The case for looser monetary policy should be clear when the European Central Bank governing council convenes in Frankfurt on Thursday. The question is what tools to use: lower interest rates, spraying the banks with more cheap long-term money or the ECB’s first dose of “quantitative easing”. The answer should be a mixture of all three.
Germany’s Bundesbank is not afraid of playing the role of bad fairy. Last year it opposed the European Central Bank’s scheme for buying potentially unlimited quantities of sovereign bonds – a promise which ended the hot phase of the euro crisis. Last week, it criticised rules that encourage euro zone banks to load up on their own governments’ debts.
A big problem with the euro zone’s one-size-fits-all monetary policy is that it risks fitting nobody. That, indeed, was a key cause of the crisis. Early in the century, countries such as Spain and Ireland were booming, while Germany was in the doldrums. Setting interest rates at a level that worked well for the euro zone on average had the effect of inflating the Spanish and Irish property bubbles while pushing up wages so their economies became uncompetitive. When the bubbles burst, the damage was devastating.
The European Union is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This is evidenced in a decline in support for the EU among citizens in pretty much every member country. The most extreme manifestation is in the UK, where pressure is mounting to quit the EU.
Italy’s new prime minister, Enrico Letta, is making the best of a bad job. After February’s inconclusive election, it looked like Italy’s dysfunctional political system might drag the country further into the abyss. There was a risk that nobody would be able to form a government, new elections would be called and that even these would end in a stalemate.
One reason the euro zone is in such a mess is that it hasn’t had the courage to clean up its banks. The United States gave its lenders a proper scrubbing, followed by recapitalisation, in 2009. By contrast, the euro zone engaged in a series of half-hearted stress tests that missed many of the biggest banking problems such as those in Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.
It is perhaps too much to expect Britain’s Conservative-led government to lead any initiatives on Europe, such is the orgy of self-destruction in the party over whether the UK should stay in the European Union. But, insofar as David Cameron manages to get some respite from the madness, he should launch a strategy to enhance the City of London as Europe’s financial centre.
The austerity debate misses half the point. It is true that governments, especially in the euro zone, shouldn’t chase an austerity spiral ever downwards. But they can’t just sit on their hands. They must drive even harder for structural reforms.