ECB Quantitative Easing Can’t Save the Eurozone


The ECB is likely to launch purchases of sovereign bonds later this week. The action may kick-start demand and fight deflation in the short term but its impact on growth and inflation is likely to be limited, according to a paper published by the Open Europe.

Many assume that QE on sovereign debt can have the same impact as it did in the US and UK. However, the economics and politics of the Eurozone are fundamentally different; the single currency bloc is at a wholly different stage of the crisis than when QE was launched in these countries. At the same time, QE will come with a range of political costs. That could come back to haunt the Eurozone in the long-term or lead to the programme being watered down, further limiting its effectiveness.

Eurozone remains dependent on bank lending: The ECB has already injected €1 trillion worth of liquidity in the Eurozone in various ways – near zero interest rates, LTRO, TLTRO, etc. Buying sovereign bonds is just another form, albeit on a greater scale. However, as with previous injections, there is a strong chance that this money could get tied up in the banking sector. Bank lending remains the key channel through which QE would filter to the real economy – non-financial corporations get 85% of their funding from banks in the Eurozone, the figure in the US is less than half this. The lack of lending from the broader capital markets means money will not filter through to the real economy anywhere as effectively as in other jurisdictions. Furthermore, exposure to financial assets accounts for only 49% of net household wealth in the Eurozone, compared to 82% and 62% in the US and UK respectively. This means that boosting asset prices will not feed through to consumers to the same extent.

Different stage of the economic cycle: When QE was initiated in the US and UK, their ten-year borrowing costs were above 4% and 3.5% respectively. Currently, the Eurozone’s is around 1.5%. Since the ECB’s promise to do ‘whatever it takes to save the euro’ in 2012,  borrowing costs around the Eurozone have plummeted – Italian borrowing costs fell by almost 4%, Spanish by almost 5% and Portuguese by over 7%. Yet, this reduction has not been coupled with an improvement in economic performance or inflation. There is little reason to think QE will be any different.

The structure of the purchases: Any sovereign purchases will likely have to be split according to the ECB capital shares. This means that almost half of the capital injection will flow to Germany and France, 26% and 20% respectively. Under a hypothetical €1 trillion purchase programme, only 9.6% of Italy’s, 15% of Spain’s and 13% of the Eurozone’s sovereign debt market would be purchased. This compares to 21.5% in the US and 27.5% in the UK. It is also highly unlikely that a bout of QE would stimulate demand in Germany – and thereby encourage the Eurozone rebalancing many hope for. Germany already sits on plenty of money; it just chooses not to spend it. Its economy is also operating at near capacity.

At the same time, QE would come with a series of political and legal consequences, meaning that the operation would not be ‘cost free’ as some claim:
Undermine German support for the euro: If the ECB launches QE, and particularly if the Bundesbank votes against, Germany will be isolated with both political and public opinion hardening. Free rider effect:  It is highly questionable whether politicians free riding on central banks is sustainable in the long-term. Using cheap central bank action to paper over deep economic and political cracks has not proved an effective policy for the Eurozone so far. Guaranteed legal challenge: QE is guaranteed to be subject to numerous legal challenges, primarily in Germany.

To read more please visit Open Europe.

Open Europe
1/19/2015 7:26:27 PM