This week investors have been spooked by the election outcome in Italy, but frankly speaking is there anything new in that shady characters are doing well in an Italian election? Is there anything new in a hung parliament in Italy? Nope, judging from post-WWII Italian political history this is completely normal. Ok, Italian public finances is a mess, but again that not really news either.
So if all this is ‘business-as-usual’ why are investors suddenly so worried? My explanation would be that investors are not really worrying about what is going on in Rome, but rather about what is going on in Frankfurt.
Last year I argued that the ECB had introduced ‘political outcomes’ in its reaction function:
This particularly is the case in the euro zone where the ECB now openly is “sharing” the central bank’s view on all kind of policy matters – such as fiscal policy, bank regulation, “structural reforms” and even matters of closer European political integration. Furthermore, the ECB has quite openly said that it will make monetary policy decisions conditional on the “right” policies being implemented. It is for example clear that the ECB have indicated that it will not ease monetary policy (enough) unless the Greek government and the Spanish government will “deliver” on certain fiscal targets. So if Spanish fiscal policy is not “tight enough” for the liking of the ECB the ECB will not force down NGDP in the euro zone and as a result increase the funding problems of countries such as Spain. The ECB is open about this. The ECB call it to use “market forces” to convince governments to implement fiscal tightening. It of course has nothing to do with market forces. It is rather about manipulating market expectations to achieve a certain political outcome.
Said in another way the ECB has basically announced that it does not only have an inflation target, but also that certain political outcomes is part of its reaction function. This obviously mean that forward looking financial markets increasingly will act on political news as political news will have an impact of future monetary policy decisions from the ECB.
And this is really what concerns investors. The logic is that a ‘bad’ political outcome in Italy will lead the ECB to become more hawkish and effectively tighten monetary conditions by signaling that the ECB is not happy about the ‘outcome’ in Italy and therefore will not ease monetary policy going forward even if economic conditions would dictate that. This is exactly what happened in 2011-12 in the euro zone, where the political ‘outcomes’ in Greece, Italy and Spain clearly caused the ECB to become more hawkish.
The problems with introducing political outcomes into the monetary reaction function are obvious – or as I wrote last year:
Imaging a central bank say that it will triple the money supply if candidate A wins the presidential elections (due to his very sound fiscal policy ideas), but will cut in halve the money supply if candidate B wins (because he is a irresponsible bastard). This will automatically ensure that the opinion polls will determine monetary policy. If the opinion polls shows that candidate A will win then that will effectively be monetary easing as the market will start to price in future monetary policy easing. Hence, by announce that political outcomes is part of its reaction function will politics will make monetary policy endogenous. The ECB of course is operating a less extreme version of this set-up. Hence, it is for example very clear that the ECB’s monetary policy decisions in the coming months will dependent on the outcome of the Greek elections and on the Spanish government’s fiscal policy decisions.
The problem of course is that politics is highly unpredictable and as a result monetary policy becomes highly unpredictable and financial market volatility therefore is likely to increase dramatically. This of course is what has happened over the past year in Europe.
Furthermore, the political outcome also crucially dependents on the economic outcome. It is for example pretty clear that you would not have neo-nazis and Stalinists in the Greek parliament if the economy were doing well. Hence, there is a feedback from monetary policy to politics and back to monetary policy. This makes for a highly volatile financial environment. In fact it is hard to see how you can achieve any form of financial or economic stability if central banks instead of targeting only nominal variables start to target political outcomes.
Therefore investors are likely to watch comments from the ECB on the Italian elections as closely as the daily political show in Rome. However, there might be reasons to be less worried now than in 2011-12. The reason is not Europe, but rather what has been happening with US and Japanese monetary policy since August-September last year.
Hence, with the Fed effective operating the Bernanke-Evans rule and the Bank of Japan having introduced a 2% inflation target these two central banks effective have promised to offset any negative spill-over to aggregate demand from the euro zone to the US and the Japanese economy (this is basically the international financial version of the Sumner Critique – there is no global spill-over if the central banks have proper nominal targets).
Hence, if Italian political jitters spark financial jitters that threaten to push up US unemployment then the Fed will “automatically” step up monetary easing to offset the shock and investors should full well understand that. Hence, the Bernanke-Evans rule and the BoJ’s new inflation target are effective backstops that reduces the risk of spill-over from Italy to the global markets and the global economy.
However, investors obviously still worry about the possible reaction from the ECB. If the ECB – and European policy makers in general – uses political events in Italy to tighten monetary conditions then we are likely to see more unrest in the European markets. Hence, the ECB can end market worries over Italy today by simply stating that the ECB naturally will act to offset any spill-over from Italy to the wider European markets that threatens nominal stability in the euro zone.
News of Berlusconi once again slipped into the financial section
Spanish and Italian political news slipped into the financial section
Greek and French political news slipped into the financial section
Political news kept slipping into the financial section – European style
“…political news kept slipping into the financial section”