Interest rates have, for some years, been the main tool of monetary policy and of steering the macroeconomy. Across the world interest rates were lowered, in many cases to record lows, as a means of stimulating economic growth. Interest rates in the UK have been at 0.5% since March 2009 and on 2nd May 2013, the ECB matched this low rate, having cut its main interest rate from 0.75%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Low interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing for both firms and consumers and this in turn encourages investment and can boost consumer expenditure. After all, when you borrow money, you do it to spend! Lower interest rates will also reduce the return on savings, again encouraging spending and for those on variable rate mortgages, mortgage payments will fall, increasing disposable income. However, these above effects are dependent on the banks passing the ECB’s main interest rate on its customers and this is by no means guaranteed.
Following the cut in interest rates, the euro exchange rate fell almost 2 cents against the dollar.
Interest rates in the eurozone have been at 0.75%, but a 0.25 point cut was widely expected, with the ongoing debt crisis in the Eurozone continuing to adversely affect growth and confidence. A lack of trust between banks has also contributed to a lack of lending, especially to small and medium sized enterprises. The ECB has injected money into financial institutions with the aim of stimulating lending, but in many cases, banks have simply placed this extra money back with the ECB, rather than lending it to other banks or customers. The fear is that those they lend to will be unable to repay the money. In response to this, there have been suggestions of interest rates becoming negative – that is, if banks want to hold their money with the ECB they will be charged to do it. Again, the idea is to encourage banks to lend their money instead.
Small and medium sized businesses have been described as the engine of growth, but it is these businesses who have been the least able to obtain finance. Without it, they have been unable to grow and this has held back the economic recovery. Indeed, GDP in the Eurozone has now fallen for five consecutive quarters, thus prompting the latest interest rate cut. A key question, however, will be how effective this quarter of a percent cut will be. If banks were unwilling to lend and firms unwilling to invest at 0.75%, will they be more inclined at 0.5%? The change is small and many suggest that it is not enough to make much of a difference. David Brown of New View Economics said:
The ECB rate cut is no surprise as it was well flagged by Draghi at last month’s meeting. Is it enough? No. The marginal effect of the cut is very limited, but at least it should have some symbolic rallying effect on economic confidence.
This was supported by Howard Archer at HIS Global Insight, who added:
Admittedly, it is unlikely that the trimming of interest rates from 0.75% to 0.5% will have a major growth impact, especially given fragmented credit markets, but any potential help to the eurozone economy in its current state is worthwhile.
Inflation in the eurozone is only at 1.2%, which is significantly below the ceiling of 2%, so this did give the ECB scope for the rate to be cut. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) After all, when interest rates fall, the idea is to boost aggregate demand, but with this, inflation can emerge. Mr Draghi said ‘we will monitor very closely all incoming information, and assess any impact on the outlook for price stability’. The primary objective of the ECB is the control of inflation and so had inflation been somewhat higher, we may have seen a different decision by the ECB. However, even then, 5 consecutive quarters of negative growth is hard to ignore.
So, if these lower interest rates have little effect on stimulating an economic recovery, what about a movement away from austerity? Many have been calling for stimulus in the economy, arguing that the continuing austerity measures are stifling growth. The European Council President urged governments to promote growth and job creation. Referring to this, he said:
Taking these measures is more urgent than anything … After three years of firefights, patience with austerity is wearing understandably thin.
However, Mr. Draghi urged for policymakers to stick with austerity and continue to focus on bringing debt levels down, while finding other ways to stimulate growth, including structural reform. The impact of this latest rate cut will certainly take time to filter through the economy and will very much depend on whether the 0.5% interest rate is passed on to customers, especially small businesses. Confidence and trust within the financial sector is therefore key and it might be that until this emerges, the eurozone itself is unlikely to emerge from its recession.
ECB ready to enter unchartered waters as bank cuts interest rate to fresh low of 0.5pc The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (2/5/13)
Draghi urges Eurozone governments to stay the course on austerity Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut to a record low of 0.5% The Guardian, Heather Stewart (2/5/13)
ECB’s Draghi ‘ready to act if needed’ BBC News (2/5/13)
Eurozone interest rates cut again as ECB matches Bank of England Independent, Russell Lynch (3/5/13)
Margio Draghi urges no let-up in austerity reforms after Eurozone rate cut – as it happened The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate to record-low 0.5% in desperate measure to drag Eurozone out of recession Mail Online, Simon Tomlinson and Hugo Duncan (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rates, open to further action Reuters, Michael Shields (2/5/13)
Eurozone loosens up austerity, slowly Wall Street Journal (2/5/13)
ECB cuts interest rate, not enough to pull the region out of recession The Economic Times of India (2/5/13)
Euro steady ahead of ECB interest rate announcement Wall Street Journal, Clare Connaghan (2/5/13)
European Central Bank (ECB) cuts interest rates BBC News (2/5/13)
All eyes on ECB as markets expect rate cut Financial Times, Michael Steen (2/5/13)