Pranav Krishnan: Fighting European Deflation with Negative Interest Rates

Pranav Krishnan is a student in my my “Monetary and Financial Theory” class. Pranav also has a blog that focuses on the finances of European football. Here is what Pranav has to say about eurozone monetary policy:

There were some positive signs around Europe, where it appeared that Spain’s unemployment rate had bottomed out in late 2013.

Perhaps talk of Europe’s recovery has come a little too early. While there were signs of positive growth in countries like Spain and Italy over the past few months, inflation was very low, and even more so inflation expectations.  David Roman of the Wall Street Journal wrote about a significant deflationary risk in Europe and how officials are expecting the European Central Bank to take the appropriate measures necessary to stem the tide. Josef Makuch, Slovenian Central Bank governor-rightly-feels that deflation could cause even more problems in the long term.

“Several [ECB] policy makers are ready to adopt nonstandard measures to prevent slipping into a deflationary environment,”

It appears that there might be more to this issue, than simply highlighting the risk of deflation.  The article was largely skimming the surface of what could become a wider problem later on.  Demosthenes Tambakis, a professor at the University of Cambridge, wrote for The Economist, outlining his opinion on why the Eurozone is at risk for deflation in further detail,  He points to very low inflation expectations across Europe and that alone increases a risk in deflation.  While he admitted that this risk shouldn’t rise so dramatically based on expectations alone, he does point out a few other institutional design elements that could contribute; Most notably, the European Central bank’s mandate, and the Zero Lower Bound.

The European Central Bank mandate is a bit pedantic in terms of legislature but it can play a role in the eyes of most economists.  The ECB, cites Tambakis, is committed to just below 2%, in contrast to say the Fed who wants to maintain a 2% average over time.  Tambakis believes that this causes an asymmetry which assures everyone that while they do not have to fear runaway inflation, they should worry when prices are too low because the ECB by design would be more reluctant to embark on expansionary monetary policy (increasing the money supply) than they are to contract.  While this point could make some sense in that the ECB might be unintentionally ‘guiding’ people to expecting less inflation in the medium-run and long-run, I would be surprised if this had a serious impact on inflation expectations.  Given the low levels of inflation in Europe, most economists and investors would likely expect lower levels to continue especially with the reduction in German growth rates.

The more likely argument seems to be the one about the Zero Lower Bound.  These risks are determined by the Shiller Index which predicts the long-run frequency of international stock market crashes.  Europe has faced two issues, in that they’ve suffered from the original financial crisis of 2008 and then the individual debt issues that each country faces. So, the natural reaction would be to cut interest rates to stimulate demand, but the Zero Lower Bound in Europe threatens to create a liquidity trap for the Eurozone.   In tandem with the dual mandate language set by the ECB, everyone already has very low expectations of inflation and the inability for countries to set monetary policy and stimulate demand individually threatens to worsen the situation for the Eurozone as a whole.

While there could be some legislation to create a more unified Europe fiscally and financially, the best thing the ECB can hope to do now is if they are going to be rigid about keeping inflation below 2% they should be more flexible about the Zero Lower Bound and allow the interest rate to hover in a broader range of negative interest rates.  The process will be rather painful because inflation expectations could plummet but in the long term, Europe could be better for it and escape the dangers of a long-term liquidity trap.