Lagarde Says ECB Running Out of Room to Fight Global Threats
European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde said a decade of crisis fighting has left policy makers with few options for more monetary stimulus, just as new concerns such as the coronavirus outbreak arise.
Lagarde said that while the euro zone’s domestic economy remains “resilient,” lingering global threats could undermine the recent stabilization in activity, and uncertainties remain elevated. The warning came just hours after data showed a huge drop in Germany factory orders, indicating the manufacturing recession in Europe’s largest economy is far from over.
Fundamental economic trends and “the legacy of the financial crisis have driven interest rates down,” Lagarde told European Parliament lawmakers on Thursday. “This low interest rate and low inflation environment has significantly reduced the scope for the ECB and other central banks worldwide to ease monetary policy in the face of an economic downturn.”
The reference to “significantly” reduced space was stronger than the ECB’s statement late last month, when it announced a strategic review into the reasons for low inflation and how to tackle it. It’s partly an acknowledgment of rising concern that the loose policy threatens financial stability by squeezing bank margins and driving asset prices -- such as stocks and real estate -- to unsustainable levels.
Vice President Luis De Guindos said at a separate event in Madrid that the side effects from policies such as negative interest rate and quantitative easing are becoming “more tangible.”
Lagarde’s message was also aimed at governments though -- signaling that they need to step in with fiscal support.
“We have indicated clearly that where there is fiscal space it would be appropriate for policy makers to actually use that fiscal space in order to support the euro-area economy,” she said, while declining to name specific countries.
Lagarde said structural changes in the global economy -- aging populations and declining trend growth -- mean it’s the right time for the ECB to embark on its review. While the inflation goal of “below, but close to, 2%” will be the primary focus, the president also said climate change, technology and finance will impact prices.
The coronavirus outbreak has become the most immediate concern for some central bankers. The Bank of Thailand on Wednesday cut its key interest rate to a record low, and the Philippine governor hinted a similar move was imminent there. The Monetary Authority of Singapore said there is “sufficient room” for its currency to ease if the virus weakens the economy.
Lagarde said a day earlier that the outbreak has added to economic uncertainty, as did Executive Board member Philip Lane, the ECB’s chief economist. Lane’s predecessor, Peter Praet, told Bloomberg Television on Thursday that the ECB should be wary of rushing in too soon though.
“What worries me probably more -- the sort of of perception you know, especially in financial markets, that central banks always have to react,” he said. “Every time you get a shock in the system you get high expectations of a reaction of the central bank that’s quickly incorporated in market expectations. But there’s only so much a central bank can do.”
Lagarde’s two-hour conversation with lawmakers also touched on the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, an event that she said should be the spur for the EU to develop its own capital markets union. Brexit raises question marks over the role of London’s enormous financial center in funding European companies.
“If that is not a triggering factor to engage all of us, I don’t know what else we need,” Lagarde said. “Capital markets union has to happen fast.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.