Thursday, August 2, 2012

Now for a dose of Draghi’s monetary medicine

by Stephen King

Financial Times

August 2, 2012

The eurozone crisis may have started out as a fiscal crisis but it is now most definitely also a monetary crisis. The eurozone’s monetary system has begun to fragment. No longer is the European Central Bank able to set interest rates for the eurozone as a whole. Paranoia about an eventual eurozone break-up has persuaded financial institutions – with some encouragement from national regulators – to keep their money at home. So, the cross-border interbank market is more or less shut and peripheral nations are suffering.

An Italian bank hoping to borrow money for a year or so has to pay an interest rate of 2.7 per cent. A Spanish bank pays 3.8 per cent. A German bank pays nothing at all (indeed, others are now paying Germans to look after their money). Something has gone horribly wrong. There may be a single currency but its constituent parts are in danger of slipping towards a messy divorce.

In earlier phases of the eurozone crisis, government bond spreads widened not so much because the euro itself was seen to be in terminal decline but, instead, because countries had their own idiosyncratic local difficulties: Greek government debt was spiralling out of control, the Irish banking system was heading to the rocks and Spain’s autonomous regions were, as it turns out, just a bit too autonomous. The choices were simple: austerity, bailout or default. These were specifically fiscal – indeed, political – options providing the perfect excuse for the ECB to take a back seat.

No longer can the ECB afford to do so. Mario Draghi, the ECB President, admitted as much when he observed last week that “these premia have to do more and more with convertibility they come into our mandate”. In other words, as the ultimate guardian of the single currency, the ECB has to act to avoid terminal fragmentation. The problem is simple. The ECB’s job is to deliver price stability in the medium term. It can do this only if its decisions feed through to the economy at large. Policies made in Frankfurt should trickle down to Barcelona, Berlin and Brindisi in roughly the same way. That no longer seems to be the case.


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