Yesterday’s decision of the European Central Bank to cut its key interest rate below zero and the other measures announced are more than a European way of the U.S. Quantitative Easing (QE). The ECB cut its main refinancing rate to 0,15% and its deposit rate from zero to minus 0,1%. The European Central bank is the first major central bank to endeavour into negative territory. In fact it is a historical breaking decision. It is particularly historical because it challenges the European Union institutional setting. It was not a genuine European procedure; rather it was an impartial decision of the board of directors of the European Central Bank!
A negative interest rate is the announcement to the financial markets that something is changing fundamentally. Banks are urged from now on by a simple declaration to channel money for real investment and not for speculation in the financial markets. European banks can no longer just ‘bunker’ money into the ECB. Even more the so called TLTRO program (Targeted longer-term refinancing operation) punishes banks when they don’t channel the credits to the private investment sector. This is the real revolution in European central banking: it is no longer the ‘invisible hand’, instead it has become a rule of the central bank to pave the road for investment and growth, rather than beforehand it was up to governments to initiate an investment programme.
There have been various comments and reactions especially from bankers but also from governments. Not surprisingly the harshest critics came from the former chief economist of the ECB, Jürgen Stark, and the head of the German IFO Institute Werner Sinn. They argue that the ECB decisions are a desperate attempt to pump more liquidity towards the south with even cheaper money. However they argue that the final bill will ultimately be paid by the small savers who will get barely any interest any more for their savings and the pensioners who will get less for their life insurance. They argue that this will affect in particular the richer countries in the North of the Eurozone.
Evidently, those criticising are largely orthodox monetary policy bankers stipulating that first and foremost price stability is the overall priority and investment comes second. According to them, firm consolidation of their structural economic problems is priority together with the substantial reducing of their debt. Moreover, they argue that there is already too much liquidity in the markets and lending will not and cannot be reinforced.
Nonetheless this decision is a real turning point of European monetary policy which has been for far too long influenced predominantly by the German Bundesbank and its orthodox and traditional approach of targeting only price stability and a low inflation rate rather than growth and investment.
Generally it is governments that have to provide stimulus with increased spending on public services and hence investments on stimulating growth. But the crisis countries are obliged to do exactly the opposite. They are cutting spending and increasing taxes to conform to austerity policies. As long as austerity policies prevail there is little hope for a vigorous economic recovery in the euro zone as the New York Times is commenting.
The ECB is now giving a strong wake-up call to these kinds of policies. Interest rates will now stay low for longer and more liquidity will be in the market to facilitate lending for investment especially in the south of Europe. This is the essence of the radical announcement.
Amazingly this links straight to the current negotiations on the top jobs in the EU. It is not by chance that some rumours stipulate that the German Chancellor, highly influenced by orthodox economists would like to get rid of this unorthodox Italian Central Banker. Rumours tell that she is trying to send him to the IMF in Washington. Is that the real merry-go-round behind in order to have not only a new mainstream president of the EU Commission but first and foremost another ECB head who is more in line with orthodox austerity policies?
Consequently the question lies if progressives allow conservatives once again to hinder a fresh start for Europe. It is absolutely inappropriate to try to smoothly sort out a non-conformist central banker who likes to stimulate growth and investment for substantially reducing unemployment especially for young people in southern Europe.
As long as European political leaders are continuing to argue that austerity is the only way out of the crisis they do not accept the dramatic consequences of these socially devastating policies! Mario Draghi seems to put an end to this with a courageous and risky decision and doesn’t address orthodox neo-liberals concerns. This makes him a truly avant-gardist. Hence, the decision is a historical break and a genuine starting point of kicking out devastating financial capitalism and austerity policies.