September 8, 2014

Last Thursday (4th September) the ECB introduced a cunning new plan to spur growth in the euro-zone, the first part of which involves cutting official interest-rate targets by 0.1%. The benchmark refinancing rate has been reduced to 0.05%, because 0.15% was obviously too high, and the deposit rate has gone further into negative territory, because it obviously wasn’t negative enough. The actions have been taken due to “inflation” and inflation expectations being too low.

Inflation of any kind is the last thing that Europe needs, but from the Keynesian perspective, which is the perspective of all central bankers, it is critical that both inflation and inflation expectations are well above zero. The reason is that in the back-to-front world in which Keynesians are mired, consumption spending comes first and is the driving force of the economy. Furthermore, according to Keynesian logic if people believe that prices are going to be lower in the future they will put off their spending, which will set in motion a vicious deflationary spiral of price declines leading to reduced spending, leading to additional price declines, and so on.

Keynesian logic explains why the computer and smartphone manufacturers never sell anything. Everyone knows that if they wait a year they will be able to buy a better smartphone and a better computer at a lower price, so nobody ever buys these products. As a consequence, the entire computer and smartphone industries have zero sales year after year.

Getting back to the ECB, a goal of reducing the cost of credit to zero is to generate some “price inflation”, which, according to the theories that inform the decisions of central bankers, will boost immediate consumption and cause the economy to grow faster. But if a faster rate of price inflation is what they want, then what they will have to do is increase the rate of monetary inflation. In this regard, taking an overnight interest rate down from 0.15% to 0.05% is probably not going to do much. If the ECB is serious about generating “inflation” then what it really needs to do is implement a Fed-style QE program.

Which brings me to the second part of the ECB’s cunning new plan. The ECB announced that it would begin monetising covered bonds and asset-backed securities (ABS)*, including real-estate-backed securities, next month, with the details to be announced at next month’s ECB meeting. Depending on its size and mechanics, this asset monetisation program could certainly cause prices to rise. To the extent that it does cause prices to rise it will benefit banks and speculators at the expense of savers, productive businesses and wage earners.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, due to the limited availability of eligible collateral the QE program announced by the ECB last week might be restricted in size to about 200B euros. This means that it might not be large enough to have much effect on the euro-zone money supply.

*Banks create asset-backed securities by pooling mortgages and other loans. Covered bonds are similar, but the underlying assets are ‘ring-fenced’ on the bank’s balance sheet, which means that the assets are still there if the bank goes bust.

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