Negative rates are likely one of the reasons behind the lacklustre European growth. Negative rates have worked as a tool to transfer wealth from savers to the indebted governments that have abandoned all structural reforms, while these extremely low rates have also perpetuated overcapacity, incentivised the refinancing of zombie companies and effectively worked as a disguised subsidy on low productivity. Not only those measures have damaged banks, but they have also created very dangerous collateral impacts (read “Negative Rates Have Damaged Banks But This Is Not The Worst Effect”).
In recent weeks we have heard of a likely new stimulus plan that would include a new repurchase program and further rate cuts. A new asset purchase program is completely unnecessary and unlikely to spur growth when all Eurozone countries already have sovereign debt with negative yields in 2-year maturities and the vast majority have negative real or nominal yields in the 10-year bonds. Why would the ECB repurchase corporate and sovereign bonds when the issuers are already financing themselves at the lowest rates in history? Furthermore, by reading some statements one would believe that the ECB has stopped supporting the economy. Far from it, when it repurchases all debt maturities in its balance sheet and has implemented another liquidity injection TLTRO in March 2019.
The main problem of those who defend further purchases and more negative rates is one of diagnosis. The central planners believe the Eurozone problems come from lack of demand, and that investment and credit growth are not what they would want them to be only because investors and corporates believe that rates will ultimately rise, leading to defensive positioning.
The eurozone has seen nothing but demand-side stimuli, and after trillions of euros the economy is weakening because of them, not despite them. Because the problem is a supply-side problem that the ECB cannot solve. Rising interventionism and tax wedge that choke the private initiative despite alleged attractive conditions.
The other problem of diagnosis is to believe that credit growth and investment today are insufficient. There is no evidence that companies are investing less than what they need or that citizens are not taking the credit they desire and are able to repay, rather the opposite. In fact, the rise of zombie companies that the BIS mentions in various papers is precisely a sign of malinvestment and excess capacity. Ultimately, the central planners who believe that credit and investment growth are insufficient think so because they ignore technology and aging of the population. When governments and central banks ignore the diminishing requirement of capital investment that technology creates and the changes in consumption and investment patterns from demographics, their diagnosis of what is adequate investment and consumption is simply wrong. Even worse, when the rationale to support the idea of “lack of investment” and therefore a need for lower rates is based on looking at 2001-2007 as “normal” years, they are always going to make a mistake. Those were years that no one should consider as average, but years of a bubble that burst badly.
A recent analysis made by Scope Ratings showed that “a tiered system of remunerating reserves to mitigate the impact of lower rates on bank profits will have a limited effect. Euro Area banks have already incurred EUR 23.2bn in charges since the negative-rate began policy in 2014, EUR 7.5bn in 2018 alone”. Scope calculates the annualized current running cost of excess liquidity is EUR 6.8bn. Any further cut to the deposit rate would cost EA banks EUR 1.7bn. “In other words, EA bank ROE is c.40bp lower than it would be in the absence of negative rates.
Why should the ECB raise rates by a small 25bps then?
The evidence of the last years shows that the eurozone is slowing down in the middle of an unprecedented chain of fiscal and monetary stimuli. The failure to improve growth cannot be detached from the persistence on repeating failed measures. Implementing a larger quantitative easing and deeper rate cut program will not solve it, because the diagnosis is incorrect.
A small rate hike added to support to those governments that implement structural reforms may help the eurozone. Monetary policy now is dangerously whitewashing populists who feel they can increase imbalances and put further fiscal strains on their countries’ budgets with no real risk, as yields continue to fall, albeit artificially.
A small rate hike would be a healthy signal that may help the ECB understand the real secondary demand for sovereigns, stop the zombification of the economy and improve liquidity transmissions to the real economy. Instead of being an incentive for reckless behavior from deficit-spending governments, it can be the beginning of an incentive to strengthen the private sector and the real economy.
A version of this article first appeared here.
Daniel Lacalle is one the most influential economists in the world. He is Chief Economist at Tressis SV, Fund Manager at Adriza International Opportunities, Member of the advisory board of the Rafael del Pino foundation, Commissioner of the Community of Madrid in London, President of Instituto Mises Hispano and Professor at IE Business School, London School of Economics, IEB and UNED. Mr. Lacalle has presented and given keynote speeches at the most prestigious forums globally including the Federal Reserve in Houston, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, London School of Economics, Funds Society Forum in Miami, World Economic Forum, Forecast Summit in Peru, Mining Show in Dubai, Our Crowd in Jerusalem, Nordea Investor Summit in Oslo, and many others. Mr Lacalle has more than 24 years of experience in the energy and finance sectors, including experience in North Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. He is currently a fund manager overseeing equities, bonds and commodities. He was voted Top 3 Generalist and Number 1 Pan-European Buyside Individual in Oil & Gas in Thomson Reuters’ Extel Survey in 2011, the leading survey among companies and financial institutions. He is also author of the best-selling books: “Life In The Financial Markets” (Wiley, 2014), translated to Portuguese and Spanish ; “The Energy World Is Flat” (Wiley, 2014, with Diego Parrilla), translated to Portuguese and Chinese ; “Escape from the Central Bank Trap” (2017, BEP), translated to Spanish. Mr Lacalle also contributes at CNBC, World Economic Forum, Epoch Times, Mises Institute, Hedgeye, Zero Hedge, Focus Economics, Seeking Alpha, El Español, The Commentator, and The Wall Street Journal. He holds a PhD in Economics, CIIA financial analyst title, with a post graduate degree in IESE and a master’s degree in economic investigation (UCV).