Helping the ECB Cross the Rubicon

PARIS – Eurozone monetary officials are expected to make history when they gather for the European Central Bank’s next policy-setting meeting on January 22. Observers anticipate that ECB President Mario Draghi and his colleagues will finally cross the Rubicon and announce the launch of a large-scale program of quantitative easing (QE) – in other words, high-volume purchases of government bonds. Though the ECB has resisted QE for more than five years, even as other major central banks embraced it, Executive Board member Benoît Coeuré has already called it the “baseline option.”

On the face of it, the ECB has many reasons to launch QE. For two years, inflation has consistently failed to reach the 2% target. In November, the annual price growth was just 0.3%, while the recent collapse in oil prices will generate further downward pressure in the coming months. Even more important, inflation expectations have started to de-anchor: forecasters and investors expect the undershooting of the target to persist over the medium term.

Low inflation is already a serious obstacle to economic recovery and rebalancing within the eurozone. Outright deflation would be an even more dangerous threat.

Moreover, financial markets consider QE so likely that the largest part of its bond-rate and exchange-rate consequences have already been priced in. Should the ECB disappoint expectations, bond and foreign-exchange markets would confront an abrupt and damaging unwinding of positions: long-term interest rates would rise, stock markets would sink, and the exchange rate would appreciate. That is not what Europe needs as it struggles to achieve in a year the growth that the United States has already recorded in a single quarter.