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Central Banks on the Offensive?

FRANKFURT – It looks like a coordinated offensive: on September 6, the European Central Bank outlined a new bond-buying program, letting markets know that there were no pre-set limits to its purchases. On September 13, the United States Federal Reserve announced that in the coming months it would purchase some $85 billion of long-term securities per month, with the aim of putting downward pressure on long-term interest rates and supporting growth. Finally, on September 19, the Bank of Japan declared that it was adding another ¥10 trillion ($128 billion) to its government securities purchase program, and that it expected its total holdings of such paper to reach about $1 trillion by end-2013.

There is, indeed, room for such concerted action, as the outlook for all three economies has deteriorated significantly. In the eurozone, GDP will certainly decline in 2012, and forecasts for next year are mediocre at best. In the US, output continues to expand, but at a moderate 2% pace; and, even leaving aside the fiscal cliff looming at the end of the year, when Congress will be forced to impose spending cuts and allow tax cuts enacted in 2001 to expire, recovery remains at risk. In Japan, the global slowdown and a stronger yen are hitting the export sector, growth is flagging, and inflation is close to zero again.

The reality, however, is that there is no common stance, let alone a common plan. In the strongest of the three economies, the Fed is willingly risking inflation by pre-announcing its intention to keep the federal funds rate at exceptionally low levels “at least through mid-2015.” In the weakest of the three, by contrast, the ECB has no intention of boosting growth through quantitative easing or interest-rate pre-commitments. On the contrary, the ECB is adamant that the only aim of its “outright monetary transactions” (OMT) program, which will buy distressed eurozone members’ government paper, conditional on agreed reforms, is to contain the currency-redenomination risk that contributes to elevated interest rates in southern European economies. The goal is to restore a degree of homogeneity within the euro area in terms of the transmission of monetary policy. All of its asset purchases will be sterilized, meaning that their monetary-policy effects will be offset.

Furthermore, given the controversy that its announcement of the OMT program has incited in Germany – not least with the Bundesbank – the ECB would certainly be discouraged from pursuing any Fed-like effort to push for lower interest rates along the yield curve. To ward off an offensive by German (and other) monetary hawks, who maintain that the ECB has opened the door to debt monetization, the Bank is bound to err on the side of orthodoxy in the coming months. The more its unconventional initiatives to repair the euro are contested, the more orthodox the ECB will be in its conduct of monetary policy.