Mario Draghi – boiling the German frog!

The anecdotal boiling frog story holds that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out, but if you place it in a pot of cold water and slowly boil the water, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The recent announcement by Mario Draghi, the President of the ECB, of how the ECB believes it can bring the Eurozone crisis under control, smacks of these tactics.

By the end of July, as many of Europe’s leaders had set off for their holidays, Spanish bond yields hit critical levels, which if maintained would shortly leave Spain unable to raise money in the financial markets and requiring a full-scale bailout from the other governments. Spain is however too big for the other Eurozone countries to bail out without considerable help from the ECB in the form of printing money.

Mr Draghi has carefully constructed a plan of action that garners just enough political support to be workable. First, a country must ask for assistance from its fellow Eurozone governments, which must be approved (thus achieving full political buy-in) unanimously. They and the ECB will then set out the conditions for such assistance (achieving the strict conditionality criterion demanded in particular by Germany) and the ECB will then be free to buy short and medium-dated debt in any amount in the secondary market.  That should, in theory bring down yields and enable the country to continue to fund itself in markets. Draghi has promised that he would also deal with the issue of ECB priority in the repayment of debt which bedevilled the Greek bailouts.

As an idea this has the support of the “moderates” within the Eurozone, essentially most of the political leaders and Central Bankers with the sole exception of the Bundesbank, which firmly opposes any Central Bank buying of government debt. The Bundesbank though is a greatly weakened institution today. On the ECB it has only vote out of 17, and only has influence to the extent that the German government agrees. In this case, both Merkel and Schaeuble have come out in favour of the Draghi plan – the Bundesbank is therefore rather isolated. Draghi has successfully driven a wedge between the Bundesbank and the German government

The realpolitik logic of such a plan however is where the boiling frog appears. Once one starts buying up the debt of credit-challenged countries, one begins to incur a large cost should it cease. Since the ECB can create money at will, the cost to it of buying more debt (if conditions do not improve) is zero, but the cost of stopping buying more debt will be considerable if the country defaults on the debt already owned. The German politicians may choose to believe that by imposing conditionality on a country before the ECB starts buying its debt, they are not creating an inflationary problem, but they are the frog being placed into tepid water. Every successive purchase of debt will be the equivalent, in the eyes of the Bundesbank, of raising the water temperature another notch.  

Europe continues to march ever closer to a denouement to its crisis, but the ultimate choice to be made is still the same. Germany has to decide very soon between the lesser of two very large evils.  Should it maintain its foreign policy objective to be a good European and keep the euro together, it will have to accept massive money printing to bail out the sovereign debts of the other countries, and suffer the consequent inflation. Alternatively, should it maintain its key economic policy objective of a sound currency with tight control of the money supply, it will have to accept the break-up of the euro and possibly of Europe as other countries find themselves politically unable to cope with the resultant economic depression..


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