Arguing while Europe sinks: Germany, ECB policy standoff over economy is worrying markets

FRANKFURT – Europe’s economy needs help — fast. Yet the two powers that could take action, the European Central Bank and Germany, don’t see eye to eye about what to do.

That leaves Europe’s currency union stuck in a dangerous policy limbo that has investors worried as it risks falling into recession for a third time in six years.

Concern that the 18-country currency union, which accounts for 17 per cent of the world economy, has no clear path out of its economic trouble is among the key factors in this week’s global market turmoil. The Stoxx 50 index of top eurozone stocks fell as much as 6.3 per cent this week before recovering somewhat Friday. It is down 5.7 per cent over the past three months.

The eurozone saw no growth at all in the second quarter after only four quarters of sluggish recovery. It also has dangerously low inflation, which can depress growth over years, if not decades, as happened in Japan. A sudden decline in exports and industrial activity in Germany, long the region’s source of growth, heightened those concerns.

There are several big ideas about how to boost growth — for the long term. A free trade agreement with the United States, a Europe-wide investment fund to put 300 billion euros into infrastructure, looser employment rules in France and Italy. An ECB review of bank finances due this month could purge hidden losses from the financial system and get more credit flowing to companies.

Yet those ideas will take months or even years to boost economic activity. More immediate help would come from more monetary stimulus from the ECB or increased spending from governments.

Those ideas, however, are running into friction from Berlin, which is pushing for governments to balance their budgets and is skeptical of the ECB’s stimulus plans.


ECB President Mario Draghi has put forward a three-part strategy to help the eurozone: more monetary stimulus from the ECB, more spending from governments that can afford it and pro-business reforms from more troubled governments.

Draghi went ahead with his part: the ECB announced in September it would buy bundles of bank loans, a way of stimulating the flow of credit to businesses. In June, it also offered cheap, long term loans to banks on condition they lend the money on to companies. And Draghi has said the ECB is open to the more drastic step of buying large amounts of bonds to increase the amount of money in the financial system — so-called quantitative easing, or QE.


Yet governments have not followed Draghi’s advice to spend more where possible within EU rules. That’s because they have run into resistance from Germany, the eurozone’s dominant political and economic force, which wants governments to focus on reducing deficits.

Some countries, like France, have deficits above the EU limit of 3 per cent of GDP. They argue that shrinking the deficit rapidly is now less important than boosting growth through government spending. Others, including Germany, have their public finances in order and could in theory increase spending.

But Germany isn’t moving on this point. It argues it should not fall into the temptation of borrowing to spend on growth, even though the eurozone economy might need it now, and that countries like France should not be allowed to break the EU rules.

“These rules must be applied credibly to all member states — only then can the pact fulfil its function as a central anchor for stability and above all for confidence in the eurozone,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday.

Even Draghi’s part of the stimulus seems to be under question, in Germany at least. The head of the German central bank, Jens Weidmann, has complained about the risks of the bond purchases, saying any losses could be felt by taxpayers. That’s in line with commonly expressed fears in Germany that its taxpayers will wind up paying for mistakes made by less prudent governments.

Weidmann has just one vote on the 24-member ECB council — but it’s an influential one, especially if backed by Merkel.


The policy standoff is a sharp contrast from what analysts have praised as Draghi’s finest moment — his July, 2012 promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. To do so, he offered to purchase the bonds of troubled governments, a move so effective in easing market turmoil in Europe it didn’t even have to be used.

Back then Merkel gave Draghi a green light. Now the light is yellow at most, or maybe red.


There’s still a chance that things will get bad enough that Draghi and the ECB will pile in with their last big stimulus weapon — massive purchases of government bonds.

Many German economists and politicians don’t like the idea. But Merkel might agree if economic Armageddon — a new recession and debt crisis — is the alternative.

If there’s “a huge flare-up of tensions in the eurozone,” says economist Holger Schmieding at Berenberg Bank, “Berlin would give the ECB the nod to do it.”