ECB: You Can't Inflate, Even if you Want To

November 29th, 2011
in Announcements, Op Ed

by Warren Mosler

blow-up-balloonWith the tools currently at their immediate disposal, including providing unlimited member bank liquidity,lowering the interbank rate, and buying euro national govt debt, the ECB has no chance of causing any monetary inflation, no matter how hard it might try. There just are no known channels, direct or indirect, in theory or practice, that connects those policies to the real economy. (Note that this is not to say that removing bank liquidity and national govt credit support wouldn’t be catastrophic. It’s a bit like engine oil. You need a gallon or two for the engine to run correctly, but further increasing the oil in the sump isn’t going to alter the engine’s performance.)

Follow up:

Lower rates sure doesn’t do the trick. Just look to Japan for going on two decades, the US going on 3 years, and the ECB’s low rate policies of recent years. There’s not a hint of monetary inflation/excess aggregate demand or inflationary currency weakness from low rates. If anything, seems to me the depressing effect on savers indicates low rates from the CB might even, ironically, promote deflation through the interest income channels, as the non govt sector is necessarily a net receiver of interest income when the govt is a net payer. (See Bernanke, Reinhart, and Sacks 2004 Fed paper on the fiscal effect of changes in interest rates.)

And if what’s called quantitative easing was inflationary, Japan would be hyperinflating by now, with the US not far behind. Nor is there any sign that the ECB’s buying of euro govt bonds has resulted in any kind of monetary inflation, as nothing but deflationary pressures continue to mount in that ongoing debt implosion. The reason there is no inflation from the ECB bond buying is because all it does is shift investor holdings from national govt debt to ECB balances, which changes nothing in the real economy.

Nor does bank liquidity provision have anything to do with monetary inflation, currency depreciation, or bank lending. As all monetary insiders know, bank lending is never reserve constrained. Constraints on banking come from regulation, including capital requirements and lending standards, and, of course credit worthy entities looking to borrow. With the ECB providing unlimited liquidity for the last several years, wouldn’t you think if there was going to be some kind of monetary problem it would have happened by now?

So the grand irony of the day is, that while there’s nothing the ECB can do to cause monetary inflation, even if it wanted to, the ECB, fearing inflation, holds back on the bond buying that would eliminate the national govt solvency risk but not halt the deflationary monetary forces currently in place.

So where does monetary inflation come from? Fiscal policy. The Weimar inflation was caused by deficit spending on the order of something like 50% of GDP to buy the foreign currencies demanded for war reparations. It was no surprise that selling that many German marks for foreign currencies in the market place drove the mark down as it did. In fact, when that policy finally ended, so did the inflation. And there was nothing the central bank could do with interest rates or buying and selling securities or anything else to stop the inflation caused by the massive deficit spending, just like today there is nothing the ECB can do to reverse the deflationary forces in place from the austerity measures.

So here we are, with the ECB demanding deflationary austerity from the member nations in return for the limited bond buying that has been sustaining some semblance of national govt solvency, not seeming to realize it can’t inflate with its monetary policy tools, even if it wanted to.

Post script:

The only way the ECB could inflate would be to buy dollars or other fx outright, which it doesn’t do even when it might want a weaker euro, as ideologically they want the euro to be the reserve currency, and not themselves build fx reserves that give the appearance of the euro being backed by fx.

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About the Author

Warren Mosler is co-founder and Distinguished Research Associate of The Center for Full Employment And Price Stability at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. CFEPS has supported economic research projects and graduate students at UMKC, the London School of Economics, the New School in NYC, Harvard University, and the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is Associate Fellow, University of Newcastle, Australia.

Warren is the founder and principal AVM, L.P., a broker/dealer that provides advanced financial services to large institutional accounts. He is also founder and principal of Illinois Income Investors (III), specializing in fixed income investment strategies for 29 years. He is presently located in the U.S. Virgin Islands where he heads Valance Co, Inc., the corporation that owns the shares of III Offshore Advisors and III Advisors, the companies that manage AVM and III.

Warren has a degree in economics from the University of Connecticut. He has 38 years of experience in a variety of fixed income markets, including derivatives. He writes at his blog and widely in the press and blogosphere. Warren is considered to be the founder of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). You can read a longer bio here.

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