Tag: ECB

If you asked virtually any banker or economist a few years ago whether negative (nominal) interest rates were possible, the answer would almost certainly be no.

Negative real interest rates have been common at many points in time – whenever the rate of inflation exceeds the nominal rate of interest. People’s debts and savings are eroded by inflation as the interest due or earned does not keep pace with rising prices.

But negative nominal rates? Surely this could never happen? It was generally believed that zero (or slightly above zero) nominal rates represented a floor – ‘a zero lower bound’.

The reasoning was that if there were negative nominal rates on borrowing, you would effectively be paid by the bank to borrow. In such a case, you might as well borrow as much as you can, as you would owe less later and could pocket the difference.

A similar argument was used with savings. If nominal rates were negative, savers might as well withdraw all their savings from bank accounts and hold them as cash (perhaps needing first to buy a safe!) Given, however, that this might be inconvenient and potentially costly, some people may be prepared to pay banks for looking after their savings.

Central bank interest rates have been hovering just above zero since the financial crisis of 2008. And now, some of the rates have turned negative (see chart above). The ECB has three official rates:

The interest rate on the main refinancing operations (MRO), which provide the bulk of liquidity to the banking system.
The rate on the deposit facility, which banks may use to make overnight deposits with the Eurosystem.
The rate on the marginal lending facility, which offers overnight credit to banks from the Eurosystem.

The first of these is the most important rate and remains above zero – just. Since September 2014, it has been 0.05%. This rate is equivalent to the Bank of England’s Bank Rate (currently still 0.5%) and the Fed’s Federal Funds Rate (currently still between 0% and 0.25%).

The third of the ECB’s rates is currently 0.3%, but the second – the rate on overnight deposits in the ECB by banks in the eurozone – is currently –0.2%. In other words, banks have to pay the ECB for making these overnight deposits (deposits that can be continuously rolled over). The idea has been to encourage banks to lend rather than simply keeping unused liquidity.

In Nordic countries, the experiment with negative rates has gone further. With plenty of slack in the Swedish economy, negative inflation and an appreciating krona, the Swedish central bank – the Riksbank – cut its rates below zero.

Many City analysts believe that the Riksbank will continue cutting, reducing its key interest rate to minus 0.5% by the end of the year [it is currently 0.35%]. Switzerland’s is already deeper still, at minus 0.75%, while Denmark and the eurozone have joined them as members of the negative zone.

But the nominal interest rate on holding cash is, by definition, zero. If deposit rates are pushed below zero, then will more and more people hold cash instead? The hope is that negative nominal interest rates on bank accounts will encourage people to spend. It might, however, merely encourage them to hoard cash.

The article below from The Telegraph looks at some of the implications of an era of negative rates. The demand for holding cash has been increasing in many countries and, along with it, the supply of banknotes, as the chart in the article shows. Here negative interest are less effective. In Nordic countries, however, the use of cash is virtually disappearing. Here negative interest rates are likely to be more effective in boosting aggregate demand.

Article

How Sweden’s negative interest rates experiment has turned economics on its head The Telegraph, Peter Spence (27/9/15)

Data

Central bank and monetary authority websites Bank for International Settlements
Central banks – summary of current interest rates global-rates.com

Questions

  1. Distinguish between negative real and negative nominal interest rates.
  2. What is the opportunity cost of holding cash – the real or the nominal interest rate forgone by not holding it in a bank?
  3. Are there any dangers of central banks setting negative interest rates?
  4. Why may negative interest rates be more effective in Sweden than in the UK?
  5. ‘Andy Haldane, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) … suggested that to achieve properly negative rates, the abolition of cash itself might be necessary.’ Why?
  6. Why does Switzerland have notes of SF1000 and the eurozone of €500? Should the UK have notes of £100 or even £500?
  7. Why do some banks charge zero interest rates on credit cards for a period of time to people who transfer their balances from another card? Is there any incentive for banks to cut interest rates on credit cards below zero?

It was argued in an earlier blog on the Greek debt crisis that a deus ex machina was needed to find a resolution to the impasse between Greece and its creditors. The most likely candidate for such as role was the IMF.

Three days before the Greek referendum on whether or not to accept the Troika’s proposals, the IMF has stepped onto the stage. To the undoubted surprise of the other two partners in the Troika (the European Commission and the ECB), the IMF argues that Greece’s debts are unsustainable and that much more is needed than a mere bailout (which simply rolls over the debt).

According to the IMF, Greece needs €52bn of extra funds between October 2015 and December 2018, large-scale debt relief, a 20-year grace period before making any debt repayments and then debt repayments spread over the following 20 years. In return, Greece should commit to supply-side reforms to cut out waste, reduce bureaucracy, improve tax collection methods and generally improve the efficiency of the economic system.

It would also have to agree to the previously proposed primary budget surplus (i.e. the budget surplus excluding debt repayments) of 1 per cent of GDP this year, rising to 3.5 per cent in 2018.

So it this what commentators have been waiting for? What will be the reaction of the Greeks and the other two partners in the Troika? We shall see.

Articles

IMF says Greece needs extra €50bn in funds and debt relief The Guardian. Phillip Inman, Larry Elliott and Alberto Nardelli (2/7/15)
IMF: 3rd Greek bailout would cost €52bn. Or more? Financial Times, Peter Spiegel (2/7/15)
IMF: Greece needs to reform for sustainable debt, financing needs rising CNBC, Everett Rosenfeld (2/7/15)
The IMF has made an obvious point about Greece’s huge debt. Here’s why it still matters Quartz, Jason Karaian (3/7/15)
Greece: when is it time to forgive debt? The Conversation, Jagjit Chadha (2/7/15)

IMF Analysis
Greece: Preliminary Draft Debt Sustainability Analysis IMF (2/7/15)
Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece IMF (25/6/15)

Questions

  1. To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
  2. To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
  3. What are the proposals of the IMF? What effect will they have on the Greek economy if accepted?
  4. How would the IMF proposals affect aggregate demand (a) directly; (b) compared with the proposals previously on the table that Greece rejected on 26 June?
  5. What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
  6. What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
  8. What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
  9. What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?

With talks ongoing about resolving the Greek debt crisis, it is clear that there is no agreement that will satisfy both sides – the Greek government and the troika of lenders (the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission). Their current negotiating positions are irreconcilable. What is needed is something more fundamental to provide a long-term solution. What is needed is a ‘deus ex machina‘.

A deus ex machina, which is Latin for ‘god from a machine’, was a device used in Greek tragedy to solve an impossible situation. A god would appear from above, lowered by a crane, or from below through a trap door, and would put everything right. The tragedy would then be given a happy ending.

So what possible happy ending could be brought to the current Greek tragedy and who could be the deus ex machina?

The negotiations between Greece and the troika currently centre on extending credit by €7.2bn when existing debts come up for repayment. There are repayments currently due to the IMF, or by the end of June, of €1.5bn and more in July, September and December (another €3.2bn). There are also €6.7bn of Greek bonds held by the ECB, as part of the 2010 bailout programme, that are due for repayment in July and August. Without the €7.2 billion bailout, Greece will be unable to meet these debt repayments, which also include Treasury bills.

But the troika will only release the funds in return for harsh austerity measures, which involve further cuts to pensions and public expenditure. Greece would be required to run a substantial budget surplus for many years.

Greece could refuse, but then it would end up defaulting on debt and be forced out of the euro. The result would probably be a substantial depreciation of a newly restored drachma, rising inflation and many Greeks suffering even greater hardship – at least for a period of time.

So what is the possible deus ex machina? If you’re looking for a ‘god’ then it is best, perhaps, to look beyond the current actors. Perhaps the Americans could play the role in finding a solution to the impasse. Perhaps a small group of independent experts or politicians, or both, could find one. In either case, the politics of the situation would have to be addressed as well as the economics and finance.

And what would be the ‘fix’ to satisfy both sides? Ultimately, this has to allow Greek debt to be sustainable without further depressing demand and undermining the fabric of Greek society. This would almost certainly have to involve a large measure of debt forgiveness (i.e. debts being written off). It also has to avoid creating a moral hazard, whereby if the Greeks are seen as being ‘let off lightly’, this might encourage other indebted eurozone countries to be less willing to reduce their debts and make demands for forgiveness too.

Ultimately, the issue is a political one, not an economic one. This will require clever negotiation and, if there is a deus ex machina, clever mediation too.

Videos

Greek PM Tsipras warns lenders bailout plans ‘not realistic’ BBC News, Jim Reynolds (5/6/25)
Greece defers IMF payment until end of June BBC News, Chris Morris (5/6/15)
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies BBC News, Chris Morris (10/6/15)
Potential Grexit effects Deutsche Welle (13/6/15)

Articles

It’s time to end the pretence: Greece will never fully repay its bailout loan The Guardian, Andrew Farlow (9/6/15)
Greek exit would trigger eurozone collapse, says Alexis Tsipras The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Helena Smith and Graeme Wearden (9/6/15)
The eurozone was a dream of unity. Now Europe has turned upon itself The Guardian, Business leader (14/6/15)
Greece bailout talks: an intractable crisis with three possible outcomes The Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/6/15)
Greece needs an economic defibrillator and a debt write-off Financial Times letters, Ray Kinsella (25/3/15)
Greece’s new debt restructuring plan Times of Change, Peter Spiegel (5/6/15)
Eurozone still in denial about Greece BBC News, Robert Peston (3/6/15)
Greece bailout talks – the main actors in a modern-day epic The Guardian, Phillip Inman, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (9/6/15)
Greece isn’t any old troubled debtor BBC News, Robert Peston (15/6/15)
Greece in default if debt deadline missed, says Lagarde BBC News (18/6/15)
Burden of debt to IMF and European neighbours proves too much for Greece The Guardian, Heather Stewart (17/6/15)

Paper

Ending the Greek Crisis: Debt Management and Investment led Growth Greek government

Questions

  1. To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
  2. To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
  3. Would it be possible to restructure debts in ways that make it easier for Greece to service them?
  4. Should Greece be treated by the IMF the same way it treated the highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs) and granted substantial debt relief?
  5. What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
  6. What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
  8. What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
  9. What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?

Let’s say that the world slides back into recession, or at least, the eurozone, the USA and other major economies. This is not unthinkable, given the determination of many countries to reduce public-sector deficits and debt, concerns about slowing growth in China and other major developing countries, and worries about various geo-political developments, such as conflict in the Middle East and the possible exit of Greece from the euro and the shock waves this might send. If it happened, what could governments and central banks do to stimulate aggregate demand? The problem is, according to the linked articles below, the world has largely run out of policy instruments.

In normal times, the main policy instruments for stimulating aggregate demand are cuts in interest rates (monetary policy) and increases in government expenditure and/or tax cuts (fiscal policy). But with interest rates currently at virtually zero, there is little scope for further cuts. And with governments attempting to ‘repair’ their balance sheets by cutting deficits, there is little appetite for increasing deficits again.

It is possible that central banks could engage in further quantitative easing. Indeed, the ECB is only just starting its large QE programme, involving monthly bond purchases of €60bn until at least September 2016 (totalling €1.14tr at that point). But QE leads to market distortions, such as increased asset prices (e.g. share and house prices), made higher and more unstable by speculation. By providing ‘cheap money’, it also encourages potentially risky investments.

The articles below considers the dilemma and looks at six possible options for policy makers suggested by Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC. But are they realistic? Read the articles and then consider the questions.

Financial crisis fixes leave policymakers short of ammo for next recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (31/5/15)
How to get the economy working for us Guardian Letters, Mary Mellor; Colin Hines; Martin London; William Dixon and David Wilson (2/6/15)
HSBC’s Stephen King Outlines “Economic Nightmare” ValueWalk (14/5/15)
HSBC: Central Banks Are Running Low on Ammunition Bloomberg, Julie Verhage (13/5/15)
If the US economy is signalling an iceberg, bad news: we’re out of lifeboats The Guardian, Nils Pratley (13/5/15)
Policy makers lack the firepower to fight another US recession Financial Times, Stephen King (18/5/15)
The new surrealism Global Economics Quarterly, Stephen King (Q2, 2015)

Questions

  1. What are the risks to global recovery?
  2. Why has recovery from the 2008/9 recession been slower than that from previous recessions?
  3. What are the traditional instruments for combatting a recession?
  4. Why might central banks be wary of engaging in further rounds of quantitative easing?
  5. What is meant by ‘helicopter money’? Would this be a better solution to a recession than quantitative easing?
  6. Go through the other five policy options identified by Stephen King and discuss the suitability of each one.

The eurozone has been suffering from deflation: that is, negative inflation. But, the latest data show an increase in the rate of inflation in April from 0% to 0.3%. This is still a very low rate, with a return to deflation remaining a possibility (though perhaps unlikely); but certainly an improvement.

The eurozone economy has been stagnant for some time but the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally appear to be working. Prices across the eurozone have risen, including services up by 1.3%, food and drink up by 1.2% and energy prices, albeit still falling, but at a slower rate. All of this has helped to push the annual inflation rate above 0%. For many, this increase was bigger than expected. Howard Archer, Chief European Economist at HIS Global Insight said:

“Renewed dips into deflation for the eurozone are looking increasingly unlikely with the risks diluted by a firming in oil prices from their January lows, the weakness of the euro and improved eurozone economic activity.”

Economic policy in the eurozone has focused on stimulating the economy, with interest rates remaining low and a €1.1 trillion bond-buying programme by the ECB. But, why is deflation such a concern? We know that one of the main macroeconomic objectives of a nation is low and stable inflation. If prices are low (or even falling) is it really as bad as economists and policy-makers suggest?

The problem of deflation occurs when people expect prices to continue falling and thus delay spending on durables, hoping to get the products cheaper later on. As such, consumption falls and this puts downward pressure on aggregate demand. This decision by consumers to put off spending will cause aggregate demand to shift to the left, thus pushing national income down, creating higher unemployment and adding to problems of economic stagnation. If this expectation continues, then so will the inward shifts in AD. In the eurozone, this has been a key problem, but it now appears that aggregate demand has stopped falling and is now slowly recovering, together with the economy.

It is important to note how interdependent all aspects of an economy are. The euro responded as news of better inflation data emerged, together with expectations of a Greek deal being reached. Enrique Diaz-Alvarez, chief risk officer at Ebury said:

“The move [rise in euro] got going with the big upside surprise in eurozone inflation data — especially core inflation, which bounced up from 0.6 per cent to 0.9 per cent. This is exactly what the ECB wants to see, as it is proof that QE is having the desired effect and removes the threat of deflation in the eurozone from the foreseeable future.”

One of the key factors that has kept inflation down in the eurozone (and also the UK) is falling oil prices. It is for this reason that many have been suggesting that this type of deflation is not bad deflation. With oil prices recovering, the general price level will also recover and so economies will follow suit. The following articles consider the fortunes of the eurozone.

Eurozone inflation shouldn’t shift ECB’s QE focus Wall Street Journal, Richard Barley (2/6/15)
Eurozone deflation threat recedes Financial Times, Claire Jones (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation rate rises to 0.3% in May BBC News (2/6/15)
Eurozone back to inflation as May prices beat forecast Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (2/6/15)
Boost for ECB as Eurozone prices turn positive in May Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/6/15)
Eurozone inflation higher than expected due to quantitative easing International Business Times, Bauke Schram (2/6/15)
Euro lifted by Greek deal hopes and firmer inflation data Financial Times, Roger Blitz and Michael Hunter (2/6/15)

Questions

  1. What is the difference between the 0.3% and 0.9% figures quoted for inflation in the eurozone?
  2. What is deflation and why is it such a concern?
  3. Illustrate the impact of falling consumer demand in an AD/AS diagram.
  4. How has the ECB’s QE policy helped to tackle the problem of deflation? Do you think that this programme needs to continue or now the economy has begun to improve, should the programme end?
  5. To what extent is the economic stagnation in the eurozone a cause for concern to countries such as the UK and USA? Explain your answer.
  6. Why has the euro risen, following news of this positive inflation data?