Christine Lagarde and the ECB have switched from monetary to fiscal policy

by Shaun Richards

The Corona Virus pandemic has really rather caught the European Central Bank (ECB) on the hop. You see it was not supposed to be like this on several counts. Firstly the “Euro Boom” was supposed to continue but we now know via various revisions that things had turned down in Germany in early 2018 and then the Trumpian trade war hit as well. So the claims of former ECB President Mario Draghi that a combination of negative interest-rates and QE bond buying had boosted both Gross Domestic Product ( GDP) and inflation by around 1.5% morphed into this.

First, as regards the key ECB interest rates, we decided to lower the interest rate on the deposit facility by 10 basis points to -0.50%……..Second, the Governing Council decided to restart net purchases under its asset purchase programme (APP) at a monthly pace of €20 billion as from 1 November. We expect them to run for as long as necessary to reinforce the accommodative impact of our policy rates, and to end shortly before we start raising the key ECB interest rates.

As you can see the situation was quite problematic. For all the rhetoric who really believed that a cut in interest-rates of 0.1% would make a difference when much larger ones had not? Next comes the issue of having to restart sovereign bond purchases and QE only 9 months or so after stopping it. As a collective then there is the issue of what all the monetary easing has achieved? That leads to my critique that it is always a case of “More! More! More” or if you prefer QE to Infinity.

Next comes the issue of personnel. For all the talk about the ECB being independent the reclaiming of it by the political class was in process via the appointment of the former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde as President. This of course added to the fact that the Vice President Luis de Guindos had been the Spanish Finance Minister. Combined with this comes the issue of competence as I recall Mario Draghi pointing out he would give Luis de Guindos a specific job when he found one he could do, thereby clearly implying he lacked the required knowledge and skill set. It is hard to know where to start with Christine Lagarde on this subject after her failures involving Greece and Argentina ( which sadly is in the mire again) and her conviction for negligence. Of course she has added to that more recently with her statement about “bond spreads” which saw the ten-year yield in Italy impersonate a Space-X rocket until somebody persuaded her to issue a correction. Although as the last press conference highlighted you never really escape a faux pas like that.

Do you now believe that it is the ECB’s role to control the spreads on government debt?

The Present Situation

This was supposed to be one where monetary policy had been set for the next year or so and President Lagarde could get her Hermes slippers under the table before having to do anything. Life sometimes comes at you quite fast though as this morning has already highlighted. From Eurostat.

In April 2020, the COVID-19 containment measures widely introduced by Member States again had a significant
impact on retail trade, as the seasonally adjusted volume of retail trade decreased by 11.7% in the euro area and
by 11.1% in the EU, compared with March 2020, according to estimates from Eurostat, the statistical office of
the European Union. In March 2020, the retail trade volume decreased by 11.1% in the euro area and by 10.1%
in the EU.
In April 2020 compared with April 2019, the calendar adjusted retail sales index decreased by 19.6% in the euro
area and by 18.0% in the EU.

As you can see Retail Sales have fallen by a fifth as far as we can tell ( normal measuring will be impossible right now and the numbers are erratic in normal times). Also there were large structural shifts with clothing and footwear down 63.5% on a year ago and online up 20.9%. Much of this is due to shops being closed and will be reversed but there is a loss for taxes and GDP which is an issue for ECB policy. Other news points out that May has its troubles as well.

Germany May New Car Registrations Total 168,148 -49.5% Y/Y – KBA ( @LiveSquawk)

Policy Response

For all the claims and rhetoric is that the ECB has prioritised the banks and government’s. So let us start with The Precious! The Precious!

Accordingly, the Governing Council decided today to further ease the conditions on our targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO III)……. Moreover, for counterparties whose eligible net lending reaches the lending performance threshold, the interest rate over the period from June 2020 to June 2021 will now be 50 basis points below the average deposit facility rate prevailing over the same period.

For newer readers this means that the banks will be facing what is both the lowest interest-rate seen so far anywhere at -1% and also a fix for the problems they have dealing with a -0.5% interest-rate more generally. It also means that whilst the bit below is not an outright lie it is also not true.

In addition, we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged.

In fact for those who regard the interest-rate for banks as key it is an untruth. Estimates for the gains to the banking sector from this are of the order of 3 billion Euros. Yet another subsidy or if you prefer we are getting the Vapors.

I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so
Turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so

Fiscal Policy

This is what monetary policy has now morphed into. There is an irony here because one of the reasons the ECB has pursued such expansionary policy is the nature of fiscal policy in the Euro area. That has been highlighted in three main ways. the surpluses of Germany, the Stability and Growth Pact and the depressive policy applied to Greece. But that was then and this is now.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that Germany was set to plow 130 billion euros ($146 billion) into rebooting an economy severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures include temporarily cutting value-added tax form 19% to 16%, providing families with an additional €300 per child and doubling a government-supported rebate on electric car purchases.

The package also establishes a €50 billion fund for addressing climate change, innovation and digitization within the German economy. ( dw.com )

Even Italy is being allowed to spend.

Fiat To Use State-Backed Loan To Pay Italy Staff, Suppliers ( @LiveSquawk)

This is the real reason for the QE and is highlighted below.

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Central Bank scooped up all of Italy’s new debt in April and May but merely managed to keep borrowing costs for the indebted, virus-stricken country from rising, data showed on Tuesday.

The ECB bought 51.1 billion euros worth of Italian government bonds in the last two months compared with a net supply, as calculated by analysts at UniCredit, of 49 billion euros.

Comment

Thus President Lagarde will be mulling the words of Boz Scaggs.

(What can I do?)
Ooh, show me that I care
(What can I say?)
Hmmm, got to have your number baby
(What can I do?)

Plainly the ECB needs the flexibility of being able to expand its QE bond buying so that Euro area governments can borrow cheaply as highlighted by Italy or be paid to borrow like Germany. We could see the PEPP plan which is the latest emergency one expanded as it will run out in late September on present trends, also the German Constitutional Court has conveniently given it a bye. But she could do that next time. So finally we have a decision appropriate for a politician!

As to interest-rates we see that the banks have as usual been taken care of. That only leaves the rest of us so it is unlikely. We will only see another cut if they decide that like a First World War general that a futile gesture is needed.