What’s Wrong with European Economic Performance?

Pessimism is building across the euro area about economic performance. Growth has slowed in most euro area economies, even as inflation remains persistently low and unemployment persistently high. The question is whether to blame this poor performance on external factors or on decisions made by European policymakers. If this is just another patch of bad luck, then the only challenge is to batten down the hatches and ride it out. It would be more worrying, however, if Europe’s economic policymakers have set their economy sailing off in the wrong direction.

The easy answer is to blame the outside world. Growth in emerging markets is slowing. This is not only sapping demand for European exports but also pushing down commodity prices and increasing volatility in exchange rates. At the same time, other major economies are underperforming. The recovery in the United States is quicker than in Europe but it is still too uneven for the U.S. economy to help pick up slack elsewhere. Japan is much weaker. Worst of all, Europe is surrounded by tragedy. The human cost of violent conflict and desperate migration is all too apparent; what is less obvious is the toll on European businesses that have lost access to neighbouring resources, relationships and markets.

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Central Bankers Seeking Normal

There is an ongoing debate about when (not whether) the Federal Reserve in the United States and the Bank of England will raise interest rates. Opponents of such a move acknowledge that interest rates have to go up some time but argue that the ongoing weakness in Europe, the slowdown in emerging market economies, and the turmoil in China are all good reasons to wait as long as possible. Proponents of an early rise worry about the distortions caused by prolonged ultra-low interest rates. They also want to bring interest rates up again so that they will have something to cut should they run into trouble in the future.

This debate may seem like the usual macroeconomic conversation you would expect to hear among central bankers and yet it is not. There is an underlying political controversy around central banking that creates an incentive for central bankers to move more quickly in raising interest rates than economic conditions might warrant. This controversy takes place any time central bankers approach the frontier between ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ monetary policy; it gets stronger and more intense once they crossover and start using unconventional monetary policy instruments; and it lasts until central bankers find a way to return to normal.

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The ECB’s Diminishing Room for Manoeuvre

European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi did not disappoint. In his first post-summer press conference, he responded to the recent volatility on Chinese equities markets – and across emerging markets more generally – by promising to relax monetary policy as much as necessary to shore up Europe’s fragile recovery. He articulated the promise in the form of a three-fold commitment: to expand the share of individual bond issues that the ECB could purchase without giving the central bank unwarranted market power; to maintain the pace of monthly asset purchases; and to loosen monetary policy even further ‘by using all instruments available within its mandate’ particularly as this refers to ‘the horizon, the size, and the parameters’ of ‘the asset purchase programme’. Market participants were quick to respond. The euro weakened against the dollar; equity prices rose on European stock markets; and the yields on European sovereign debt instruments declined.

It is easy to interpret living up to expectations as a sign of the ECB’s continuing influence over the markets. ‘Never bet against Draghi,’ is a popular banter among analysts. The transcript of the press conference tells a different story. Time and again, Draghi explains how his quantitative easing program has underperformed due to the influence of exceptional factors. Periodic declines in commodity prices, prolonged weakness in emerging market economies, increasing volatility in asset prices, and adverse movements in exchange rates between major currencies all contribute to the explanation. Of course the ECB could try again and harder, but why should the next time be any different? This question is not simply a rhetorical flourish. The canned opening statement only makes sense if the first commitment to quantitative easing was a failure.

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