Friday, April 22, 2016

Column: Puberende Duitsers

Als mijn kinderen op het matje worden geroepen omdat ze veel te laat naar bed gaan of veel te lang op de computer spelen, is hun defensiestrategie vooral heel hard te schreeuwen en zo snel mogelijk naar de andere te wijzen als de echte zondebok. De gespeelde opwinding is de aanvallende verdediging om hun eigen gedrag te maskeren, wetende dat de ouders liever rust hebben in huis. Dat gedrag oefenen biedt kansen voor een carrière in de Duitse politiek. Want heel hard schreeuwen en een zondebok zoeken ter afleiding van de eigen tekortkomingen is de nieuwste trend in de Duitse politiek. Duitse kritiek op de Europese Centrale Bank (ECB) is niet nieuw. In de loop van de eurocrisis hebben de Duitse centraal bankiers Axel Weber en Jürgen Stark zelfs de handdoek in de ring gegooid en zijn ze vertrokken omdat ze het niet eens waren met het beleid van de ECB. Dat de kritiek op de ECB nu uit de allerhoogste rangen van de Duitse politiek komt, is echter nieuw. Met zijn uitspraak dat het beleid van de ECB verantwoordelijk is voor de opkomst van de antimigratiepartij AfD in Duitsland ging minister van Financiën en politiek veteraan Wolfgang Schäuble te ver. Iemand die zó van regels en afspraken houdt, zou moeten weten dat de Europese verdragen de Europese politici verbieden invloed uit te oefenen op de ECB. Wat bezielt Schäuble? Meer dan een jaar voor de Duitse verkiezingen lijkt Schäuble een belangrijke doelgroep voor zich te willen claimen: de spaarders en de gepensioneerden. Dat is met afstand de grootste groep kiezers in Duitsland. Met zijn kritiek op de ECB zoekt Schäuble een externe zondebok en kan hij zich opwerpen als de grote redder. Hij speelt echter met vuur. Ook al heeft Schäuble zijn kritiek inmiddels gerelativeerd, de geest is uit de fles. Schäuble heeft de Duitse kritiek op de ECB gelegitimeerd. En zo is een nieuw rondje hevige ECB-bashing begonnen, door politici, wetenschappers en zelfbenoemde experts. Gevolgen voor het beleid van de ECB zal dat niet hebben. De Duitsers staan te geïsoleerd in de ECB om een verschil te maken. Om een oud citaat van Bild-Zeitung te misbruiken: Duitse kritiek hoort bij het ECB-beleid zoals tomatensaus bij spaghetti. Het ergste aan de kritiek is dat ze de aandacht afleidt van de echte problemen in Duitsland. De banksector en het pensioenstelsel zijn al langer aan hervormingen toe. De lage rente is niet de oorzaak van die problemen, alleen brengt de lange rente de problemen nu sneller aan de oppervlakte. Ook leidt de ECB-bashing de aandacht af van de vraag waarom de regering bij negatieve rentes op staatsobligaties niet méér investeert, en waar de grote Duitse stap naar meer integratie in de eurozone blijft. Voor de toekomst van de eurozone en voor de rust in mijn gezin is het te hopen dat het pubergedrag snel verandert. Deze column verscheen vandaag in het Belgische dagblad "De Tijd"

Thursday, April 21, 2016

No helicopters at the ECB, not even in the basement

Well, some ECB watchers today might regret that they did not enjoy one of the first sunny days of the year but stayed inside following a rather eventless, not to say dull, ECB press conference. As expected the ECB did not announce any new measures but sent a clear dovish signal, keeping the door open for additional easing in the future.


The ECB’s macro-economic assessment remained unchanged from the March meeting. Risks to the economic outlook are still tilted to the downside and the inflation outlook also remains subdued. Consequently, there was no need for the ECB to change anything in its current monetary policy stance. Interestingly, ECB president Draghi sounded more optimistic about the pass-through of monetary stimulus through the banking sector, referring to the latest Bank Lending Survey. Nevertheless, the outlook for both growth and inflation is still shaky and uncertain enough for the ECB to stay on high alert.


In a rather dull press conference, three topics stood out: the announcement of the ECB’s corporate bond purchasing programme, helicopter money and, last but not least, a reaction to the latest German war of words with the ECB. As regards corporate bonds, the ECB will start purchases in June. The ECB will purchase investment grade bonds from non-bank corporates with a maturity up to 30 years. The ECB could buy up to 70% of each issuance. No numerical target for the monthly corporate bond purchases was announced. As regards helicopter money, Draghi shot down any helicopter some market participants might have seen (or wished to have seen) in recent weeks. According to Draghi, the ECB had never discussed the concept of helicopter money. Finally, as regards the latest reencounter with Germany on low interest rates and unconventional measures, Draghi clearly said that the ECB obeyed the law, not politicians, and stressed the ECB’s independence. Moreover, he remarked that low interest rates were not the cause of problems in the German pension system and should not be mistaken with long-term structural problems. Draghi’s final comment on the debate with Germany was even clearer: too much below-the-belt criticism could eventually have a negative impact on confidence, thereby forcing the ECB to stick to its loose and unconventional monetary policy for longer than necessary.


All in all, there are two key take-aways from today’s ECB meeting: first of all, the ECB is still on high alert and would be willing to implement even more stimulus if the recovery falters or low inflation leads to negative second round effects (even though it’s unclear what these measures would really be). And, secondly, the ECB does not look willing at all to alter its monetary policies as a result of German criticism. German has become a fact of life but it will not change the ECB’s life.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Germany's war of words against the ECB

German criticism on the ECB’s monetary policy throughout the crisis is not new. In recent days, however, it has entered a new stage.

It is part of the new era of information technology and media that every single comment of important policymakers and politicians is eventually broadcasted into the wide world. Even if it is a comment at the margins of ceremony of a small economic association in an even smaller city outside of Frankfurt. Last Friday, German Finance Minister Schäuble connected the recent gains of the AfD party in German regional elections at least partly to the loose monetary policy of the ECB. According to wire reports, Schaeuble said that he had told ECB President Draghi that 50% of the results of the AfD party were the consequence of the ECB’s loose and low interest rate policy.

Schäuble’s comments fit into a series of verbal attacks on the ECB by German experts, observers and regional politiicans. They could be seen as a preparation for the upcoming IMF Spring Meetings in Washington, D.C., this week, where probably the pressure on Germany to change its stance on austerity and become more stimulus-oritented will be increased again. Moreover, the German government’s position in the Greek crisis will also be put to a test again in the coming weeks. However, the tone and the direct attack of the ECB by a senior, or better one of the two most prominent, members of German government is unprecedented. Let’s not forget, Schäuble’s comments do also conflict with – at least the spirit of – the European Treaties. Article 130 says that “Community institutions and bodies and the governments of the Member States undertake to respect this principle [of central bank independence] and not to seek to influence the members of the decision-making bodies of the ECB or of the national central banks in the performance of their tasks”.

German criticism of the ECB’s loose monetary policy, zero and negative interest rates and other unconventional measures is not new. It is based on the argument that low interest rates are hurting German savers (and banks and insurers) and prevent rather than stimulate structural reforms in the Eurozone periphery. What this argument, however, often fails to admit is that German savers would be worse off had the ECB stayed at the sidelines, that it is the Eurozone governments (including the German government) which fail to accelerate further reforms (be it national structural reforms or institutional reforms of the monetary union) and that the German government itself is rather falling behind on new structural reforms to increase potential growth. Finally, it has been the slow pace and inactivity of governments which frequently pushed the ECB into the position of Eurozone fire brigade. It is not a role the ECB took voluntarily.

In our view, there is no easy or one-dimensional solution for the Eurozone to gain more momentum. Obviously, the German position is not wrong, structural reforms and sustainable public finances are one of the main requirements, but it is not the entire solution. Other growth-enhancing measures are also needed. Particularly in a Eurozone, in which populist and separatist parties are gaining momentum. This includes loose monetary policy but also fiscal policies. To tackle weak growth, adverse political trends and a possible disintegration of the Eurozone, a multi-layer approach is needed.

Consequently, the current war of words is a superfluous as a fifth person on a double date. It is simply counterproductive. It won’t change the ECB’s monetary policy, which contrary to what some Germans might think, is not going after Germans’ savings but is simply trying to revive the Eurozone economy and let the monetary union survive.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Weak revival of German exports

Some relief but no reason to cheer. February trade data just showed that the German export sector still struggles to gain momentum. After four declines in the last six months, German exports increased by 1.3% MoM in February. As imports only increased by 0.4% MoM, from 1.3% MoM in January, the seasonally-adjusted trade balance improved to 20.3 bn euro, from 13.4 bn in January. German exports have lost parts of their magic and strength. In the past always a reliable growth engine, net exports on average did not contribute anything to quarterly GDP growth over the last two years. In 2015, net exports even were a drag on growth. So much about export world champion. The weaker euro was only partly able to cushion the negative impact from weaker external demand, particularly from China and oil-exporting countries. The negative impact from low oil prices on the German economy through weaker exports is mainly felt in the manufacturing sector. Looking ahead, it does not look as if exports would quickly return as a powerful growth engine. Foreign orders have dropped by more than 7% since last summer, further reflecting a broader weakness in Germany’s main trading partners. Moreover, the tailwinds of the weak currency are also fading away. Since late-November, the euro has appreciated by more than 6 ½% vis-à-vis the US dollar. At the same time, the trade-weighted exchange rate appreciated by some 5%. This strengthening of the exchange rate should also affect German exports in the coming months. With strong consumption, a booming construction sector but stagnating industry and exports as well as a reprimand from international institutions to finally step up reform efforts, the Eurozone’s largest economy is losing some of its luster. Admittedly, it is a bit tongue in cheek, but after this week’s macro data, one could even start to think the Eurozone periphery these days starts in Germany.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

German new orders disappoint in February

Lost in stagnation. German new orders dropped sharply in February, adding to evidence of continued stagnation in the German industry. New orders declined by 1.2% MoM, from an upwardly revised increase of 0.5% MoM in dropped in January. On the year, new orders were up by 0.5%. The last months have not been easy for the German industry. Since May last year, new orders have dropped in six out of ten months. Interestingly, the February drop was driven by falling foreign demand (-2.7% MoM), whole domestic demand picked up somewhat after a two-months slump. While the German industry is struggling to gain momentum, the Eurozone’s most favorite crisis is back. Leaked minutes from an internal IMF discussion and the arrival of Greece’s creditors in Athens is a good reminder that the Greek crisis could easily escalate again and lead to another hot Greek summer in the Eurozone. The discussion on new financing gaps, the lack of structural reforms and debt restructurings or forgiveness sounds too familiar. In Germany, politicians yesterday reacted with the typical reflex of “there is no need for debt forgiveness in Greece”. In our view, focusing only on a possible debt restructuring does not capture the entire problem. In the end, the lack of growth in Greece and other Eurozone countries could easily put new pressure on the German government to reassess its entire crisis management. Eventually it could come down to a decision between a growth stimulus for Greece, debt restructuring or Grexit. We don’t dare to tell which option the German government would choose. Against the background of potential new uncertainties, the outlook for the German industry remains anything but rosy. Product expectations have already come down significantly since the summer and are now at the lowest level since March 2013. At the same time, order books have narrowed. The only encouraging signal from the German industry is the latest drop in inventories since the beginning of the year. All in all, today’s new orders were another piece of evidence that the German industry is treading water, as it is suffering from a cooling of global activity.