The All-New Symmetric ECB

This ECB meeting will be different. For a start, the opening statement is going to be shorter and more understandable. Lagarde told us this much when she launched the results of the ECB Strategy Review on 8th July. But is this just another cosmetic tweak or will there be substantial changes?

There certainly should be. The ECB has now changed their mandate for the first time in twenty-three years. Having failed abysmally to achieve their rather tortuous previous target of “close to, but below, 2%”, they’re now gunning for simple symmetry around 2%. As Lagarde explained at the Strategy Review, ‘Symmetry means that the Governing Council considers negative and positive deviations of inflation from the target to be equally undesirable’.

In practice, this unleashes the ECB doves. Previously they had to accept 2% as some kind of ceiling, which many of them feared was trapping the eurozone in a low growth, low inflation twilight zone. Since 2013, average annual inflation in the euro area has been just 0.9%. Now the doves can argue that expectations need to be reset in order to get inflation up to its target.

Why did the hawks agree to this?

They’ve certainly not been backward in coming forward over the years. But just as the Germanic fear of printing money was overcome by Mario Draghi, they have once again been forced to concede in this battle so that they don’t lose the war. There was a risk that the Strategy Review could have resulted in a Federal Reserve style “flexible average inflation targeting” regime, which would have tied the hands of the hawks by forcing them to push the stimulus pedal to the metal with average inflation so low for so long. Instead, they’ve managed to retain some power to interpret this new target in their preferred direction. Lagarde outright rejected the question of whether they were copying the Fed, replying ‘the answer is no, quite squarely’.

So now we have a target that seems to please both the doves and the hawks: the classic ECB fudge. Lagarde was at pains to point out that the new mandate was achieved with unanimous consent. Despite this bonhomie, Lagarde also warned that this week’s meeting would not « have unanimous consent ».

The most prominent perma-hawk, Germany’s Jens Weidmann, is certainly gunning for the end of one of the ECB’s alphabet soup of quantitative easing programmes. The PEPP was launched in March last year in direct response to the pandemic. After all the “E” of its name refers to “emergency” – and Weidmann now thinks we are past that stage. As he noted on 27th June: ‘advances on the vaccination front mean that the economy in the euro area… is now probably making its way out of the crisis… The incidence of the disease declines only gradually… All the more reason, then, to talk about the conditions under which the emergency situation can be considered over from the perspective of monetary policy‘.

Meanwhile the increasingly vocal dove Fabio Panetta of Italy (and old friend of Mario Draghi) has warned that tightening too soon would be disastrous: ‘If we are seen as determined to achieve 2% without undue delay and have a clear plan to do so by enabling monetary-fiscal interactions, rising inflation expectations will make our task easier. But if we are seen to be lacking determination, expectations will be less responsive and the “bang for our buck” will be considerably lower: we will end up spending more, not less, and we may not exit the liquidity trap.

How, then, can Lagarde hope to reconcile the two?

By ending the PEPP and resurrecting the old APP – that’s the original Asset Purchase Programme launched under Draghi in mid-2014 when he was in full Whatever It Takes flight. But the APP will have to change. The amount of purchases might have to drop (to please the hawks) but continue for a longer period of time (to please the doves) – and to be flexible enough to be increased/decreased at any time (to please everyone).

What does this mean in practice?

Forget interest rates. QE is now the only game in town. It’s not going anywhere. But it is going to be recalibrated. This week’s meeting gives Lagarde the chance to set up this new framework so that markets can get used to it. We are in a new normal now. As Panetta recently concluded ‘we should recognise that what was seen as unconventional in the past is now conventional‘. Step forward the APP.