Europe’s Central Banking Crisis

The optimists expect that the European Central Bank will do the right thing… eventually. Perhaps, but would a philosophy transplant at this late date make a difference? Year-over-year growth in euro monetary aggregates is growing at a snail’s pace of around 3%. That hardly comes close to what’s needed for an economy that’s suffering from a banking crisis, high unemployment (10% plus), rising bond yields, and the likelihood that the Continent is dipping into a new recession. The austerity-now movement is courting disaster.

Europe is suffering from policies that are a defacto gold standard, albeit imposed by way of fiat currency. The euro region’s broad M3 monetary aggregate rose a mere 3.1% for the year through September. With a recession looming for Europe, monetary policy is effectively throwing gasoline on a simmering fire. The dysfunction is obvious when you see government bond yields rising amid heightened recession risk. Normally, capital would be flowing into bonds on the expectation that the central bank would favor an easier monetary policy. But this is Europe, where the concept of promoting financial stability is a radical idea and certain government bonds aren’t quite what they appear to be.

For perspective, broad money supply is rising at a considerably higher rate in the U.S. M2 is advancing by around 10% a year and the narrow M1 is up by 20% vs. year-earlier figures. By these standards, the ECB is imposing a stern dosage of passive tightening on a faltering economy when exactly the opposite is needed.

The austerity crowd may have reasoned that the trouble was limited to the southern tier of euro countries—Italy, Spain and Greece. But French government bond yields are now taking flight too, trading at a 2-percentage point premium over German bonds for the first time since the euro was launched. The not-so-subtle implication: the infection caused by tight money in the wake of debt-deflation blowback is spreading.
No wonder that there’s a growing breach on policy matters between the euro’s two largest economies. Bloomberg explains:

French Finance Minister Francois Baroin risked re-opening a clash with Germany over using the European Central Bank as a backstop, saying that ECB support for Europe’s recue fund is the best way to counter the debt crisis.

Baroin’s comments underscore French unease as the debt crisis moves to the euro region’s second-largest economy. The extra yielded demanded by investors to hold French 10-year bonds over German bunds widened to a euro-era high today.

“We consider that the best way to avoid contagion is to have a solid firewall” by giving the fund a bank license, Baroin said in a speech in Paris late yesterday. “We haven’t won the argument. We won’t make it a casus belli, but naturally we continue to think it would be the best way to bring stability to Europe.”

As global leaders step up calls on Europe to find a fix to the crisis now entering its third year, the French stance is again running into resistance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which opposes enlisting further support from the ECB.

As Brad DeLong recently noted, “The ECB continues to believe that financial stability is not part of its core business.” The question is when (or if?) the ECB will undergo an attitude adjustment? It’s not too late, but the stakes are high and time is running short.
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Update: The Economist’s Buttonwood summarizes the strange state of affairs unleashed by Europe’s misguided monetary policy:
“You might think that high yields in the peripheral euro zone countries would attract bargain hunters but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Cesar Perez of JP Morgan Private bank (himself a Spaniard) gave me a clue earlier this week; fund managers he talked to were unwilling to buy peripheral bonds of yields or 7-8% but they would buy at 4-5% The reason for this paradox is that, at yields of 7-8%, the finances of Spain and Italy look unsustainable (the same would be true of most developed countries). A fall in yields to 4-5% would, in contrast, be a sign that the crisis was over and an indication that both countries could get their fiscal houses in order.”