Category Archives: ECB QE

17/8/15: Euro: The Land Where Growth Goes to Die

So we have had a massive QE - even prior the current one - by the ECB. And we are having a massive QE again, courtesy again, of the ECB. And the bond markets are running out of paper to shove into the… you've guessed it… the ECB. And the banks have been repaired. And we are being fed our daily soup of alphabet permutations (under the disguise of the European Union 'reforms' and policy initiatives): ESM, EFSF, EFS, OMT, EBU, CMU, GMU, TSCG, LTRO, TLTRO, MRO, you can keep going… And what we have to show for all of this?

2Q 2015 growth is at 0.3% q/q having previously posted 0.4% growth in both 4Q 2014 and 1Q 2015. This is, supposedly, the fabled 'accelerating recovery'.

So what do we have? Look at the grey lines in the chart above that mark period averages. Pre-euro period, GDP growth averaged 0.9% in quarterly terms. From 1Q 2001 through 4Q 2007 it averaged 0.5%. Toss out the period of the crisis when GDP was shrinking on average at a quarterly rate of 0.1% between 1Q 2008 and through 1Q 2013 and look at the recovery: from 2Q 2013 through 2Q 2015 Euro area economy was growing at an average quarterly rate of less than 0.27%.

Meanwhile, monetary policy is now stuck firmly in the proverbial sh*t corner since 2012:

You'd call it a total disaster, were it not for Japan being one even worse than the Euro area… and were it not for the nagging suspicion that all we are going to get out of this debacle is more alphabet soups of various 'harmonising solutions' to the crisis... which will get us to becoming a total disaster pretty soon. Keep soldering on...

16/4/15: QE and Negative Rates: It’s So Good, It Hurts…

Here is an unedited version of my article for Manning Financial on the upcoming pain in the global markets from the Central Banks activism.

With spring sunshine, the glowing warmth of the overheating bonds markets is bringing about the scent of optimism to the macro-analysts' desks. On March 19th, the NTMA issued EUR500 million worth of 6mo notes with a yield of -0.01%. With a few strokes of the 'buy' keys, the markets welcomed Ireland to the ever-expanding club of nations that enjoy the privilege of being paid to borrow from private investors.

In a way, this is the story of Ireland's recovery distilled to a singular event: with the Government borrowing costs at their historical lows, the memory of the recent crises is fading fast from the pages of our newspapers. Alas, the drivers of this recovery are illusory. All are temporary, none are structural or sustainable, in the long run. In fact, the current markets reprieve is concealing the real dangers for domestic investors – dangers of new asset bubbles and potential future losses.

Take a look at the euro area sovereigns at large.

After years of austerity, 2015 is shaping up to be a year of broadly-speaking neutral public spending. In other words, as the euro area Governments' debt remains sky high, public deficits are unlikely to shrink by any appreciable amount. Why bother with reforms, when you can be paid by the markets to borrow? Aptly, as the chart below shows, European economic policy uncertainty remains at crisis period averages, well above the safety range of pre-crisis years.

European Policy Uncertainty Index  (including period averages confidence intervals)

Source: data from

Although the Government is usually quick to claim credit for the massive improvements in Irish yields, in reality, Dublin has little to do with these. At every point from Q3 2011 through today, large scale declines in the Government cost of borrowing came courtesy of the ECB. The latest gains are no exception: the ECB has just launched a sizeable bonds-buying programme and with it, the quantum of negative yield debt in the global markets has gone from roughly USD3.6 trillion in January to USD4.2 trillion by mid-March. As of now, 19 percent of the Global Bond Index-listed debt is trading in negative rates territory.

This, by far, represents the largest long term challenge for investors and the greatest risk to the global economies. Expansionary monetary policy pursued by the central banks around the world, including the ECB aims to push up economic growth and reduce the risks of deflation. It also attempts to repair the monetary policy transmission mechanism: that cheap ECB-supplied liquidity is being lent by the banks to companies and households in the forms of new credit.


However, from the investors’ perspective, this monetary activism can end up backfiring. For a number of reasons.

Firstly, as shown in Chart 2 below, monetary policy-driven credit expansion is propelling stock markets and debt markets valuations to all-time highs across the advanced economies with absolutely no tangible connection to real fundamentals, such as growth in economic activity, household incomes, employment, and even capital investment. By the very definition of the financial bubbles, current monetary policies activism is inflating returns expectations unanchored in reality.

Secondly, monetary expansion means that households and firms struggling with debt are given a short-run reprieve from facing the true costs of their borrowings. But the day of reckoning awaits in the future. This means that households and corporates are likely to continue engaging in precautionary savings even as the Central Banks drop rates and bonds markets bid the cost of issuing debt down. Meanwhile, households and companies with low debt exposures are likely to save more to offset declines in their returns on deposits. Taken together, these factors are likely to further suppress domestic demand, while setting us up for a major crisis once the cost of debt starts rising in the future.

Thirdly, negative yields are, like all bubble-generating factors, self-reinforcing in their nature. With central banks increasingly charging commercial banks for deposits, banks prefer buying bonds even in the presence of the negative yields. This means that negative policy rates are reinforcing the dysfunctional monetary mechanism, locking in more liquidity into government bonds and driving yields on government paper further down. The resulting increases in bonds prices incentivise commercial banks to gamble on future capital gains by buying even more bonds. This spiral of demand for government debt depresses banks future profitability as investors bid bonds prices up and loads more risk of significant future losses that will materialise once QE policies begin to unwind.

Another pesky side effect of this is the banking sector stability. Negative interest rates on Central Bank deposits lead to lower deposit rates for banks' customers. Banking sector loans-to-deposits ratios rise, making banks more dependent on the shadow banking system for funding and more levered. Interestingly, in the U.S. at least one large bank, J.P. Morgan has already announced that it will be charging customers for large deposits up to 5.5 percent annual fee.

Fourthly, negative rates and yields are increasing the probability of monetary policy misfires - a scenario where one or several Central Banks around the world can tighten policy too fast and/or too early, completely derailing economic recovery. This problem is global and contagious. Investment grade government bonds are effectively substitutes for each other in majority of investment portfolios. As the result, negative yields in the euro area today are keeping yields low in other advanced economies. This is already causing discomfort in the U.S. where dollar rise relative to other currencies is being driven by a combination of two factors: the expected mismatch between U.S. and euro area policy rates, and investors' fear of Fed policy errors over the next 3-6 months.

Fifthly, the demand for negative yield bonds appears to be setting the unsuspecting investors for a fall. In a recent research note, the investment bank Jefferies discovered that much of the demand for such paper comes from indexed funds. Investors in these extremely popular funds simply have no idea that the strategy the funds pursue is not designed for the world where top-rated bonds are paying negative yields. And as funds start posting losses, the same investors are likely to rush for safety into other asset classes – namely equity. Yet, with equities already at historical highs, the safety-minded investors will be left with buying even more assets at bubble valuations.

Sixthly, negative yields on Government bonds are a disaster waiting to happen for insurance, asset management and pension sector as they create huge risks at the heart of these companies long-term investment portfolios. As insurance companies and pensions funds chase the yield, premia will have to rise, risks embedded in pensions portfolios will jump and returns on longer term contracts will fall. As the result, some financial analysts are warning of not only economic, but also political consequences of the monetary policy activism.

The bankers' regulatory body, the Bank for International Settlements is not amused. In a recent statement, Claudio Borio, the head of the BIS monetary and economic department said it is simply impossible to tell how investors, consumers, voters and the governments are going to react to the negative yields and interest rates. "…technical, economic, legal and even political boundaries may well be tested. The consequences should be watched closely, as the repercussions are bound to be significant, on the financial system and beyond," Mr Borio said.


From Irish investors point of view, the risks arising from the euro area negative rates and yields environment are significant.

In a study published in 2005 (, BIS researchers found asset price busts, especially those associated with large property markets adjustments, to have much more painful economic impacts than deflation. The study covered all advanced economies over the period from 1873 through 2004 and included analysis of deflation effects on Government debt and growth. The same results were on firmed by another BIS study published earlier this year (

Global Markets, Irish Problems

Source: Author own calculations based on data from CSO, Central Bank of Ireland and Bloomberg

As of today (see Chart 2), Ireland is still experiencing property prices that are 38 percent below the pre-crisis peak (in Dublin 39 percent), private debt that is, once controlled for sales of mortgages, and Nama and bank loans to non-banking investors, stuck around mid-2005 levels, and growth predominantly driven by the multinational corporations' tax optimisation strategies. In this environment, negative rates are masking the extent of the problems still present in the economy, while euro devaluation, coupled with exports growth concentration in the MNCs-led sectors, are creating a false impression of improved productivity and competitiveness.

For domestic investors, this means that both equity, corporate and government debt markets  in Ireland and across the euro area are simply out of touch with macroeconomic reality on the ground. The global Central Banks-led policies are pushing our traditional investment and pensions portfolios into the high risks, low returns corner, commonly associated with financial assets bubbles. While some speculative exposure to the US and Emerging Markets assets is always welcome, the bulk of investment allocation today should be focused on conservative view of key risks presented by the negative rates and yields environment. Tax planning, portfolio cost minimisation, low gearing and high liquidity of investment allocations should take priority over pursuit of short term yields and capital gains.

31/3/15: QE for the People

ECB's QE programme launched this month is targeting wrong policy and likely to fuel an already massive bubble in stocks and bonds. It is also unlikely to help generate real economic growth, as it simply transfers more wealth to the financial markets.

Look at the facts: 
  • The Eurozone is suffering from structural stagnation that is driven by the lack of investment, anaemic domestic demand and policies, including taxation and enterprise regulation, that reduce entrepreneurship and make jobs creation and productivity growth (especially Total Factor Productivity) excessively costly.
  • Overall household and corporate indebtedness in the Euro area remain high despite several years of deleveraging.
  • Bank lending markets fragmentation contrasted by booming equity and bond markets shows that the problem is not in the lack of liquidity, but in over-leveraging present in the economy.

Experience in other countries that recently deployed QE shows that current measures by the ECB are unlikely to provide sufficient stimulus to drive growth to the new (and higher) ‘normal’: 
  • Japan, the US, and the UK experiences with QE show that monetary policies are useful to the real economy only when they are combined with either expansionary fiscal policies or real investment increases or both.
  • Even in such cases where QE has been successful, sustainability of QE-triggered growth has been weak in the presence of structural debt overhangs (Japan) and had to rely on structural drivers for growth present prior to the deployment of QE (the UK and the US).
  • In the Euro area, the idea is to combine QE with austerity policies and in the presence of dysfunctional financial markets. Such a program could increase misallocation of resources via bidding up financial assets prices over and above their long term fundamentals-justified levels. 
  • Bank of England created £375bn over the course of its QE programme. By the Bank of England’s own estimates, QE in the UK pushed up share and bond prices by around 20%. But because around 40% of stock market wealth is held by the wealthiest 5% of households, QE has made that wealthiest 5% better off by around £128,000 per household. 
  • You might want to check this post on the potential effects of QE on the real economy: 

In short: the QE, as currently being carried out by the ECB, benefits the less-productive holders of financial assets, not the poor, nor the entrepreneurs, nor the real enterprise.

There is an alternative policy, a policy of “Quantitative Easing for the People”, an idea of distributing QE money directly to the citizens of the Euro area.

This is a more efficient approach for stimulating the real economy precisely because it puts liquidity directly at the point where it is needed most and can be used most efficiently, absent intermediaries, to address real structural problems present in the economy.

The plan is identical to the ECB current plan in terms of funds allocated: €60 billion will be created each month for 19 months. The amount each national central bank will create can also depend on its share of capital in the ECB, just as the current ECB QE programme envisages.

Each Eurozone citizen can receive ca €175 on average each month for 19 months. 
  • The funds are taxable income, so there is a benefit to the Exchequers, allowing the governments to engage in expanded investment programmes or more efficiently close some of the budgetary gaps, while buying more time to implement structural reforms.
  • The funds (net of tax) can be used by households to accelerate debt deleveraging and/or repair their pensions funds and/or fund consumption.
  • As the result, “QE for the People” will stimulate domestic demand (consumption, investment and Government investment), while increasing the rate of debt deleveraging.
  • In addition, “QE for the People” can help improve banks’ balancesheets by increasing loans recovery (as households repay loans). In contrast, ECB QE will not have such an effect as it will be taking off banks balancesheets zero risk-weighted Government bonds.  Thus, “QE for the People” can be seen as a more efficient mechanism for repairing financial system transmission mechanism than ECB own QE policy.
  • The quantum of stimulus implied by the “QE for the People” proposal is significant. Take Ireland, for example. “QE for the People” means annual benefit of around EUR8 billion in direct stimulus (depending on how Ireland's share is estimated). In 2014, Irish Final Domestic Demand grew by EUR6.15 billion. So the direct effect of this measure for just one year would be equivalent to more than full year worth of real economic growth.

19 economists from across Europe and outside signed last week’s FT letter proposing this plan (with some variations) to stimulate the real economy in the euro area. The original letter is available here:

This note posits my personal view of the alternative policy, somewhat at variance with the letter itself on the specific modality of Government involvement in the funding and Government receipt of the QE funds over and above normal tax capture (which I do not support). 

26/1/15: If not Liquidity, then Debt: ECB’s QE competitive limping

I have written before, in the context of QE announcement by the ECB last week (see here: that the real problem with the euro area monetary and economic aggregates has nothing to do with liquidity supply (the favourite excuse for doing all sorts of things that the ECB keeps throwing around), but rather with the debt overhang.

In plain, simple terms, there is too much debt on the books. Too much Government debt, too much private debt. The ECB cannot even begin directly addressing the unspoken crisis of the private debt. But it is certainly trying to 'extend-and-pretend' public and private debt away. This is what the fabled EUR1.14 trillion (or so) QE announcement is about: take debt surplus off the markets so more debt can be issued. More debt to add to already too much debt, therefore, is the only solution the ECB can devise.

While EUR1.14 trillion might sound impressive, in reality, once we abstract away from the fake problem of liquidity, is nothing to brag about. Take a look at the following chart:

Forget the question in red, for the moment, and take in the numbers. Remember that 60% debt/GDP ratio is the long-term 'sustainability' target set by the Fiscal Compact - in other words, the long-term debt overhang, in EU-own terminology, is the bit of debt above that bound. By latest IMF stats, there is, roughly EUR3.5 trillion of debt overhang across the euro area 18, just for Government debt alone. You can safely raise that figure by a factor of 3 to take into the account private sector debts.

Which puts the ECB QE into perspective: at the very best, when fully deployed, it will cover just 1/3rd of the public debt overhang alone (actually it won't do anything of the sorts, as it includes private and public debt purchases). Across the entire euro area economy (public and private debt combined) we are talking about the 'big bazooka' that aims to repackage and extend-and-pretend about 10-11% of the total debt overhang. Not write this off, not cancel, not burn... but shove into different holding cell and pretend it's gone, eased, resolved.

This realisation should thus bring us around to that red triangle and the existential question: What for? Between end of 2007 and start of 2015, the euro area has managed to hike its debt pile by some EUR3 trillion, after we control for GDP effects. Given that this debt expansion did not produce any real growth anywhere, one might ask a simple question: why would ECB QE produce the effect that is any different?

The answer, on a post card, to the EU Commission, please.