Wednesday, 20 November 2013

ECB Rate Cut – what's the point?

The European Central Bank set itself apart with looser monetary policy but how is this likely to make any difference to the economy?

Central banks have been busy recently, whether it be talk of forward guidance from the Bank of England or the tapering of bond purchases by the Federal Reserve.  The exception had been the European Central Bank (ECB) which had been going through a quiet period after monetary policy helped to put paid to the Eurozone crisis in 2012.  Worries about deflation jolted the ECB back into action following data showing that inflation was down to 0.7% in October.  The ECB decided to respond last week by cutting its benchmark interest rate from 0.5% to 0.25%.  But, with interest rates already low, will a further reduction make much of a difference to the economy?

A cut to interest rates is something of an anomaly as the ECB is the only major central bank which has not already lowered interest rates as much as possible.  The recent trimming of its key interest rate follows cuts in July 2012 and May 2013 with the ECB using this drip-feeding of interest rate changes to respond to new data on the economy in Europe.  The focus of policy has shifted from saving the Eurozone from collapse, which was achieved by the ECB taking a stand pledging to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. Instead, the ECB is looking to boost growth with the hope of staving off deflation.

Lower prices may sound like a blessing to consumers but this fall has the effect of making debt tougher to pay back as selling the same amount of goods generates less money for firms which also means that the government misses out on tax revenues.  Not exactly what a heavily indebted Europe needs at the moment.  This is the reason why central banks will typically adjust policy to achieve inflation of around 2% - better to have a small amount of inflation than succumb to deflation.  Inflation has been decreasing elsewhere as well such as in the UK (see previous blog) due to weak growth combined with a fall in global commodity prices (see Inflation – then and now for more on how inflation works).

The interest rate cut in itself will actually have little effect with households and businesses in Europe not keen on borrowing while the economy is so weak.  Rather it is a signal of intent – the ECB will continue to loosen monetary policy while some central banks elsewhere (the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK) are approaching the beginning of the end of their loose monetary policy.  The key mechanism by which this will be fed through into the economy is likely to be the exchange rate but more on this later…

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