Neil Irwin
Neil Irwin
Columnist

At European Central Bank, a unexpectedly decisive move to cut interest rates

If any other central bank met following a series of economic reports showing low and falling inflation mixed with stagnant growth, then elected to cut interest rates, you would say, “Well yeah, of course they did.”

But this was the European Central Bank. The hard-line, inflation-phobic, Germany-based institution that sets monetary policy for the 17-nation euro zone and has been reluctant to do anything that might risk even the eensiest bit of inflation. As a refresher, steeper price increases would be very helpful right about now in allowing the imbalances within Europe to right themselves, but instead the continent is getting the opposite. Inflation has been well below the just-below-2-percent target that the central bank aims for.

Neil Irwin

Neil Irwin is a Washington Post columnist and the economics editor of Wonkblog. Each weekday morning his Econ Agenda column reports and explains the latest trends in economics, finance, and the policies that shape both. He is the author of “The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire.” Follow him on Twitter here. Email him here.

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So it wasn’t the fundamentals that made the ECB’s rate cut Thursday a surprise. Rather, it was the decisiveness and speed with which the bank moved to cut short-term interest rates a quarter point, down to 0.25 percent. Analysts had assigned only perhaps a one-in-four or so chance that it would make such a move and thought it more likely that the ECB would drag its feet and wait for more data to prove that Europe is falling into a Japan-style deflation trap.

It was enough to drive the stock market up across Europe and to send the euro down against the dollar, helping to reverse a run-up over the past couple of months that had endangered the continent’s economy.

ECB President Mario Draghi indicated in his news conference following the announcement that although the bank’s governing council agreed on the rightness of easing monetary policy, there was disagreement on the timing. Reading the tea leaves, it seems likely that Draghi himself guided the group toward moving more proactively to deal with slumping prices. It has been his modus operandi since taking the ECB’s helm in November 2011. Overriding German fears that the Italian-born Draghi would be soft on inflation, he pushed the governing council to cut rates at its first two meetings — moves that with the benefit of hindsight seem like no-brainers, but seemed controversial at the time.

Rates are now within spitting distance of zero on the continent, though Draghi took pains to emphasize that the bank has further room to cut if circumstances warrant. Still, as the ECB’s main interest rate target inches ever closer to the zero lower bound, the big open question is what kinds of other tools “Super Mario,” as the European media like to refer to Draghi, might find in his kit.

Draghi dodged a question about whether the ECB would consider quantitative easing, the technique used by the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and Bank of Japan to try to encourage growth and fight deflation even at a time of zero-interest rates. The strategy would be fraught in Europe, where the idea of the central bank buying government bonds is anathema.

A way around the deeply held aversion to a central bank buying government bonds (and thus effectively funding the government through money-printing) would be for the ECB to expand its balance sheet by taking on private assets, such as a new round of liquidity infusions into the continent’s banks. That may be easier for some of the more hard-line members of the governing council to swallow.

The bank’s move Thursday was a sign that whatever the future may hold for Europe, and whatever tools the ECB deploys, Mario Draghi isn’t going to be passive if the trend toward deflation continues.

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