Out of Step at the ECB

The European Central Bank remains seriously out of step with other key central banks in the industrial world despite recently announced coordinated efforts to increase short-term liquidity in the banking system. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom all have cut interest rates recently. But the ECB holds firm against cutting; indeed, after the Governing Council’s December meeting, ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet said that some members were in favor of raising rates.

Who are they kidding? Everyone knows that the ECB cannot raise interest rates now, and for some time to come. In the midst of the most serious financial crisis in recent memory, the ECB has resorted to an unconvincing bluff, because it has an inflationary expectations problem.

Past policy missteps are responsible for the ECB’s present predicament.

The first misstep was the ECB’s delay in tightening monetary policy, long after it had become obvious that interest rates had been held too low (at 2%) for too long (from June 2003 to December 2005). The ECB’s hawks, understanding the dangers of abnormally low interest rates for a central bank whose primary objective is price stability, had been eager to start raising rates earlier. But the leadership was too timid.