Saturday, June 7, 2014

Going Negative in Europe

"Going negative" is a political term of art, usually meaning that one candidate campaigns primarily by throwing mud at the other candidate(s).  In our jaded times, going negative has come to predominate.  Trash talking, if nothing else, captures attention.

These days, Europe is going negative for political reasons, although not in the usual sense.  The European Central Bank announced recently that it was cutting the interest rate it pays on deposits from banks to -0.1%.  In other words, banks that deposit funds with the ECB will pay a 0.1% fee for the privilege of having the ECB hold their money.  The ECB claims to be concerned with a low nominal interest rate of 0.5%, and supposedly cut rates below zero to spur bank lending.  Whether more lending will be done is unclear, as banks in the EU have been awfully finicky about extending credit in recent years (except to sovereign nations that sometimes aren't creditworthy).  Banks could cover the costs of the ECB's negative move by lowering interest rates paid on deposits (i.e., on longer term deposits that still have a positive rate) and increasing lending rates for existing borrowers. There's no necessary reason for them to make new loans.

The 0.5% inflation rate that supposedly led the ECB to go negative isn't strikingly different from the low inflation that already prevailed in Europe. One can't help wondering how much the EU was motivated by politics, as opposed to monetary policy.  The EU's badly conceived structure--a monetary union without true fiscal controls--encouraged overly enthusiastic borrowing by sovereign members, particularly those that were economically weaker.  The resulting debt crisis was met with the EU's BYOB (bring your own bailout) policy that meant austerity for those least able to cope, and economic recession (or, in some EU member nations, depression).  It's hardly surprising that political extremism flourished.
Nationalistic parties in Europe have recently made striking gains in EU parliamentary elections (yes, in the election of delegates to the EU Parliament, a quarter of whom now would favor the dissolution of the EU).  It must scare the mudcakes out of the ECB's bureaucrats that a quarter of the EU's governing body would be pleased to defenestrate the ECB.

Moreover, nationalistic impulses in Russia led to its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.  Even though Russia formally transferred Crimea in political marriage to Ukraine in the 1950s, Vladimir Putin (Vlad the Invader, one might call him) seems to believe that Russia nevertheless holds a droit du seigneur to take Crimea for itself. In addition, Russian nationalism (plus surreptitious Russian military intervention) has fueled unrest in eastern Ukraine, leading to civil warfare.  It now looks like Ukraine may go the way of Syria.  Neither side is strong enough to win, and both sides are supported by outside interests that cannot afford to lose.  Russia can protect its interests by keeping the insurgency going at a low boil, just enough that Ukraine is afraid to cozy up too closely to NATO.  America has to do something to help Ukraine, but can't offer enough military assistance to decisively defeat the insurgents.  (Given the pathetic performance of the Ukrainian military, the only way the insurgents can be defeated is if we send in the Marines, and that ain't happening).  So, the nastiness of irregular warfare and flight of civilians from war zones, so familiar to observers of the Syrian civil war, is now being replayed in Ukraine.

Policy makers at the ECB undoubtedly noticed the rising manifestations of nationalism around them, and surely understand that the fiscal austerity imposed by the doyennes of the EU isn't doing a bang up job of fostering economic growth.  That leaves the central bank as the only actor in this drama who can administer the antidote to extremism:  the promotion of economic prosperity.  So, the ECB surely is going negative for political reasons.  And that's a problem.  Central banks were created to foster financial stability, not political stability.  But, with political processes in Europe (as well as in America) moribund on their best days, the ECB is trying to bail out a life raft with a tea cup.  And it's not hard to figure out its chances of success.

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