Thursday, 16 April 2015

Monetary Policy – where has the magic gone?

The European Central Bank tries to cast another spell to save the Eurozone but its magic has been stolen

Monetary policy is like magic – you have to use tricks to get people into believing what you want them to believe.  Both magicians and central banks apply various devices to convince their audience that they can pull off amazing feats.  A bit of showmanship can be crucial in creating an aura of the fantastical when your powers are actually rather limited.  Central banks have pulled this off in the past but quantitative easing by the European Central Bank is more likely to show that it does not have any rabbits left to pull out of the hat.

Trying to work magic

Your Neighbourhood Economist likes to look back fondly to an era when central banks had the financial market enthralled with their mastery of all things economic.  This admiration was won the hard way in the 1980s by bringing double-digit inflation back to more manageable levels and ushering in an era where the booms and busts seemed to have past.  But central banks have been taken down a notch by their inability to revive the economy after the global financial crisis. 

Slashing of interest rates has not worked as high levels of debt meant that no one wanted to borrow. Upping the ante, central banks tried pumping money into the financial system through quantitative easing.  The effect on the actual economy due to quantitative easing also looks to be limited at a time when there is already a lot of spare cash in the financial system.  Financial markets were buoyed by quantitative easing but a side effect has been the potential for heightened volatility in the financial markets

With few other options seen as viable, quantitative easing has gone from an unconventional measure to the mainstay policy for central banks despite questions over its usefulness.  The European Central Bank has been slow to try its hand at quantitative easing even though the Eurozone economy was struggling more than most.  This was because Germany (who had initially done well despite its neighbours being in crisis) was firmly against the central bank in Europe printing cash to buy government bonds.  It was only after a further considerable deterioration in the prospects for the Eurozone (as well as that of Germany itself) that the European Central Bank to override this opposition.  

No more magic left

The European Central Bank has been put at a disadvantage considering that the other big central banks have already tried to work their magic through quantitative easing.  Investors are becoming harder to impress having already seen central banks pull off similar tricks.  To maintain the wow factor, quantitative easing has needed to get bigger and bigger.  The central bank in Japan pledged to double the money supply within two years but had to offer up even more cash when its initial plans proved to be lacking. 

The European Central Bank cannot compete on scale as it has to perform magic with one hand behind its back due to the political constraints within the Eurozone.  Any extra boost using the element of surprise was also dented by the protracted process as the European Central Bank and Germany squabbled publicly over quantitative easing in the months before the policy was launched. 

The fractious politics in Europe has sapped power from the central bank who had previously been the main shining light in saving the Eurozone.  Political squabbles have highlighted the limited power at the disposal of the European Central Bank.  It is like a magician who is being sabotaged by their own assistant – it will take more than magic to escape this spell.

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