World Economy

ECB Trapped

The gush of newly-minted euros is keeping zombie banks and zombi companies artificially alive, as it fails to kickstart anemic growth in the euro currency area
ECB TrappedECB Trapped

The European Central Bank has done everything in its power to fuel inflation and boost economic growth, but has had limited success. Now, risks and side effects are becoming more evident.

During the height of the euro crisis in the summer of 2012, European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi pledged he would save the euro “whatever it takes”. His rhetoric abruptly quieted down financial speculation against several eurozone member states, DW reported. 

Thereafter, the ECB cut interest rates until its key refinancing rate hit 0% this spring. In addition, commercial banks holding money with the ECB are being punished with a negative deposit rate. Moreover, the central bank supports struggling banks with emergency loans and free credit. 

After all, the ECB has launched a massive asset-buying program, also known as Quantitative Easing in the spring of 2015, meaning the bank acquires government and company debts at large scale, thus effectively printing and circulating more and more money.

Not surprisingly, Draghi appears happy with his extremely accomodative monetary policy. After all, inflation, credit volume and economic growth have all been on the rise in the eurozone, if only modestly. But take a closer look and it’s hard to share Draghi’s optimism. The return of inflation at very low levels—the last number was 0.5%—can be primarily traced back to rebounding price of crude oil and groceries.

By contrast, eurozone members fiscal policies have had little effect on those mark-ups. The gush of newly-minted euros, instead, is keeping “zombie banks” and “zombi companies” artificially alive, as it fails to kickstart anemic growth in the euro currency area.

  Reform Pressure Drops

It isn’t entirely speculative, therefore, that the ECB’s monetary policy is part of the problem, not the solution. Deutsche Bank economist Stefan Schneider told DW that the willingness of eurozone governments to reform their economies has “markedly dropped after Draghi’s whatever-it-takes announcement, especially in countries at the bloc’s southern periphery”—a fact that has also been substantiated by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development analyses, he adds.

The OECD has found that higher interest rates before the 2012 debt crisis, had forced governments of crisis states to implement more than half of OECD’s recommended growth initiatives. Last year, however, this share dropped to below 20%. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Draghi’s promise, in conjunction with the bond purchase program, has minimized the difference in interest rates between German sovereign debt and those of crisis-hit states in the south of Europe. 

Further evidence comes from a study by Germany’s biggest lender, Deutsche Bank, saying the ECB bond-buying has led to a decoupling of bond yields from political and fiscal risks of eurozone countries. “Bond prices have lost their signal function,” the authors stated, adding that political measures posing a stability risk would no longer be penalized.

Savers are among those suffering from the prolonged low- and negative interest policy of the ECB, especially Germans, who tend to have few stock investments. Additionally, inflation in Germany is higher than in the rest of the eurozone. That’s why several German economists are speaking of a creeping devaluation.

  Inflating Bubbles 

In order to escape the interest rate trap, savers embark on a quest for higher-yielding investment opportunities. Amid concerns for their savings, many revert to real estate, which has already led to property market bubbles, especially in Germany’s bigger cities. With the ECB continuing to pump cheap money into markets, the eurozone central bank also prevents the creative destruction of ineffective companies and struggling industries. Without said creative destruction, investors will continue to drive up asset prices, the Deutsche Bank researchers purport.

While rescue packages for individual members need to be ratified by national parliaments, the ECB is in a position to prolong and inflate the QE program at will. It is estimated that by March 2017, the institution will have amassed €1.74 trillion ($1.85 trillion) worth of bonds, a sum far exceeding the combined firepower of the eurozone’s existing bailout funds.

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