The ECB’s large scale quantitative easing programme already has had some success – initially inflation expectations increased, European stock markets performed nicely and the euro has continued to weaken. This overall means that this effectively is monetary easing and that we should expect it to help nominal spending growth in the euro zone accelerate and thereby also should be expected to curb deflationary pressures.
However, ECB Mario Draghi should certainly not declare victory already. Hence, inflation expectations on all relevant time horizons remains way below the ECB’s official 2% inflation target. In fact we are now again seeing inflation expectations declining on the back of renewed concerns over possible “Grexit” and renewed geopolitical tensions in Ukraine.
Draghi has – I believe rightly – been completely frank recently that the ECB has failed to ensure nominal stability and that policy action therefore is needed. However, Draghi needs to become even clearer on his and the ECB’s commitment to stabilise inflation expectations near 2%.
A golden opportunity
Obviously Mario Draghi cannot be happy that inflation expectations once again are on the decline, but he could and should also see this as an opportunity to tell the markets about his clear commitment to ensuring nominal stability.
I think the most straightforward way of doing this is directly targeting market inflation expectations. That would imply that the ECB would implement a Robert Hetzel style strategy (see here) where the ECB simply would buy inflation linked government bonds (linkers) until markets expectations are exactly 2% on all relevant time horizons.
The ECB has already announced that its new QE programme will include purchases of linkers so why not become even more clear how this actually will be done.
A simple strategy would simply be to announce that in the first month of QE the ECB would buy linkers worth EUR 5bn out of the total EUR 60bn monthly asset purchase, but also that this amount will be doubled every month as long as market inflation expectations are below 2% – to 10bn in month 2, to 20bn in month 3 and 40bn in month 4 and then thereafter every month the ECB would buy linkers worth EUR 60bn.
Given the European linkers market is fairly small I have no doubt that inflation expectations very fast would hit 2% – maybe already before the ECB would buy any linkers. In that regard it should be noted that in the same way as a central bank always weaken its currency it can also always hit a given inflation expectations target through purchases of linkers. Draghi needs to remind the markets about that by actually buying linkers.
That I believe would be a very effective way to demonstrate the ECB’s commitment to hitting its inflation target, but it would also be a very effective ‘firewall’ against potential shocks from shocks from for example the Russian crisis or a Grexit.
An very effective firewall
I have in an earlier blog post suggested that the ECB should “build” such a firewall. Here is what I had to say on the issue back in May 2012:
A number of European countries issue inflation-linked bonds. From these bonds we can extract market expectations for inflation. These bonds provide the ECB with a potential very strong instrument to fight deflationary risks. My suggestion is simply that the ECB announces a minimum price for these bonds so the implicit inflation expectation extracted from the bonds would never drop below 1.95% (“close to 2%”) on all maturities. This would effectively be a put on inflation.
How would the inflation put work?
Imagine that we are in a situation where the implicit inflation expectation is exactly 1.95%. Now disaster strikes. Greece leaves the euro, a major Southern Europe bank collapses or a euro zone country defaults. As a consequence money demand spikes, people are redrawing money from the banks and are hoarding cash. The effect of course will be a sharp drop in money velocity. As velocity drops (for a given money supply) nominal (and real) GDP and prices will also drop sharply (remember MV=PY).
As velocity drops inflation expectations would drop and as consequence the price of the inflation-linked bond would drop below ECB’s minimum price. However, given the ECB’s commitment to keep inflation expectations above 1.95% it would have either directly to buy inflation linked bonds or by increasing inflation expectations by doing other forms of open market operations. The consequences would be that the ECB would increase the money base to counteract the drop in velocity. Hence, whatever “accident” would hit the euro zone a deflationary shock would be avoided as the money supply automatically would be increased in response to the drop in velocity. QE would be automatic – no reason for discretionary decisions. In fact the ECB would be able completely abandon ad hoc policies to counteract different kinds of financial distress.
This would mean that even if a major European bank where to collapse M*V would basically be kept constant as would inflation expectations and as a consequence this would seriously reduce the risk of spill-over from one “accident” to another. The same would of course be the case if Greece would leave the euro.
When I wrote all this in 2012 it seemed somewhat far-fetted that the ECB could implement such a policy. However, things have luckily changed. The ECB is now actually doing QE, Mario Draghi clearly seems to understand there needs to be a focus on market inflation expectations (rather than present inflation) and the ECB’s QE programme seems to be quasi-open-ended (but still not open-ended enough). Therefore, building a linkers-based ‘firewall’ would only be a natural part of what the ECB officially now has set out to do.
So now I am just waiting forward to the next positive surprise from Mario Draghi…
PS I would have been a lot more happy if the ECB would target 4% NGDP growth (level targeting) rather than 2% or at least make up for the failed policies over the past 6-7 years by overshooting the 2% inflation target for a couple of years, but a strict commitment to build a firewall against velocity-shocks and keeping inflation expectations close to 2% as suggested above would be much better than what we have had until recently.
PPS A firewall as suggested above should make a Grexit much less risky in terms of the risk of contagion and should hence be a good argument to gain the support from the Bundesbank for the idea (ok, that is just totally unrealistic…)
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