Life in the Liquidity Trap

In Europe, frustration is growing almost by the day over the endemic recession. Unemployment is an unending problem, especially among the young, which at least in part explains the rise of the EU skeptics all over the continent. The only solution to the perennial crisis that Europeans seem to be able to come up with is to keep growing government, an idea that would only compound the continent’s structural economic problems and send them further into the territory of industrial poverty and stagnation.

Unsurprisingly, earlier this month the European Central Bank weakened its growth forecast. There is absolutely no doubt that this was an unwelcome piece of news at the time, and frustration among the EU leadership over the stagnant economy has only been growing since then. This is especially true of the central bankers at ECB, an institution that is making increasingly risky policy decisions the longer the crisis persists. The EU Observer explains:

European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi has said he is prepared to use more unconventional measures to spur growth in the eurozone. “We stand ready to use additional unconventional instruments within our mandate, and alter the size and/or the composition of our unconventional interventions should it become necessary to further address risks of a too-prolonged period of low inflation,” he told MEPs on Monday … He said loose monetary policy will only be stopped “when we have complied with our mandate” which is to keep inflation at close to 2 percent. Currently inflation is at 0.4 percent.

It is important to remember that the ECB was created in the late 1990s as an institution of monetary conservatism. Its policy goal was limited exclusively to the preservation of price stability. It had no authority to provide funds to governments that ran deficits in excess of the balanced-budget requirement in the EU constitution (a.k.a., the Stability and Growth Pact). It was also beyond the bank’s realm of authority to fight unemployment, which meant a ban on trying to stimulate GDP growth.

Today, the ECB has broken through every boundary on its policy mandate. It has participated in vast funding schemes for deficit-ridden states in the euro zone. It has issued a guarantee to buy an unlimited amount of Treasury bonds issued by any “troubled” euro-zone state, thus de facto making a promise for future monetary expansion way beyond what the Federal Reserve ever did during the height of its QE programs.

The ECB has also cut interest rates on overnight liquidity deposits that banks make with the ECB. These interest rate cuts have gone so deep that they are now negative: banks literally have to pay the ECB to accept deposits.

The last move reeks of desperation. But doing all this has not been enough of a monetary expansion to get the EU economy going, so the bank added a program for favorable lending that was supposed to provide funding for entrepreneurs eager to make massive expansions to their operations – all they lacked was the cash to do it.

Or so the ECB thought. The EU Observer again:

The ECB has taken a series of steps since the summer to try and boost the economy and head off deflation, including interest-rate cuts and cheap loans to banks. In early September the Frankfurt-based bank cut rates further and announced it planned to buy asset backed securities (ABS). However its lending programme was deemed to have faltered when 255 eurozone banks last week only borrowed €82 billion of the €400 billion available.

And why did they not borrow more? Well, according to Draghi banks are afraid to look less solvent than they must in the upcoming “stress tests”. There is actually a grain of truth in that: banks that borrow but cannot lend won’t make any money on the interest margin. However, what Draghi fails to mention is that banks cannot find people and businesses to lend to simply because Europe’s families and entrepreneurs live in a stagnant economy. So long as stagnation prevails there will be no prospect of profits on new business investments.

In fact, according to Eurostat national accounts data, gross fixed capital formation – the national accounts variable that reports productive business investments – has been falling almost uninterruptedly since 2008. In fixed prices the decline is 16.8 percent from ’08 to 2013.

By contrast, data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that businesses in the United States increased their investments in 2013 over 2008. The increase was a marginal 1.9 percent, adjusted for inflation, but that is a major sign of health relative European business investments.

To make the difference even more clear: in Europe gross fixed capital formation has decreased in five of the past six years since the Great Depression started; in the United States it has increased in four of the past six years.

No wonder Mario Draghi is getting desperate. But he has now effectively run out of options, proving what I said already in early June: Europe is now officially in the liquidity trap. That means two things: monetary policy is completely impotent and there will be no way out unless and until legislators reform away the enormous and very burdensome welfare state. And those reforms will not happen. So long as the welfare state remains, people are massively disincentivized from working and incentivized to live on welfare. The government budget is structurally in deficit and the massive supply of liquidity in the economy makes it very cheap for government to do nothing about that deficit.

I have said it before, sometimes frustratedly, that Europe is becoming the next Latin America, an economic wasteland filled with the remains of squandered prosperity. But while parts of Latin America are rising again (think Chile and Brazil) Europe continues its slow  decline. And the ECB’s desperately-cheap-money policies are not exactly helping.