Europe’s Emerging Bubbles

MUNICH – The European Central Bank’s latest policy moves have shocked many observers. While the goal – to prevent deflation and spur growth – is clear, the policies themselves are setting the stage for severe instability.

The policies in question include setting the interest rate on the ECB’s main refinancing operations to zero; raising monthly asset purchases by €20 billion ($22.3 billion) to €80 billion; and pushing the interest rate on money that banks deposit with the ECB further into negative territory – to -0.40%. Moreover, the ECB has launched a new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations, which also carry negative interest rates. Banks receive up to 0.4% interest on ECB credit that they take themselves, provided they lend it out to private businesses.

These policies are, in essence, the latest in a string of attempts by the ECB to address the fallout of the collapse of the massive bubble that formed in southern Europe in the early years of the euro. It all began with the announcement of the euro’s introduction at the 1995 EU Summit in Madrid, which caused interest rates to tumble.

The inflationary credit bubble spurred in southern European countries by the persistence of lower interest rates undermined their competitiveness and drove asset and property prices to unsustainably high levels. When the bubble burst, the ECB tried to prevent the excessive prices from returning to their equilibrium levels by using its printing press and promising unlimited coverage to investors. The latest ECB measures are just more of the same.