This is the third of six articles in a series presenting portions of Emma Clancy’s report The Future of the Eurozone that BRAVE NEW EUROPE will be posting in the next weeks. In this instalment Emma explains why the European Central Bank, repsonsible for the Euro, is an ideological instrument to enforce neo-liberal policy. Preivous articles in this series are here and here.
Emma Clancy works as a policy advisor for Sinn Féin and the European United Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and the Panama Papers Committee of Inquiry.
This is an excerpt from the economic discussion document launched by MEP Matt Carthy on October 27, entitled The Future of the Eurozone. Download the full document for a referenced version
Cross-posted from Emma’s blog
The monetary policies of the ECB – Europe’s unelected government
The neoliberal ideas, and the German economic ideology of ‘Ordoliberalism’, that shaped the construction of the Eurozone can be seen starkly in the nature of the European Central Bank (ECB). This ideology has been dominant in Germany since the Second World War and combines a belief in a welfare safety net with the view that one of the government’s key roles is to promote market competition, stressing the importance of constitutional rules, as opposed to the use of discretionary policy. This ideology shaped the nature of the Bundesbank, which was dedicated to tightly controlling the money supply to maintain price stability. The ECB was constructed on this model, with a mandate to focus on price stability – controlling inflation. Despite the total discrediting of this ideology in the wake of the financial crisis, Berlin’s belief that if the government ensures inflation is kept low and stable, then markets will ensure growth and employment of their own accord, persists.
A narrow mandate
The ECB’s mandate is in contrast to many other major central banks, such as the Federal Reserve in the US, which are tasked with the broader role of maintaining full employment and promoting growth, in addition to maintaining price stability. As a result of its narrow mandate the ECB only focuses on controlling inflation, regardless of how high the unemployment rate is. If there is low and stable inflation in the Eurozone as a whole – and in Germany in particular – then the ECB will ignore the growth needs of states experiencing high unemployment. In the midst of the recession and the sovereign debt crisis in 2011, the ECB actually raised interest rates twice, in April and July, contributing to the cause of the Eurozone’s double-dip recession. This caused major hardship in the crisis countries, particularly for mortgage-holders who were pushed further into arrears.
The other key difference between the ECB and other major central banks is its level of democratic accountability: for example, while the Fed is often described as “independent”, it is ultimately accountable to Congress. The ECB is unaccountable to any elected government or parliament. This feature reflects the drive by elites to “depoliticise” economic policy by outsourcing it to supposedly independent technocrats in order to weaken resistance to highly political decisions that have profound redistributive consequences for society. Bill Mitchell and Thomas Fazi write: “[T]he creation of self-imposed ‘external constraints’ allowed national politicians to reduce the political costs of the neoliberal transition – which clearly involved unpopular policies – by ‘scapegoating’ institutionalised rules and ‘independent’ or international institutions, which in turn were presented as an inevitable outcome of the new, harsh realities of globalisation, thus insulating macroeconomic policies from popular contestation”.
The decisions that the ECB has taken in response to the crisis have been extremely political, such as its decision to raise interest rates in 2008 and 2011, when the real danger to the majority of Eurozone members was deflation. The two most strikingly political acts during the crisis were the ECB’s threat to cut off emergency liquidity assistance to the Irish state unless it agreed to request a bailout, and its decision to cut off emergency liquidity to Greek banks in the middle of 2015 in a threat to Syriza that Greece would be forced out of the Eurozone if it did not submit to the conditions of the Troika that were resoundingly rejected by Greek voters in a referendum. The ability to withhold credit to elected governments gives the unaccountable ECB an enormous degree of power to impose its own policy on countries in need of assistance.
The ECB’s financing operations
In 2011 the ECB began the first of several financing operations in order to assist the economic recovery in the Eurozone. In December 2011 it announced its long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), which provided one trillion euro in credit in secured funding to troubled banks at a rate of one per cent interest. The banks often invested it into government bonds at higher rates, which helped the banks’ balance sheets but cost government budgets in debt servicing payments, and tied the banks and sovereigns even closer together.
As the Eurozone teetered on the brink of fragmenting in July 2012, ECB President Mario Draghi made his famed speech that is widely believed to have “saved” the common currency, which included the statement that, “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough”. The speech preceded a new financing operation called Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) in which the ECB offered to purchase sovereign bonds of the most indebted states. In 2014 Paul Krugman described the OMT programme as a “bluff” because “nobody knows what would happen if OMT were actually required”. The OMT programme has not in fact ever been used, because no member state has met all of the requirements needed to activate it. Martin Wolf and others have observed that the bluff was so successful not only due to its announcement, but also due to the tacit acceptance of the announcement by all member states including Germany, as this was perceived by markets as a signal that the risk of the Eurozone disintegrating was eliminated. But he adds that while the spreads between government bonds in crisis and core countries fell sharply in response to the OMT announcement, they remain significant. “For countries caught in a deflationary trap, these spreads might yet prove unmanageable.”
Neither the LTRO nor the OMT programmes did much to actually improve the supply of credit to the productive economy. The next financing operation was announced in 2014 – targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO) – and it was aimed at providing banks with funds on the condition that they would be used to supply credit to small and medium enterprises as opposed to being directed towards speculation. But the lack of demand in the economy has meant that the TLTRO offer was not widely taken up by firms. Despite the ultra-low and at times negative interest rates, and the billions of euros handed over to banks through its financing operations, the ECB was not able to generate recovery in the real economy and restore growth, and it has persistently missed its target of 2 per cent inflation.
In March 2015, the ECB announced a quantitative easing (QE) programme in which it would create €60 billion each month and use it to purchase corporate sector assets and government bonds. It was originally intended to last for one year but has been extended and remains in place, though economists expect the announcement of “tapering” in the near future, the phased winding-down of the programme. The Corporate Securities Purchasing Programme (CSPP), introduced in March 2016 and now valued at around €125 billion, has been widely criticised by NGOs and MEPs for the lack of transparency on how the bonds are selected, and the fact that the funds are being directed towards multinational corporations and the fossil fuel industry. Corporate Europe Observatory has examined the limited publicly available data on the bonds favoured by the CSPP and found a marked preference for climate-damaging corporations.
The QE for People and Positive Money campaigns have developed a detailed critique of the limited impact on real economic recovery of the ECB’s “trickle-down” QE programme and have developed excellent policy alternatives. This campaign is supported by dozens of leading economists. Two examples of alternative monetary policies they propose are for the ECB to transfer newly created money to Eurozone governments directly, who can use it to increase public spending on green infrastructure and services; or for the ECB to create money that can be directly distributed to citizens of the Eurozone, which would increase their purchasing power and directly enter the real economy. The current QE programme is not only unfair and ineffective – it is also increasing financial volatility and encouraging the inflation of new speculative bubbles.
A new banking crisis?
Despite the fact that the European banking sector has received more than €1.6 trillion through taxpayer-funded bailouts since 2008 – and despite the fact that the ECB has pumped in €60-€80 billion each month through its financing operations since March 2015 amounting to an additional €2 trillion in support – another crisis is unfolding in the European banking sector.
Banks in the EU, and particularly in the Eurozone, have been experiencing a chronically low level of profitability since the global financial crisis. While profitability of US and British banks has improved somewhat post-crisis, many Eurozone banks are struggling to keep their heads above water.
ECB Vice President Vítor Constâncio noted in a speech in Brussels in February that the key measure of profitability – return on equity – for euro-area banks “has hovered at around 5 per cent”, a rate which, he pointed out, “does not cover the estimated cost of equity”. By contrast, the return on equity in the US has recovered to above 9 per cent (around the current cost of equity in the euro area banks), and the industry generally considers 10 per cent to be a good rate of return. European banks’ income from interest, which was on average 19 per cent of their equity in June 2016, is less than their operating expenses of 20.9 per cent, according to the European Banking Authority (EBA).
The crisis has been demonstrated in the failure (or near-failure) of several banks across the Eurozone this year – including Italy’s Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza, and Spain’s Banco Popular – as well as the serious ill-health of German giant Deutsche Bank. Other banks that have caused concern, largely due to the results of the 2016 banking stress tests carried out on 51 major EU banks under the authority of the EBA, include RBS, which was bailed out by the British government in 2008 in the world’s largest ever bailout, and has since posted nine straight years of losses. Irish banks Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland, British bank Barclays, Switzerland’s Credit Suisse and Austrian bank Raiffeisen are all also subject to concerns about their health and viability.
In an illustration of the seriousness of the systemic risk posed by the profitability crisis, EBA chairperson Andrea Enria said last October: “The problem is European in scale: we have more than €1 trillion of gross non-performing loans in the system; even considering provisions [money set aside to cover losses], the stock of uncovered non-performing loans is at almost €600 billion — more than all the capital banks raised since 2011, more than six times the annual profits of the EU banking sector, more than twice the flow of new loans.
“For supervisors, this casts serious doubts on the long term viability of significant segments of the banking system [my emphasis]. The same concern is shared by investors and is reflected in the low valuations registered in stock markets.”
Most experts and financial commentators point to four key contributing factors to this lack of profitability – the high volume of non-performing loans on the banks’ books (loans that are in default after 90 days of non-repayment); the very low interest rate environment arising from the ECB’s recent monetary policy; the fines for misconduct banks have been required to pay since the crisis; and over-capacity in the sector, including increasing competition from FinTech.
Between 2010 and 2014, EU banks paid out around €50 billion in settlements and fines imposed by regulators for misconduct, largely due to mis-selling the risky financial products that contributed to the global crash. The EU’s largest banks, those classified as global systemically important banks (G-SIBs), were the worst culprits and paid the vast majority of the €50 billion figure. A report by the European Systemic Risk Board in 2015 found that past and looming fines would wipe out erase basically all of the new capital that had been raised by European G-SIBs over the past five years.
While misconduct fines and over-capacity dampen profits, the two most important of the four factors listed above are the NPL problem and the interest rate environment. But a key pressure on profitability that the ECB, EBA and the other EU institutions routinely fail to acknowledge is on the demand side – ie, the general economic stagnation in the Eurozone that has caused the demand for credit to fall and remain low. This stagnation has also contributed to and worsened the NPL problem. Euro-area banks held just over €1 trillion in NPLs last year, the equivalent of around 9 per cent of the Eurozone’s GDP, and amounting to around 6.4 per cent of total loans in the Eurozone. The level of NPLs differs dramatically across the euro area, with almost half bank loans in Greece and Cyprus now classified as NPLs, and Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Slovenia all holding NPLs at rates of 10-20 per cent.
There is a clear overlap between the high level of NPLs and the impact of the financial crisis on the so-called peripheral economies in the Eurozone, and a clear interaction between the austerity measures prescribed for these economies by the Troika and their inability to significantly reduce their NPL ratios. The collapse of the industrial sector in Greece and Italy in particular has been a major contributing factor to the rise of distressed loans as businesses of all sizes failed and their owners were unable to repay loans. The austerity policies enforced by the Troika in the crisis countries in return for bailout funds inevitably exacerbated the NPL problem.