The ECB: tackling the threat of deflation

The spectre of deflation haunts the eurozone economy. Inflation in the 12 months to May 2014 was 0.5%, down from 0.7% to April and well below the target of 2% (see). Price deflation can result in deflation of the whole economy. With the prospect of falling prices, many consumers put off spending, hoping to buy things later at a lower price. This delay in spending deflates aggregate demand and can result in a decline in growth or even negative growth: hardly a welcome prospect as the eurozone still struggles to recover from the long period of recession or sluggish growth that followed the 2007–8 financial crisis.

The ECB is well aware of the problem. Its President, Mario Draghi, has stated on several occasions that the central bank will do whatever it takes to ward off deflation and stimulate recovery. At its monthly meeting on 5 June, the ECB Council acted. It took the following measures (see Mario Draghi’s press conference and the press release):

• The main refinancing rate it charges banks on reverse repos (when using open-market operations) was cut from 0.25% to 0.15%.
• The rate it pays banks for depositing money in the ECB was cut from 0% to –0.1%. In other words, banks would be charged for ‘parking’ money with the ECB rather than lending it.
• It will provide targeted lending to banks (targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTROs)), initially of 7% of the total amount of each banks’ loans to the non-financial private sector within the eurozone. This will be provided in two equal amounts, in September and December 2014. These extra loans will be for bank lending to businesses and households (other than for house purchase). The total amount will be some €400 billion. Substantial additional lending will be made available quarterly from March 2016 to June 2016.
• It will make preparations for an asset purchase scheme. Unlike that in the UK, which involves the purchase of government bonds, this will involve the purchase of assets which involve claims on private-sector (non-financial) institutions. Depending on financing arrangements, this could amount to quantitative easing.
• It will suspend sterilising the extra liquidity that has been injected under the Securities Markets Programme (operated from May 2010 to September 2012), which involved purchasing eurozone countries’ existing bonds on the secondary market. In other words it will stop preventing the securities that have been purchased from increasing money supply. This therefore, for the first time, represents a genuine form of quantitative easing.

The question is whether the measures will be enough to stimulate the eurozone economy, prevent deflation and bring inflation back to around 2%. The measures are potentially significant, especially the prospect of quantitative easing – a policy pursued by other main central banks, such as the Fed, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan. A lot depends on what the ECB does over the coming months.

The following articles consider the ECB’s policy. The first ones were published before the announcement and look at alternatives open to the ECB. The others look at the actual decisions and assess how successful they are likely to be.

Articles published before the announcement
Mario Draghi faces moment of truth as man with power to steady eurozone The Observer, Larry Elliott (1/6/14)
What the ECB will do in June? Draghi spells it out The Economist (26/5/14)
Draghi as Committed as a Central Banker Gets, as Economists Await ECB Stimulus Bloomberg, Alessandro Speciale and Andre Tartar (19/5/14)
ECB’s credit and credibility test BBC News, Robert Peston (2/6/14)
90 ECB decamps to debate monetary fixes Financial Times, Claire Jones (25/5/14)

Monetary policy in a prolonged period of low inflation ECB, Mario Draghi (26/5/14)

Articles published after the announcement
ECB launches €400bn scheme, seeks to force bank lending Irish Independent (5/6/14)
The ECB’s toolbox BBC News, Linda Yueh (5/6/14)
ECB’s justified action will help but is no panacea for eurozone deflationary ills The Guardian, Larry Elliott (5/6/14)
Why Negative Rates Won’t Work In The Eurozone Forbes, Frances Coppola (4/6/14)
Germany’s fear of QE is what’s stopping us from cracking open the Cava The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (8/6/14)


Euro area economic and financial data ECB


  1. Why has the eurozone experienced falling inflation and a growing prospect of negative inflation?
  2. Explain how the Securities Markets Programme (SMP) worked (check it out on the ECB site). What countries’ bonds were purchased and why?
  3. What is meant by sterilisation? Why did the ECB sterilise the effects of the assets purchased under the SMP?
  4. If it is practical for the ECB to set a negative interest rate on the deposit facility for banks, would it be practical to set a negative interest rate for the main refinancing operations or the marginal lending facility? Explain.
  5. Why has the ECB, up to now, been unwilling to engage in quantitative easing? What has changed?
  6. Why may the introduction of a negative interest rate on bank deposits in the ECB have only a very small effect on bank lending?
  7. How much is broad money supply growing in the eurozone? Is this enough or too much? Explain.
  8. What else could the ECB have done to ward off deflation? Should the ECB have adopted these measures?