deficit is getting painful. German solutions mean a half-hearted attempt to create a fully functioning economic zone, but an almost complete transfer of fiscal discretionary powers to an incompletely legitimized supra-European entity. Is that what we want? Do we have any say in that? In my view, the democratic level of the European Union is to be deepened if any of this is the result of current talks. This would mean a broadening of the powers of the EP to become a fully-fledged representative body with legislative powers, as well as finally some concerted effort on the part of European and national policy-makers to promote European democratic institutions amongst the populace. The ECB should also really be allowed to function as a central bank.
Otherwise, the result will be something we have now, but even more overbearing. A soft kind of technocratic regime, composed of an intricate byzantine web of committees, networks, councils and summits and a super-regulator, governed by one particular budgetary philosophy, all the while constricting national discretion to formulate policies, that is whipped from here to there by the financial markets. Even if this solution is, for now, accepted by those financial markets, I don’t think it will hold in the future. And there is no place for democracy in it either.
Yesterday and today, lots of ‘authoritative’ newspapers and journals once more published gloomy articles about the coming end of the eurozone, largely due to the perceived inaction of leading (German and other northern European, notably Dutch) politicians. Particularly their refusal to set up the ECB as lender of last resort and/or let it buy state bonds on large scale and/or let it issue eurobonds, and their continued insistence on austerity and budget cuts as the only “solution”, now leading such esteemed organizations as the OECD to condemn their inaction. France is threatened with a credit rating downgrade, as a matter of fact the entire eurozone is threatened with a downgrade, the stability fund doesn’t have nearly enough funds, and… oh well.
I’m getting kinda tired writing about this so maybe I’ll quit doing it, but here goes once more (my bet is on the end of the eurozone before New Year’s Day, by the way)…
Bloomberg (‘The Euro Area Is Coming To An End’, written by the former chief economist of the IMF):
Investors sent Europe’s politicians a painful message last week when Germany had a seriously disappointing government bond auction. It was unable to sell more than a third of the benchmark 10-year bonds it had sought to auction off on Nov. 23, and interest rates on 30-year German debt rose from 2.61 percent to 2.83 percent. The message? Germany is no longer a safe haven.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008, investors have focused on credit risk and rewarded Germany with low interest rates for its perceived frugality. But now markets will focus on currency risk. Inflation will accelerate and the euro may break up in a way that calls into question all euro-denominated obligations. This is the beginning of the end for the euro zone.
Germany is the only country in Europe that can act to save the eurozone and the wider European Union from “a crisis of apocalyptic proportions”, the Polish foreign minister warned on Monday in a passionate call for more drastic action to prevent the collapse of the European monetary union.
The extraordinary appeal by Radoslaw Sikorski, delivered in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in the German capital, came as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development called on European leaders to provide “credible and large enough firepower” to halt the sell-off in the eurozone sovereign debt market, or risk a severe recession.
The OECD’s comments came as the organisation slashed its half-yearly forecasts for growth in the world’s richest countries, warning that economic activity in Europe would grind to a near-halt.
Yet their calls were met by a stubborn insistence in Berlin that only EU treaty change to forge a “stability union” in the eurozone would revive confidence in the markets.
Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, rejected calls for the European Central Bank to act as a “lender of last resort” in the eurozone, and for the introduction of jointly guaranteed eurozone bonds to relieve the pressure on the most debt-strapped members of the common currency such as Greece and Italy.
Financieel Dagblad: eindspel om euro is begonnen:
De eurocrisis is in een eindfase gekomen, in beleggerstermen: het eindspel. De ontwikkelingen gaan nu razendsnel, en de tijd dat de sterke eurolanden de zwakke konden redden, is voorbij. Volgens veel economen is het een kwestie van weken, misschien van dagen, en dan moet er iets op tafel liggen om het uiteenvallen van de euro te voorkomen.
Over negen dagen houden de Europese leiders nog maar eens een ‘top der toppen’. Er was er al een op 21 juli, op 23 oktober en op 26 oktober. Maar nu leeft meer dan ooit het gevoel dat het erop of eronder is. De reeds geplande Brusselse top van vrijdag 9 december is inmiddels uitgebreid met een werkdiner op de avond ervoor. Er is immers veel te bespreken.
Columns in de Financial Times en commentaren in The Economist waarschuwen inmiddels dat de euro snel verleden tijd kan zijn. Jean Pisani-Ferry, directeur van de gerenommeerde Brusselse denktank Bruegel, stelt onderkoeld dat er ‘een nieuwe situatie in Europa’ is ontstaan. Met iets meer gevoel voor dramatiek schrijft de Vlaamse econoom Paul De Grauwe: ‘De euro heeft nog enkele weken om zichzelf te redden, terwijl verschillende instituties zich al voorbereiden op de klap.’
Wat de situatie nu zo wezenlijk anders maakt dan enkele weken geleden? Verreweg het belangrijkste signaal is dat zelfs Duitsland meer moeite heeft om zijn staatsleningen in de markt kwijt te raken. En opvallend, direct na de half mislukte emissie van vorige week verloor de euro in een tel 0,72 eurocent in waarde. Voor centrale bankiers een serieuze aanwijzing dat de munt zelf het volgende doelwit zal zijn.
Het is bijna tragisch dat de ministers van financiën vanavond alweer naar Brussel moeten afreizen om over het noodfonds te praten. Nog altijd zijn de afspraken van 21 juli (uitbreiding van noodinstrumentarium) niet in werking getreden, en nu zwoegen ze op de deal van 26 oktober (vergroting slagkracht). Het fonds heeft nog ongeveer € 250 mrd beschikbaar, maar niemand gelooft meer dat daar € 1000 mrd van te maken is, zoals een maand geleden werd beloofd.
Inmiddels is duidelijk dat het beleggers helemaal niet meer uitmaakt dat de betrouwbare technocraat Mario Monti als premier is aangetreden. Net zomin als zijn bezuinigingsplannen nog indruk maken. Het is de les van twee jaar eurocrisis: paniek en wantrouwen slaan niet met enkele ferme politieke daden om in volledig vertrouwen. Voor België dreigt hetzelfde lot. Verrassend genoeg reageerden beleggers maandag positief op het nieuws dat er na anderhalf jaar eindelijk een regering komt. Maar de aanstaande premier Elio Di Rupo kan de snel opgelopen rentelasten voor België waarschijnlijk niet zomaar ongedaan maken. Ook hij zal ervaren dat eenmaal afgehaakte beleggers niet snel tevreden zijn.
De euro is een misgeboorte en had beter niet ingevoerd kunnen worden. Dat zegt oud-AFM-topman Hans Hoogervorst in een aflevering van het geschiedenisprogramma Andere Tijden, die op 11 december wordt uitgezonden.
Hoogervorst zegt daarin: ‘De enorme problemen die we nu hebben op de kapitaalmarkten en de enorme risico’s die worden gelopen, als we dat tevoren hadden geweten, dan denk ik niet dat iemand bij zijn volle verstand eraan was begonnen.’
Volgens Hoogervorst kan de munt ‘wel als mislukt’ kan worden beschouwd.
Minister De Jager (r) measuring up the size of the ECB’s new role.
And now Merkel is alone. Even the Dutch government (along with the Finnish) now grudgingly supports a bigger role for the ECB in solving the debt crisis (if any solution other than a grand eurozone conflagration is still at hand). They call it a ’last resort’, but you don’t put messages like this out in the open if you’re not seriously considering it – or even have already committed to it. Of course, this role can vary from buying up state bonds in larger amounts to introducing the much-called for eurobonds.
Finance minister De Jager’s message is spun differently by some Dutch news outlets, by the way (but similarly by others).
My bet is on the 60 percent option: creating eurobonds covering a maximum of 60 percent GDP. Beyond that it’s lousy national bonds for profligate nations. Combine this with a stringent system of fiscal discipline (also advocated by the Dutch government for a while now) and maybe some solution is there. Although a system totally consisting of eurobonds might be better (but has its own drawbacks, such as added costs for taxpayers in some countries).
But to be honest: I think it’s too late anyway.
Jan Kees de Jager, the Dutch finance minister, endorsed a more active role for the European Central Bank “as a last resort” to contain the eurozone debt crisis ahead of a meeting in Berlin with his counterparts from Germany and Finland.
In a hearing of the Dutch parliament’s finance committee, Mr de Jager said that the other firewall measures seem to be failing, with European countries unwilling to contribute more funds themselves to the European Financial Stability Fund, and private investors uninterested in the plan agreed to by European leaders on October 26 of leveraging the fund up to an effective capacity of €1,000bn.
If neither of those measures succeed, leaving ECB intervention the only plausible course, then “in the end, something has to happen”, Mr de Jager said.
On Wednesday, the Finnish finance minister, Jutta Urpilainen, also moderated her stance, saying, “If all else fails, we have to reflect on the role of the ECB.”
The Netherlands and Finland have until now hewed close to Germany’s position of opposing major intervention by the ECB as part of a firewall against the spreading eurozone debt crisis but appear to be taking a more pragmatic line.
The Dutch share German scepticism that any ECB firewall would merely “fight the symptoms” of the debt crisis, and say that the top priority is creating a strict Europe-wide budget authority to force Greece, Italy, Spain and other at-risk eurozone countries to cut their deficits and implement economic reforms.
But as the urgency mounts, many voices in the Dutch economics and business community are pressing the government to take a more assertive tack.
On Sunday, a group of four top Dutch economists wrote to Mark Rutte, prime minister, urging him to press European leaders to commit to contributing more directly to the EFSF and to supporting an ECB role. The group included Lex Hoogduin, who stepped down this year as the number two official at the Dutch central bank.
“I hope the Dutch authorities, who are very close in their philosophy to Germany, can convince the Germans that there is a role for the ECB,” Mr Hoogduin told the Financial Times. He said markets had lost faith that European leaders will come up with the funds to support southern European countries, even if those countries do comply with budget-cutting and governance reforms.