Deflation Fears Grow In Europe As ECB Might Not Be Ready

Is Europe’s economic crisis mutating once again? If debt fears are now being superseded by the danger of deflation, as recent data suggests, the European Central Bank has its work cut out for it – and there is nothing to suggest that it is up to the task.

The numbers are alarming. Core inflation (the consumer price index after excluding volatile food and energy prices) in the eurozone fell to an annual rate of 0.8% in October – a 47-month low – while producer prices fell by 0.5%, suggesting that deflation is already in Europe’s economic pipeline. Annual growth of M3 money supply, meanwhile, dropped to 1.4% in October, from an already dismal 2% in September, while loans to the private sector contracted by 2.9% year on year. All of this makes it remarkable that the best the ECB could do at its December meeting was stand pat.

So what should a good central bank be doing? For starters, it should focus on maintaining appropriate monetary conditions and get out of the business of negotiating policy conditionality with governments. A central bank’s core mandate is to keep inflation at appropriate levels, not to negotiate structural reforms with countries like Greece, a task that is best left to the European commission and the International Monetary Fund.

Similarly, the ECB’s outright monetary transactions (OMT) programme, announced in the wake of President Mario Draghi’s “do whatever it takes” speech in the summer of 2012, is at best a distraction. While a central bank should ensure the smooth operation of the payments and financial system, it makes no sense for this task to be contingent on governments’ negotiation of a reform programme with the European Union’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), as is the case with OMT.

The commitment to preserving the integrity of the payments system must be unconditional. If the ECB concludes that panicked investors are threatening the integrity of the payments system by selling a member state’s bonds, then it should intervene, buying up those bonds on the secondary market, ESM agreement or not.

The ESM link is designed to reassure the German public that the ECB will not intervene indiscriminately. But it also creates uncertainty and delay, and prevents the ECB from acting as a true lender of last resort.

German public opinion also prevents the ECB from cutting interest rates and expanding the supply of money and credit. There is, as always, Germans’ deep-seated fear of inflation to overcome, along with the belief that too much easy credit will weaken the pressure on southern European countries to reform. But a responsible central bank should not cater to irrational fears of inflation in what is in fact a deflationary environment, just as it is not an independent central bank’s role to tighten the thumbscrews for fiscal and structural reform.

Unfortunately, Europe’s central bank does both. Thus, we have the unseemly spectacle of the ECB hesitating to cut interest rates for fear that, having exhausted conventional policy, it would have to turn to unconventional measures like quantitative easing, which would antagonise German public opinion even more.


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Alfonso Esparza

Alfonso Esparza

Senior Currency Analyst at Market Pulse
Alfonso Esparza specializes in macro forex strategies for North American and major currency pairs. Upon joining OANDA in 2007, Alfonso Esparza established the MarketPulseFX blog and he has since written extensively about central banks and global economic and political trends. Alfonso has also worked as a professional currency trader focused on North America and emerging markets. He has been published by The MarketWatch, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and The Globe and Mail, and he also appears regularly as a guest commentator on networks including Bloomberg and BNN. He holds a finance degree from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM) and an MBA with a specialization on financial engineering and marketing from the University of Toronto.
Alfonso Esparza