Carsten Brzeski’s blog

Last hooray or new fireworks? ECB announces new stimulus package

It was not the white rabbit or the big game changer but it might have been another, maybe the last, coup of the ECB to revive growth in the Eurozone. At today’s meeting the ECB announced several measures which all aim at making financing conditions even more easier than they already were, while at the same time further trying to improve the transmission mechanism of the monetary policy.

Here are the decisions in more detail:

  • The ECB cut interest rates by 5 and 10 basis points respectively. To be precise, the ECB lowered the refi rate to zero, from 0.05%, the deposit rate to -0.4%, from -0.3% and the marginal lending rate to 0.25% from 0.3%.
  • Monthly QE purchases will be increased from 60bn euro to 80bn euro.
  • To make higher QE purchases feasible, the ECB will include corporate bonds into the QE purchases and the threshold for purchases of bonds by international organizations and multilateral development banks will be increased from 33% to 50% per issuance.
  • A new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTRO) will be launched in in June this year. Banks will be able to get ECB money either at the refi rate (now zero) or even at the deposit rate (now -0.4%), depending on the banks’ lending books.

These four big measures are supposed interact and gear into each other. Particularly, the reintroduction of the once less successful TLTROs is a clear alleviate the burden of negative rates for banks. For the first time ever, the ECB will pay banks for borrowing money; at least in case banks fulfil certain criteria. For the technicians, banks will be able to borrow up to 30% of the stock of eligible loans as at 31 January 2016. In general, banks can borrow at the refi rate but for banks, whose net lending exceeds a benchmark for lending growth, borrowing at the deposit rate will be possible. While this measure is clearly groundbreaking, it remains to be seen whether it will work. During the press conference, ECB president Draghi admitted that the ECB was “increasingly aware” of the negative impact of negative rates on banks but that this impact differed across the sector. Some banks were more vulnerable than others but the ECB had to look at the entire sector, not single banks.

The ECB’s measures were clearly triggered by a significant downward revision of the inflation projections and continued fears of deflation or at least second-round effects from negative inflation rates. The ECB staff projections showed an expected sub-potential recovery of the Eurozone going into 2018, with GDP growth forecasted at 1.4% (from 1.7%) in 2016, 1.7% (from 1.9%) in 2017 and 1.8% in 2018. Risks are still tilted to the downside. As regards inflation, the ECB staff had to pay a tribute to the further drop in oil prices and the strengthening of the euro since the December forecasts. Here, ECB staff now expects inflation to come in at 0.1% (from 1.0%) this year, 1.3% (from 1.6%) in 2017 and 1.6% in 2018. It was this continued undershooting of the ECB’s inflation target as well as the ECB’s determination to never give up, as Mario Draghi said himself, which led to today’s set of new measures.

In addition to the announced measures, the ECB gave a strong forward guidance, stressing that interest rates were not only to remain “at present or lower levels for an extended period of time” but also that rates would remain low “well past the horizon of [the ECB’s] net asses purchases”. In short, rate will remain low for the foreseeable future.

All in all, the ECB delivered more than market participants had expected. Particularly the part in which the ECB will now under certain conditions actually pay banks for borrowing money came as a surprise. Still, the rebound of the euro exchange rate after comments by Draghi that the ECB could not cut rates as low as it wanted and that it doesn’t anticipate the need for further rate cuts indicates that betting on a weaker euro as the outcome of today’s meeting is risky. Instead, the ECB will hope that this time around the attempt to revive lending and thereby investment will finally work. It is a long shot with an uncertain outcome. We are hesitant to say that this was it. The ECB is clearly determined to continue fighting. Admitting impotence does not seem to be an option. Whether this fight, without support by governments and fiscal policies (the ECB actually gives a gentle nod to investment in public infrastructure), will really lead to a victory against stagnation and oil price driven low inflation rates remains doubtful. The next months will tell whether today was the igniter of a lasting fireworks or just the last hooray.