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ECB nearly comes clean – higher fiscal deficits, higher QE

Last year, the US Federal Reserve dropped a bombshell on mainstream macroeconomics by abandoning the consensus approach to monetary policy, which prioritised fighting inflation over maintaining low levels of unemployment, and, increasing interest rates well before any defined inflationary pressures were realised – the so-called forward guidance approach. It has also been buying massive quantities of US government debt and controlling bond yields in the markets as a result. Attention has been on the ECB to see where it would pivot too and whether it was going to abandon its own massive government bond buying program any time soon, which has been effectively funding the fiscal deficits of the 19 Member-States of the Eurozone. Recent statements have indicated the QE programs in Europe will not be ending any time soon. And an ECB Board member all but tied the scale of the purchasing programs to the size of the fiscal deficits as a guide to how long and how large the QE interventions would be.

On March 20, 2020, the ECB added the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) to it already, rather large, public asset purchasing program.

The press release – ECB announces €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) – said that PEPP was:

… new temporary asset purchase programme of private and public sector securities to counter the serious risks to the monetary policy transmission mechanism and the outlook for the euro area posed by the outbreak and escalating diffusion of the coronavirus, COVID-19.

The main (apparently, non-temporary) Asset Purchasing Program (APP), whcih includes the corporate sector purchase programme (CSPP), the public sector purchase programme (PSPP), the asset-backed securities purchase programme (ABSPP), and the third covered bond purchase programme (CBPP3), but, which, is dominated by the PSPP.

By the end of July 2021, the ECB has accumulated 3,038,684 million euros of assets, 2,429,274 million euros in the PSPP and is purchasing around 20 million euros worth a month.

So a very significant funding of Member State deficits through this program, which really began in May 2010 when the ECB introduced the Securities Markets Program to save several Member States from insolvency.

On top of that we have the PEPP which by the end of July 2021 has accumulated 1,263,348 million euros worth of assets, including 1,220,424 million worth of government bonds.

The ECB is in net terms buying around 80 million euros of government debt each month, although the figure fluctuates during to redemptions etc.

And despite all the inflation hawks claiming that the ECB will have to dramatically scale back its programs, the latest data shows the ECB has actually started to ramp up its government bond purchases in recent months.

Here is the history of the PEPP which began in March 2020.

The data shows that, far from worrying about all the inflation mania, the ECB is steaming full speed ahead funding the 19 Member State deficits and keeping them solvent.

The objective – to ensure the eurozone doesn’t break up.

Reality: breaking the Treaty but then without this massive bond-buying program the common currency would be dead.

There were some interesting statements coming out of the ECB in the last week.

The first, was an interview with Focus that the ECB Executive Board member Isabel Schnabel gave on August 17, 2021 (published August 20, 2021).

Referring to the disastrous fires in Greece, she was asked why “climate change … is a topic for a central bank”.

The question may have been better framed as ‘why is it a topic for a central bank in a financial system where the government treasuries (fiscal authorities) have no currency sovereignty?’

The ECB is not just any central bank.

It is both the currency issuer and the major source of fiscal support as evidenced by the on-going APP and PEPP.

Isabel Schnabel answered that:

Climate change has far-reaching effects on economic developments and therefore also on price stability – which is our main task. For example, it exposes the economy to more frequent macroeconomic shocks, which has an impact on growth and inflation.

Notice the slippage between “price stability” in sentence one to “growth and inflation” in sentence two.

The interviewer continued to prod – isn’t it “up to governments to respond to that” to which she responded:

Of course governments are primarily responsible for taking action. But we as the central bank cannot just stand on the sidelines and do nothing … climate change has large implications for price stability …

She admitted that climate change may have both inflationary and deflationary effects.

She also admitted that the ECB continued to buy bonds from carbon-intensive firms because “we have up to now been guided by the bonds available in the market”.

The interchange that followed was torturous because apparently the worst climate offenders have the largest adjustments to make so they need to be ‘funded’ through the APP and PEPP but that just meant they kept polluting for longer.

Crazy.

Why not just send them broke through regulation?

And the availability argument is crucial.

The ECB cannot just target ‘green bonds’ because “there would still be far too few green bonds” available.

On inflation and the direction of the APP and PEPP, she said she wasn’t worried about inflation and that:

… in the medium term … we expect inflation in the euro area to be below our target of two per cent. As surprising as it may sound to some – we are more worried about the inflation rate being too low in the medium term rather than too high.

Most relevant to today’s message though was her next answer relating to the way the ECB has changed its concept of the inflation target.

The question and answer was:

Q: Why exactly did the ECB change its inflation target? It used to be “below, but close to, two per cent”, now the inflation rate is also allowed to moderately exceed it.

A: The old wording was less clear and had occasionally been misinterpreted. Some had seen it as a ceiling, assuming that while inflation must not exceed it, undershooting it would not be a problem. That is why we made it clear: the target for us is two per cent. And it is symmetric, meaning that too low inflation is considered equally undesirable as too high inflation.

Further elaboration of forward guidance

On August 19, 2021, the ECB Board member Philip Lane published a blog post – The new monetary policy strategy: implications for rate forward guidance – which further elaborated on what Isabel Schnabel was referring to and sought to align the ECB policy approach with global trends, started by the US Federal Reserve last year.

Philip Lane sought to explain the ECBs:

… new monetary policy strategy, since it is essential that our approach to setting our policy rates is fully aligned with delivering our symmetric two per cent inflation target over the medium term.

Note the term “symmetric” – they are now consolidating that deviations below the target are as worrying as deviations above it.

The important observation was that during a deinflationary episode the ECB had limited scope “to lower rates into negative territory, owing to the lower bound on cash”.

The problem is that if the ECB pursues negative rates for too long as the economy is hit by a sequence of deflationary shocks, then:

… this could result in inflation expectations settling below the central bank’s target inflation rate.

They still believe that inflationary expectations drive the inflation dynamic and can be manipulated through monetary policy adjustments.

The evidence for that statement is weak but it remains the dominant view among central bankers.

When you go to a surgeon expect to be told that surgery is required.

The same for a central banker – they are hardly going to deny their existence and admit that monetary policy is largely ineffective.

The upshot of his view is that in times like this where the ‘lower bound’ is the problem, the right policy “requires especially forceful or persistent monetary policy action”, which is then used to justify “monetary accomodation on a persistent basis” – decoded, on-going APP and PEPP or whatever else they determine will be the name of the asset-purchasing programs.

The second upshot is that their monetary policy approach – “symmetric two per cent inflation target” – will only adjust interest rates upwards if “it sees inflation reaching two per cent well ahead of the end of its projection horizon and durably for the rest of the projection horizon”.

This means that spikes in inflation, if deemed to be transitory, will not trigger interest rate shifts, unlike the past, where the ECB was trigger happy and freaked out at the meagre suggestion of inflation.

So this is in line with the message that the US Federal Reserve pumped out last year, even if the wording from the ECB is more tempered and doesn’t outrightly say the ECB will prioritise reducing unemployment and tolerate periods of higher inflation as long as the average inflation rate is within their target.

In fact, Philip Lane never mentions employment or unemployment.

Then a Reuters’ interview takes us further

Which takes us to the interview published by Reuters (August 25, 2021) – Interview with Philip R. Lane, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, conducted by Balazs Koranyi and Frank Siebelt – which really allows us to see the close connection between fiscal and monetary policy ECB-style.

He was asked whether it was “still appropriate to maintain “significantly higher” PEPP purchases, and his, rather elongated answer, just kept talking about maintaining “favourable financing conditions”, which is ECB-speak for ensuring yields remain low and governments don’t become insolvent.

They would never admit that but that is the reality.

Without the PEPP (and the PSPP) crisis-ridden Member States would quickly encounter private bond market conditions that would be unviable and they would have to default.

He also admitted that the PEPP will be reviewed in March 2022, but, even if the PEPP is closed:

Asset purchases will continue after PEPP because we’ll have our regular asset purchase programme (APP) running, as conditions to end APP are not there.

Those conditions are that the ECB understands fully that the death-spiral would quickly return to some Member States, in terms of their solvency status, if the ‘market’ realised that the ECB was no longer going to buy most of the debt issued in the secondary markets via their various asset-purchasing programs.

And it is clear that while the acronym soup might see the PEPP disappear from the lexicon, the QE programs will continue.

He also introduced a new element, beyond the forward guidance narrative, into the PEPP/QE storyline.

He said:

A second consideration is net bond supply. You cannot think about the volume of the APP independently of the volume of net bond supply. The relatively high fiscal deficits that we saw last year and this year will not be lasting in the coming years, but the scale of deficits may remain higher than the pre-pandemic levels.

And with that you clearly see the tie in between fiscal and 2021-style monetary policy.

Obviously, they can only purchase bonds if they are issued by the Member States, in the case of government debt.

And obviously, the fact is that the rate of bond issuance is determined by the amount of net public spending (deficits).

Smaller deficits, less debt, less QE scope … and, while the ECB won’t admit this, less requirement for QE.

And, he clearly is signalling, that if the fiscal deficits “remain higher than the pre-pandemic levels”, then the likelihood is that the scale of the PEPP/QE purchases will remain higher.

But the point the journalist didn’t try to pursue, which would have been revealing, is – why do the “financing conditions” in the market, which is the ECB’s lame justification for the massive QE programs, depend on the size of fiscal deficits?

The point is that the ECB is clearly accommodating the fiscal choices made by the Member States (given that the purchases are broadly in line with the Member State proportions in the capital key) to ensure that yields remain low and governments are not held to ransom by the private bond markets.

Conclusion

It is interesting that the ECB has been much more explicit in its statements about its QE programs in recent months and also has rejected the mainstream notion that they are likely to result in accelerating inflation.

The last interview was also notable because it more or less tied the scale of the QE programs to the size of the fiscal deficits.

One link away from full disclosure.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 5 Comments
    1. More than comments, i got questions, the first one i have been carrying with me for a long time…
      1.-
      Where is the 2% inflation target coming from?
      ECB, Deutsche Bank, FED, all agree but i couldn’t find out why 2% (was that number coined by Mr. Abeille as well?).
      2.-
      If i understand the the public sector purchase programme (PSPP), funding the states without saying so, i get more problem to grab the the corporate sector purchase programme (CSPP) and the asset-backed securities purchase programme (ABSPP). I have to confess that i don’t know what the last one is about

    2. @ Bill,
      You wrote above, “The ECB is in net terms buying around *80 million* euros of government debt each month, although the figure fluctuates during to redemptions etc.”

      But, your 1st bar graph shows over 80000 million euros per month in July, 2021.

      From this I deduce that the *80 Million* should be 80 B.

    3. @Christian

      Good question. I suspect it is entirely arbitrary, not unlike the interest rates set by central banks (the natural rate of interest for a monopoly issued fiat currency being zero).

    4. @ eg,
      I think I’m in the minority of lay MMTers.
      However, IMO Gov. bonds should pay some interest rate. It is what makes them different from cash.
      I do think that there is little to no need to ever change it.
      My thinking is between 1 and 2%.

      I’m wondering why anyone would buy a bond that pays a negative rate, and IMO this also applies to a rate of 0%.

      Please, explain why the 0% rate is better.

    5. @Christian
      I would imagine a mainstream econ would say with inflation = 2% they can get a NAIRU of 4% instead of say 8% or 10% if they targeted 0% inflation, and 2% inflation is politically tolerable (hoarders will not complain too much). In other words, they have no f—king clue what the cause of unemployment is. Is it really useful to know what gearwheels twirl in the heads of the policy economists though whihc make them come up with such stuff? They are just following academic folklore, so there is a lot of NAIRU modelling number crunching going on, but not much actual human thinking.

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