QE by the ECB.

The United States, Britain, and Japan all eventually responded to the “Great Recession” with “Quantitative Easing”—central bank purchases of public and private bonds in order to pump money into the economy.[1] Europe resisted this policy[2] and its economic recovery has trailed most other places. The ECB’s goal has been to see an annual inflation rate of 2 percent. It hasn’t worked. In December 2014 the inflation rate hit minus 0.2 percent. Economists feared that Europe would descend into a deflationary spiral. Therefore, on 22 January 2015, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced an initiative to buy 60 billion Euros worth of public and private bonds every month :until we see a sustained adjustment in the path of inflation.”[3]

Will the ECB action be sufficient to propel the European Community on the road to a solid recovery? When combined with the unanticipated fall in world oil prices and a depreciation in the exchange value of the Euro, Quantitative Easing might get the European economy moving. Still, there is a great deal of uncertainty going forward.

At the same time that he announced the program of bond-buying, ECB chief Mario Draghi urged the need for “structural reforms” to create the basis for the “confidence” among investors that is needed to encourage investment.[4] Will European governments be willing to implement such reforms after resisting them for so many years in crisis conditions? Or will they hope that QE can provide enough stimulus to allow them to ignore unpleasant choices? Jens Weidmann, president of the German central bank, worried in public that this might be the case.

How will the ECB initiative affect exchange rates between the Euro and other currencies? The dollar has been rising against the euro and gained another 2 percent after the ECB policy announcement; the Swiss ended their “peg” of the franc against the Euro and the franc rose 17 percent in value in one day. The change in exchange rates will make Euro-zone goods more competitive in foreign markets, but they will make Swiss and American goods less competitive in those same markets. Countries that borrowed in dollars will find it more difficult to repay those loans now that the value of the dollar is rising. In short, it creates a drag on the world economy at a critical time for the recovery.

One thing that now seems impossible to foretell is the effect of important central banks creating so much liquidity. Will it affect the basic stability of the world economy over time? No one is talking about this problem at the moment. They have more pressing business at hand.

[1] In the United States, “QE” pushed up asset prices like those for stocks and homes. This had the unintended effect of adding to the sense of an unequal sharing of the economic recovery.

[2] In large part the resistance stems from people in the northern “creditor” countries who feel that they “were had” by the Greeks and fear that southern “debtor” counties may try to stick them with the real costs of the bail-outs. This feeling comes on top of a long-standing belief that weaker economies suffer from the self-inflicted wounds of overly generous welfare states and a hostility to business.  The complicated governing system for a central bank serving nineteen sovereign states, each with their own central bank, allowed the “creditor” countries to hold the “debtor” countries at bay for years.  Both the emotional and the institutional components to economic policy-making seem incomprehensible to some leading American academic economists.

[3] Neil Irwin, “Fear That Eurozone Stimulus May Be Too Little or Too Late,” NYT, 23 January 2015.

[4] German Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately emphasized this point to the Italians. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte then piled-on to the same effect. See: Jack Ewing, “Compromise and Persuasion Won Grudging Support for Bond Buying,” NYT, 24 January 2015.

Annals of the Great Recession III.

Years ago, back before the world economic slowdown, Germany overhauled its economy to make it more competitive and flexible. This overhaul built on earlier German strengths: an excellent educational system, a commitment to quality production, and a cultural predisposition to sound finances. The successful reforms put Germany in a strong position to first weather the initial storm and then exploit the inflationary policies pursued by other countries.

Not everyone pursued similar policies. Many European countries opted for social protection over economic growth. Their labor and management systems are encrusted with regulatory barnacles that slow growth and hinder employment; they run high levels of debt that become increasingly difficult to support with stagnant economies; and they are broadly change-averse. In the worst case, the Greeks spent years living off grants and loans from the European Community while cooking their books to disguise the fact that the money was being consumed rather than invested. The demographic crisis of an aging population across much of Europe bodes ill for the survival of the welfare states. Reforms to increase innovation, productivity and competitiveness are essential for the long-term future.

With the onset of economic crisis in 2009, the Germans seized upon the crisis as a device to force other countries to make fundamental reforms to improve the long-term position of the whole group.[1] Germany rejected expansionary policies at home while leading the imposition of severe conditions upon Greece in exchange for further aid. Behind the disreputable Greeks stood the more reputable Spaniards, Italians, and Frenchmen. Many countries didn’t want anyone saying that they resembled the Greeks, so they went along with the German policies.

However, even under pressure most countries have not made the kinds of reforms to entitlements, labor market regulations, and budgeting needed to create dynamic economies. Europe continues to limp along behind the United States in recovering from the “Great Recession.” Indeed, the danger that Europe will slide into a deflationary-spiral is very real.

From a dispassionately economic perspective, the best solution appears to be a combination of monetary stimulus by the ECB, higher public spending by Germany and other creditor countries, deficit-reduction in the debtor countries, and a wide application of the reforms that the Germans have been pushing.        The rival policy to that of Germany has been inflation by the European Central Bank (ECB) and higher spending by the creditor countries in order to ease conditions in the debtor countries. The hard times have led to the rise of “anti-austerity” parties, like the Syriza party in Greece and the Podemos party in Spain. Commentators can’t prove it, but they suggest that the growth of anti-European parties like the French Front National and the British United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and of anti-immigrant feeling are all tied to “austerity.” Until recently, Germany managed to fend off calls for inflation.

The German strategy is founded on a misconception. The Germans have assumed that other countries could alter their politics and culture to become German-like. Most countries are not like the Germans and do not want to pay the costs of becoming more German-like. They have aging populations that are set in their ways. They have lived for decades with public discourse that disparages entrepreneurs and American-style capitalism. The costs of transition will be paid by entrenched interests and will benefit chiefly their descendants.[2]

Will the Greeks be forced out of the European Community? Or will the Germans?

[1] Marcus Walker, “Analysis: Double Blow to Germany’s Leadership,” WSJ, 26 January 2015.

[2] As Groucho Marx once asked, “What’s the future ever done for me?” The United States faces something of the same dilemma. See: “College costs: the old eat the young.”