Tight monetary policy in the EU

Tight monetary policy implies the Central Bank is trying to reduce the demand for money and limit the pace of economic expansion.

A tightening of monetary policy, could involve an increase in interest rates. – Higher interest rates increase the cost of borrowing and discourage investment and consumer spending. A tightening of monetary policy would be appropriate in a period of positive economic growth and rising inflation, above the inflation target.

Europe has neither. The Eurozone is facing an inflation rate of 0.4% and weak economic growth. However, monetary policy has been relatively tight.

Two graphs from Antonio Fatas help to illustrate this.

Real interest rates in US and EU


Source: Helicopter money A.Fatas

Real interest rates are the nominal interest rate – inflation rate.

Therefore, with base rates of 0.5% and inflation of 4%, the US would have a real interest rate of -3.5% – This negative interest rates, in theory, should be more encouraging for people to spend rather than save.

By contrast, the ECB have had higher real interest rates. This is partly because they increased nominal interest rates in 2013, but mainly because European inflation has been lower. The decline in Eurozone inflation to 0.4% has had the effect of increasing real interest rates.

UK real interest rates have been similar to the US. UK inflation has been higher than Eurozone inflation.

The increase in real interest rates in Europe are a serious cause for concern and a good illustration of one of the problems of deflation / low inflation.

With deflation, monetary policy can become unsuitable. Because you can’t cut base rates below zero, monetary policy can become tighter than market conditions allow.

Unfortunately the higher real interest rates and the tightening of monetary policy makes deflation more likely. It is a vicious circle.

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Unemployment during economic boom

Q2: Why are there millions of people unemployed even when the economy is booming?

During periods of strong economic growth, we can often experience high rates of unemployment. Firstly, there may be structural unemployment. This occurs when the unemployed are unsuited or unable to fill job vacancies. For example, a booming economy may have a growing number of jobs in high-tech industries, but many unemployed may not have the right skills for this job.

Alternatively, we could see geographical unemployment. This occurs when the economy is booming in the south, but unemployed workers in the north are unable or unwilling to move to the south (for example, difficulty of getting housing in London, where jobs are available.

Inflexible labour markets. Another potential problem is that labour markets may be inflexible. For example, high minimum wages or costly regulations may discourage firms from employing people, despite high growth.

Frictional unemployment. In a modern economy we usually see some inevitable frictional unemployment – when people are in between jobs and taking time to find the job best suited to their skills. Therefore, in practise, full employment is never 0% – we can always expect around 2-3% unemployment due to this frictional unemployment. – Temporary short term unemployment

Another potential issue is that some types of economic growth could involve less employment opportunities. For example, the software industry may be able to add high value added to GDP, without employing a large quantity of workers. Labour intensive industries on the other hand may be closing down and these unskilled manual workers find it difficult to move into other areas. There have been some concerns that recent global economic growth has been in industries with lower job creation than usual.

Good example of high unemployment in an economic boom


If we look at the UK economy in the 1980s, there is persistently high unemployment, despite strong economic growth in the mid and late 1980s. Unemployment was slow to fall, and even at the peak of the economic boom, unemployment was still over 1.6 million. One reason for this is that in the 1980s the UK economy went through a radical restructuring. Manufacturing output fell significantly, causing a big loss of jobs in the north and amongst unskilled manual workers. New jobs were created in the south and service sector, but there was a lag in these unemployed workers finding new employment.


In the current economic recovery, UK unemployment has fallen much faster. Despite weak growth since 2010, UK unemployment has fallen by more than many economists expected, suggesting labour markets are becoming more flexible. It has also helped that wage growth has been very muted, encouraging firms to hire more workers.

UK unemployment-rate


Why does the cost of living keep rising?

Readers Question: Why does the cost of living keep rising?

This is due to inflation – the persistent increase in the average price level. In modern economies, inflation is a common feature. In fact most Central Banks target a low rate of inflation of 2%.

Central banks feel that a moderate rate of inflation is consistent with a steady rate of economic growth.

For various reasons a zero inflation rate could create problems – especially, if people are used to moderate inflation. See: costs of low inflation and deflation.

The important thing is – are incomes rising faster than prices and the cost of living? If your cost of living rises at 2%, but average incomes are rising at 5% a year, then you’re real income is increasing by 3% – you are better off, despite the increased cost of living.

However, if prices are rising, and your income staying the same, then your real income is falling – you are effectively worse off because you cannot afford to buy as many goods.

Prices don’t always rise


Note. prices don’t always rise. In the 1920s and 1930s, the UK had a period of deflation – falling prices and the cost of living was going down. However, this wasn’t a good situation because it was also a period of high unemployment and low growth. Japan has experienced deflation in recent decades, and the EU is getting close to zero inflation


Why is inflation considered normal in modern economies?

I’m not exactly sure, but somehow economic growth tends to cause some moderate price rises. Also, a low inflation of 2%, makes it easier for relative prices to adjust. With inflation of 2% – some prices like services may rise by 4%, some prices like mobile phones may stay at 0%. Some goods like food may rise by 2%.

Because there is downward price and wage rigidity, it is easier to have these price adjustments with low inflation than zero inflation.



The truth about debt

Readers Question: You have partially explained the answer to my question in your reply to my other question, “What will we do when we can’t pay back the money owing to the government bond holders when they reach the end if their term”. While I appreciate the convenient use of the debt to GDP ratio I feel that it tends to sidestep the truth about the remaining debt. This is almost like the government using the reduction in the deficit rather than the reality of remaining, possibly increasing debt.

For some reason, the first thing that comes into my mind is the famous quote from Dr Strangelove – “how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (debt)”

I guess we can blame Charles Dickens and Wilkins Micawber from David Copperfield.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

No matter how much you talk about government debt, people won’t feel comfortable until we have a zero budget deficit and zero government debt. –  (even though, I don’t think any modern economy has ever had such a situation – nor would one be particularly desirable.) Many issues are addressed here: The political appeal of austerity.

What does debt cost?

Another way of thinking about government debt is the annual cost of servicing the debt. What percentage of GDP is spent on debt interest payments? What percentage of tax revenues is spent on servicing the debt? You could have an increase in the real value of debt, but a smaller percentage spent on paying interest on the debt. Would you worry about a mortgage – if every year the monthly mortgage payments were becoming a smaller percentage of your disposable income?


The cost of servicing UK debt has risen in the past few years, due to rise in debt. But, by historical standards, it is still quite low and certainly quite manageable. More on Cost of borrowing

Of course, the cost of debt interest payments also depend on interest rates. A rise in interest rates will cause higher borrowing costs. But, with low interest rates predicted, we are unlikely to see a jump in borrowing costs – at least in the medium term.

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The false goal of a balanced budget

The German economy has been one of the world’s strongest economies in the post-war period. There are many aspects of the German economy which deserve praise and emulation – not least strong productivity growth, a booming export sector and prolonged low inflationary growth. In the post-war period Germany has played an important role in promoting economic stability and prosperity within Europe.

But, in recent years, the German economy has seen several cracks appear and German economic thinking is now causing a major drag on Eurozone economic growth and prosperity.

The false goal of a balanced budget

An very important issue in German politics is the desirability of seeing a balanced budget (government spending = government tax revenue). Many German finance ministers have made balancing the budget their primary economic objective. In the UK and US, we see that austerity has a strong political appeal – but in Germany the appeal of ‘responsibility’ and avoiding debt is perhaps even greater. A German friend told me that there is a certain guilt attached to the idea of holding on to debt. (though this guilt is especially felt with government debt – mortgages and business loans are somehow different)


On the objective of reducing budget deficits Germany has been successful. It is also keen to enforce EU rules and the idea of encouraging a balanced budget for its struggling European neighbours.

Angela Merkel recently stated to the EU Parliament, that EU rules must be met:

“All, and I stress again all, member states must respect in full the rules of the strengthened stability and growth pact,” she said. “These rules must be applied credibly to all member states — only then can the pact fulfill as a central anchor for stability and above all for confidence in the eurozone.” (US Today)

Although, Merkel did not name France, the implication was that France must do more to meet the EU Stability and growth pact.

Why is a balanced budget a false goal?

1. Lack of investment

A successful business does not have its objective to borrow nothing. A successful business knows that it needs to invest to make progress and retain its prosperity. Years of cutting government spending has meant that Germany has cut back substantially on public sector investment. There are widespread reports that Germany has a lack of investment in roads, bridges and other forms of transport. There is a fear that important infrastructure, such as roads and bridges are reaching the end of their 70 year cycle, but there is no money to successfully replace them. The economic problem is growing congestion, time wasted and damage to the long term productive capacity of the economy. The Guardian notes

Its (German) investment rate in 2013 was the fourth lowest in the EU; only Austria, Spain and Portugal spent less. Fratzscher, who is head of the German Institute for Economic Research, calculates there is an “investment gap” of €80bn (£63bn).

The Economist reports that German public sector investment is —a paltry 1.6% of GDP— one of lowest in Europe and has fallen since 2009. Continue Reading →


The need for a higher inflation target in the EU

The ECB inflation target is 2% – ‘it aims to maintain inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term. ‘

However, some economists argue that in the current situation, the ECB should have a higher inflation target of 3-4%.

The main reason for having a higher inflation rate would be to prioritise economic growth and help to reduce unemployment. Higher inflation would also help to contain and reduce government debt to GDP ratios – without excessive austerity.

Having a higher inflation rate will be resisted by many other economists and Central Bankers who believe that allowing higher inflation will lead to costs of uncertainty, lower investment and greater instability in the long-term. (see: costs of inflation) Also, some doubt whether higher inflation will actually help real economic growth.

EU inflation

EU inflation

EU inflation – St Louis Fed


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Inflation target during deflation

Readers Question: How does inflation targeting operate when there is a deflation? and what are the problems associated with this?

It’s a good question to ask at the moment, especially with regard to the ECB and Eurozone.

Firstly, the EU inflation target is – below but close to 2%. If inflation falls below 2%, the Central Bank should pursue a loosening of monetary policy – lower interest rates (if possible), quantitative easing and allowing the exchange rate to fall.

The ECB state

By referring to “an increase in the HICP of below 2%” the definition makes clear that not only inflation above 2% but also deflation (i.e. price level declines) is inconsistent with price stability.

Basically, the ECB target is 2%

The UK has an inflation target of CPI 2% +/-1 (i.e an inflation rate of 1-3%)

If inflation falls below the target then this is a problem and Central Banks should be committed to solving it.

How to increase the inflation rate?

If inflation is falling below 1% – or even forecast to be falling below 1% a Central Bank should intervene. There are several things it can try and do.

1. Reduce interest rates. Lower interest rates make borrowing cheaper and should help to stimulate demand. However, for the UK and the EU, interest rates are already at zero. Therefore, interest rates are not an effective tool for fighting deflation.

The ECB themselves mention a problem of deflation

“Having such a safety margin against deflation is important because nominal interest rates cannot fall below zero. In a deflationary environment monetary policy may thus not be able to sufficiently stimulate aggregate demand by using its interest rate instrument. This makes it more difficult for monetary policy to fight deflation than to fight inflation.” (ECB Price stability)

2. Quantitative easing. – Money creation. In the UK and US, the Central Banks have electronically created money to purchase bonds and gilts. This has increased the monetary base and in theory increased the money supply in the economy. The effect of Q.E. is hard to quantify but it does seem that the economic recovery in UK and US has been stronger – with a higher inflation rate than Europe – Europe is reluctant to pursue Quantitative easing and as a result is seeing its inflation rate fall close to 0%.

The problem Europe has is that many (especially in Germany) have an almost irrational fear of creating money. Any policy of Q.E. could see itself challenged in European courts. It is also more difficult when you have a common currency area of many countries, whose bonds do you buy?

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Problems of Deflation

  • Deflation is defined as a fall in the general price level. It is a negative rate of inflation.
  • It means the value of money increases rather than decreases.
  • Deflation is not necessarily bad, but often periods of deflation / low inflation can lead to economic stagnation and periods of high unemployment. This is because deflation can discourage spending because things will be cheaper in the future. Deflation can also increase real debt burdens – reducing the spending power of firms and consumers.


In the twentieth century, periods of deflation have been relatively rare. Generally, western economies have experienced inflation. The most significant period of deflation for the UK was in the 1920s and 1930s. These decades (especially, the 1930s) were characterised by economic depression. Prolonged deflation is often considered to be very damaging as it can exacerbate an economic downturn leading to higher unemployment.

Problems of Deflation

  1. Discourages consumer spending. When there are falling prices, this often encourages people to delay purchases because they will be cheaper in the future. In particular, it can discourage consumers from buying luxury goods / non-essential items, e.g. flatscreen TV) because you could save money by waiting for it to be cheaper. Therefore, periods of deflation often lead to lower consumer spending and lower economic growth; (this in turn creates more deflationary pressure in the economy. Certainly this fall in consumer spending was a feature of the Japanese experience of deflation (Japanese financial crisis).
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Impact of falling oil prices

In recent months the price of crude oil has fallen 30%. This fall in the price of oil has a significant impact in reducing transport and other business costs. Falling oil prices is good news for oil importers, such as Western Europe, China, India and Japan; however, it is bad news for oil exporters, such as Venezuela, Kuwait, Iraq and Nigeria.


Impact on oil consumers

Lower oil prices help to reduce the cost of living. Oil related transport costs will directly fall, leading to lower cost of living and a lower inflation rate. Falling oil prices is one reason behind the recent fall in UK inflation to 1.2%

With stagnant real wages, this fall in the cost of living is important for giving Western consumers more discretionary income (more income to spend). A fall in oil prices is effectively like a free tax cut. In theory, the fall in oil prices could lead to higher spending on other goods and services and add to real GDP.

Macro economic impact of falling oil prices

  1. Lower inflation
  2. Higher output


This diagram shows that a fall in oil prices (and a fall in firms costs) will shift Short Run Aggregate Supply (SRAS) to the right, causing lower inflation and higher real GDP. (Some economists say a 10% fall in oil prices leads to a 0.1% increase in GDP (BBC article on falling oil prices)

3. Balance of payments

Oil importers will benefit from a falling oil price because the value of their oil imports will drop. This will reduce the current account deficit of oil importers; this is important for a country like India who imports 75% of oil consumption and currently has a large current account deficit. However, for oil exporters, a falling oil price will do the opposite reducing the value of their exports and causing lower trade surplus. The UK is currently a small net importer of oil, so will have limited impact on UK current account.

Oil Exporters

For oil exporters a falling oil price is bad news. Many oil exporting countries rely on tax revenue from oil production to fund government spending. For example, Russia gains 70% of all tax revenues from oil and gas. Falling oil prices will lead to a government budget deficit, and will require either higher taxes or government spending cuts. Other oil exporters like Venezuela are relying on oil revenues to fund generous social spending. A fall in oil prices could lead to a significant budget deficit and social problems.

Other oil exporters, such as Saudi Arabia and UAE have built up substantial foreign currency reserves; they can afford temporary falls in oil prices because they have substantial reserves. This is why Saudi Arabia has so far not responded by cutting output.

Why falling oil prices is not enough for Europe

Usually falling oil prices would be welcomed by oil importing countries. However, many are deeply fearful about prospects for the European and global economy.

Firstly, the fall in oil prices is largely a reflection of weak global demand. Continued low growth around the world, is holding back demand. Thus the falling price of oil is a reflection of weak global growth – rather than the harbinger of economic recovery.


Deflation nightmare. The biggest fear in Europe at the moment is the slide towards deflation and the fear of a ‘Japan style’ lost decade. EU inflation has fallen to a five year low (0.4% in August 2014) 31% of Eurozone goods are now falling in price. This is a concern because deflation tends to cause serious macro-economic problems: Continue Reading →


What happens when the government runs out of money?

Readers Question: Since the debt is mainly in the form of government bonds or gilts then it can only be paid back when the term of the bond terminates. What happens if there is not enough money to pay this back?


Government bonds are a method for the government to borrow money. They sell bonds (e.g. for £1,000) and promise to pay back the bond holder in say 30 years. In the meantime, they will pay an interest rate of e.g. 5% a year as compensation.

Default on debt. If the government has no money to pay bond holders, then it will be defaulting on its debt. Bond holders lose their investment.

The government will be reluctant to do this because once it has started to default on its debt – no-one will want to buy or hold government bonds – so you will see the price of government bonds fall, and the market interest rate rise. The government will have to pay much higher interest rates to compensate for the risk of default and it will be difficult to attract buyers of bonds in the future.

Haircut / partial default. If the government is in great financial difficulty it may offer a deal to bond holders that it will pay back a certain percentage, e.g. 50%. In response for writing off 50% of the bond, bondholders may feel it is better to get 50% than nothing. Alternatively, the government may extend the maturity of the bond, e.g. change a 30 year bond into a 45 year bond, to give itself more time to pay it back.
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