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From Trichet to Draghi: Results and prospects

By Christophe Blot and Eric Heyer

During eight years as head of the ECB, we have seen two Jean-Claude Trichets (JCT): one dogmatic, the other pragmatic. What will be the face of his successor, Mario Draghi of Italy, as he takes office during the unprecedented crisis facing the euro zone?

Over the first five years, the pre-crisis period, we had JCT the dogmatist: a very experienced central banker, he scrupulously stuck to his mandate, namely to keep inflation close to 2%. In light of this single criterion, considered essential by the Germans, JCT’s record was good, as average inflation in the euro zone during the period was 2.1%. However, several criticisms can be leveled at his post-crisis activity: the first is that in trying to give flesh to the single currency and make it credible, JCT decided to make it “strong” – which is different from “stable”. No arrangements were made to control the exchange rate, and he was pleased to see the euro rise from $1.10 in 2003 to almost $1.50 in late 2007, an appreciation of 37%. The dogma of the strong euro, of competitive disinflation, has certainly helped to contain inflation, but at the expense of Europe’s competitiveness and growth. A less strict interpretation of price stability would have led the ECB to pay more attention to the euro’s exchange rate, which would in turn have promoted more vigorous growth and employment in the euro zone. Between 2003 and 2007, average annual growth in the euro zone was 0.6 percentage point lower than in the US and the UK (2.1% against 2.7%), and the unemployment rate was more than 3 points higher (8.4% in the euro zone against 5.1% in the US and UK), with comparable performances on inflation. The second criticism has to do with JCT’s strict interpretation of the fight against inflation, which led him into a serious miscalculation: in the summer of 2008, just weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, while the US economy was already in recession and fears were growing for Europe, the ECB decided to raise interest rates out of fear of renewed inflationary pressures fueled by the rising prices of energy and food raw materials. However, worrying about inflationary pressures at a time when the global economy was about to sink into the greatest crisis since the 1930s was not very perceptive.

For the past three years, a period of crisis, we’ve had the JCT the pragmatist: in the absence of a system of European governance, JCT has been a pillar of Europe’s response to the crisis, as he engaged as equals with heads of state and made significant efforts to rescue the financial system. In this regard, and in contrast to the previous four years, he has taken some liberties with the mandate and statutes of the ECB by implementing unconventional measures, especially at the time of the sovereign debt crisis. But by raising rates since the beginning of the year, against a background of mass unemployment and substantial under-utilization of the euro zone’s production capacity, JCT the pragmatist has committed the same error of interpretation as JCT the dogmatist did three years earlier: as the rise in inflation was not associated with the risk of an overheating European economy, but rather had its origin in the rising prices of food and energy raw materials, the rate increases have not had any impact on inflation but, on the other hand, they have contributed a bit to further weakening European growth.

In fact, the ECB quickly revised its diagnosis, leaving the door open to a rapid cut in interest rates. It is also likely that Jean-Claude Trichet would have acted faster had he not been at the end of his term. In doing what he did, JCT avoided locking his successor into a specific scenario, and thus left him a range of options in his first steps at the head of the ECB. Mario Draghi quickly ended any suspense about his intentions by announcing a quarter point cut in interest rates at his first meeting on 3 November. While he was careful to point out that the ECB does not make any commitments to future decisions, the macroeconomic and financial situation points towards at least one further rate cut.

Yet if the question of interest rate policy is a central element of monetary policy and thus of Mario Draghi’s mandate, the challenges facing him go far beyond this issue. In the context of the euro zone crisis, the eyes of the world are focused on the ECB’s program of securities purchases, which raises the question of the ECB’s role in European governance. This question actually involves a number of critical and interdependent matters: the role of lender of last resort, coordination between fiscal policy and monetary policy, and the ECB’s role with respect to financial stability.

The current crisis illustrates the difficulties inherent in the functioning of a monetary union that lacks a fiscal union, since in actuality this means that a member of the union is taking on debt in a currency that it does not control. Even though in normal times monetary policy operations in the United States lead the Fed to hold government securities – mostly short-term – the crisis has prompted the US central bank to expand its purchases of securities and to change the structure of its balance sheet by buying government bonds on secondary markets. The Bank of England has taken similar action by purchasing nearly 200 billion pounds of government bonds[1]. As for the Bank of Japan, it has amplified the unconventional measures that were already in place to fight the deflation that has plagued the archipelago since the late 1990s. In taking these actions, the central banks have put downward pressure on long-term interest rates, and they have ensured the liquidity of these markets by acting implicitly as lenders of last resort. While the ECB has also gotten involved in this area by buying more than 170 billion euros of government securities (Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Irish), the magnitude of its asset purchase program (2.1% of the total public debt of the euro zone countries) is still below the level implemented by the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, which respectively own more than 10.5% and 16% of the public debt issued by their governments. Moreover, the ECB took care to specify that the program was temporary, had a limited budget and was designed to restore the effectiveness of monetary policy. In a recent comment, Paul de Grauwe compared the ECB’s strategy to that of an army chief going off to war who declares that he would never use his full military potential and he would bring all the troops home as soon as possible, that is to say, without ensuring that final victory had been won. A strategy like this is doomed to failure. Only an open-ended commitment could stop the contagion affecting the euro zone countries plagued by budget problems. And only one central bank can offer such a guarantee, through the creation of money. Yet up to now Europe’s countries have rejected this path, including at the summit of October 25, while at his first press conference Mario Draghi has only reiterated the strategy of the ECB, even adding that he did not believe that a lender of last resort is the solution to the crisis in the euro zone. As the size of the remaining EFSF is insufficient to halt the contagion, it is likely that the role of the ECB will once again take center stage. It is to be hoped that Mario Draghi and the members of the Board of Governors will be more pragmatic on this next occasion. It is urgent to recognize the ECB’s role as lender of last resort by making the financial stability of the euro zone an explicit objective of monetary policy.

Moreover, beyond the role of lender of last resort, the coordination of economic policy more generally also needs to be revised. The articulation of the policy mix is indeed a central element of performance in terms of growth. In the US, the complementarity between monetary and fiscal policy is now obvious, as by putting pressure on long rates, the Federal Reserve implemented a policy to ensure the sustainability of fiscal policy at the same time that it is promoting the impact on growth. The main criticism of this policy argues that this undermines the independence of the Central Bank. However, there is no evidence today to say that the Fed has abandoned the conduct of monetary policy in favor of the government. The question does not even arise, since the US central bank is pursuing the same objectives as the US government: growth, employment, price stability and financial stability [2]. These objectives are interdependent, and the euro zone will find its way to growth again only once all the authorities are rowing in the same direction.

While these issues are not all the exclusive responsibility of Mario Draghi – a reform of the Treaty could strengthen and legitimize his decisions – his position will nevertheless be decisive. The crisis in the euro zone calls for urgent decisions and will quickly reveal the ambitions and the capabilities of its new president.


[1] The BoE has, however, just announced that its program to buy securities will be gradually expanded to 275 billion pounds sterling.

[2] See ”The Fed, the ECB and the dual mandate”.

 

 

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