Europe’s QE Quandary
It’s the new conventional wisdom: When all else fails to make economies grow, create new money and buy government bonds. That’s the formula dubbed quantitative easing, or QE. Most economists think it helped keep the U.S. and the other countries that used it — Japan and the U.K. — from tumbling into a catastrophic depression. Will it work in Europe, too? The European Central Bank adopted the policy much later than its peers, after exhausting other options. It's been difficult for the 19-nation euro area to do the same thing, partly because of different interpretations of European Union rules.
ECB President Mario Draghi overcame German-led opposition on the bank’s Governing Council and embarked on a government bond-buying plan worth about 1.1 trillion euros ($1.2 trillion) in March 2015. The program was doubled in size after inflation remained far below target, and widened to include corporate debt. By the end of the following year, inflation was picking up, so the ECB planned to begin scaling back purchases from April 2017. Europe’s QE began six years after the U.S. started on its bond-buying, as the region’s fragile recovery lagged the rest of the world. It finally turned to QE after cutting its main interest rate below zero in 2014, the first major institution of its kind to ever try such a move. The ECB is also still providing cheap funding to any bank that needs it in its regular lending operations — a sort of temporary, on-demand version of QE. It began buying covered bonds in October 2014 — a type of debt secured by a pool of loans, such as mortgages — and added asset-backed securities later the same year.
The treaties that founded the EU prohibit the ECB from financing governments and broad buying of government bonds tests that idea. Germany’s Bundesbank, whose iron grip on prices after World War II helped soothe German memories of 1920s hyperinflation, has been particularly outspoken against expanding the supply of money. Officials argue that the moves reduce the incentives for governments to stop overspending and make their economies more competitive. For the Germans, it’s a matter of principle, even though deflation, or a fall in prices, has recently been a bigger threat than inflation. Before Draghi suggested in 2014 that the ECB could add as much as 1 trillion euros to its balance sheet, the scale of its stimulus measures had been small. Government bond purchases never exceeded 9 percent of assets, and all the stimulus added up to less than half of the balance sheet in 2012. In the U.S., by contrast, bond purchases that ended in 2014 quadrupled the Fed’s balance sheet to more than $4.5 trillion. Despite the controversy, asset purchases aren’t new to the ECB. It bought sovereign debt from countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy in 2010-2012, and covered bonds in 2009-2012.
Fed-style QE in Europe has overcome both practical and political challenges. Companies get most of their funding from bank loans rather than selling bonds, which is more common in the U.S. That makes European financial markets smaller and much less liquid. Government funding costs also vary widely across the bloc. The ECB has been buying sovereign bonds proportionate to the size of its member countries, so the bulk comes from nations like Germany and France, where yields have fallen below zero. There’s also still a debate about the effectiveness of QE and concern that it fuels asset bubbles as the money flows into stocks and other assets instead of benefiting companies and households. The current QE program was preceded by a bond-buying plan tied to Draghi’s pledge at the height of the euro zone’s debt crisis in 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to save the common currency from collapse. The arrangement, dubbed Outright Monetary Transactions, was never tested.
The Reference Shelf
- An article by Martin Feldstein, professor of economics at Harvard University, on the shortcomings of QE in Europe.
- ECB statement from March 2015 on its bond-buying program and a website with details of the expanded asset-purchase plan.
- A November 2015 research paper from ECB economists.
- A guide to the ECB’s QE program from the think tank Bruegel.
- Draghi’s speech from April, 2014 outlining possible policy responses and a speech by ECB Executive Board member Benoit Coeure from September, 2013 on the OMT bond-purchase program.
- Research paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis comparing QE policies of the world’s four major central banks.
- QuickTakes on negative interest rates and currency wars.
First published Feb. 25, 2014
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