Appraising the European Central Bank

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Appraising the European Central Bank THE global economy has stopped sinking and central bankers are pausing for breath. As The Economist went to press on July 2nd, the European Central Bank (ECB) was expected to keep its main “refi” interest rate unchanged, at 1%. The ECB’s rate-setting council has been chary of cutting rates closer to zero as policymakers elsewhere have done. Its reluctance to do more has attracted criticism, only some of it fair. The focus on policy rates may put the ECB in a bad light but these are no longer a reliable guide to the overall monetary-policy stance. If you look at market rates the policy stance in the euro area is as loose as anywhere else, because of stimulus decisions taken at the height of the financial crisis. In October the ECB

decided it would offer banks as much cash as they wanted, at a fixed interest rate (the refi rate) and against a wider range of security than usual, for up to six months. It also scheduled extra three-month and six-month refinancing operations, so that banks could come more often to the central-bank well. In May the ECB council agreed to extend the offer of fixed-rate cash to one year. At the first 12-month refinancing operation on June 24th, euro-zone banks borrowed a staggering €442 billion ($620 billion). With so much cash splashing around, the charge that banks make for overnight loans has stayed well below the refi rate, with some occasional spikes (see chart). Since the €442 billion cash injection, overnight interest rates in the euro zone have fallen to a record low of

0.3%, below those in Britain and scarcely higher than in America. Indeed banks can now borrow more cheaply in euros than in pounds for either three, six or 12 months. Before the crisis, the ECB would aim to keep overnight interest rates close to the refi rate. Since it moved to unlimited fixed-rate funding, the central bank has been content to allow the overnight rate to drift much lower than the policy rate. In effect, the bank now has a target range for short-term rates: the upper bound is the 1% refi rate and the lower bound is the rate the central bank pays on banks’ deposits with it, currently 0.25%. The deposit rate has been a better guide to the policy stance than the refi rate has. ECB-watchers and markets understand this, even though it has not been spelt out in so

many words by Jean-Claude Trichet, the ECB’s president. Why be so coy? One concern is that by playing up the fight against recession, the ECB could appear to have lost sight of inflation. Keeping the totemic refi rate above zero may be seen as necessary to prevent inflation expectations from drifting up. There may also be a reluctance to admit that such a gushing provision of liquidity has altered the policy stance. Since the start of the crisis in August 2007, the ECB has insisted the two are separate. “They are bold on liquidity because they don’t see it as mainstream monetary policy,” says Charles Wyplosz of the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Yet the terms of its refinancing for banks have clearly led to looser monetary conditions. Another reason for obfuscation is to

mask differences among rate-setters. Monetary-policy hawks can reassure themselves that the policy rate is not too low. Doves are happy that effective interest rates are nearer to zero. And Mr Trichet can claim there is a “consensus”. The terms of the truce make it easier to reverse policy when the time comes. By restricting its liquidity support, the ECB will be able to guide overnight interest rates towards 1% without having to alter its policy rate. Because the ECB has had one eye on the exit since the start of the crisis it has earned plaudits from those who think the Federal Reserve has been incautious. That judgment is too kind to the ECB, which could afford to have scruples about the medium term because other central banks were taking more care of the present. It is