At a recent meeting of European economists I remarked that there were two big taboo subjects when discussing how the Eurozone might be improved. The first, which I have talked about before, is countercyclical national policies, which could include macroprudential monetary policies but which also must include fiscal policy. It is blindingly obvious that such policies, if implemented, would have put the Eurozone in a much better position before the 2010 crisis, but despite this the subject remains ‘off the agenda’.
The second taboo subject is reform of the ECB. Once again, it is pretty clear to anyone outside the Eurozone that since 2010 ECB decisions have been very poor, both in absolute terms and relative to their counterparts in the US, Japan and the UK. The three big errors are well known:
A failure to introduce OMT in 2010, delaying it to September 2012
Raising interest rates in 2011
Delaying Quantitative Easing until 2015
No one disputes (2). Some say that (1) and maybe (3) were because the ECB had to wait until it was clear that particular countries were serious about undertaking ‘reforms’. This explanation raises more questions than it answers. The ECB’s remit does not extend to dictating national economic policies, but sometimes the ECB appears to think otherwise.
Alongside these big errors are many examples of ECB actions which are highly questionable, the most recent involving Greece. Imagine the Bank of England cutting off the supply of cash to Scotland if negotiations between the Scottish and UK governments were not going the way the UK wanted. Those who say the ECB was only following its rules neglect to observe that the ECB makes up its rules as it goes along. Even in more minor matters, actions of ECB officials which would do more than raise eyebrows elsewhere go on for years without anyone finding out.
One major error alone might not be enough to indicate reform, but three suggests that structural reform is essential. Yet the one structural reform no one in the Eurozone will talk about is at the heart of the Eurozone itself. The reason of course is also why no one will talk about countercyclical fiscal policy: it does not fit in with the dominant German narrative. What is a shame is that this taboo among policy makers is infectious: at the meeting where I talked about this taboo only one or two others mentioned the ECB.
This is a shame, because some imagination is required in thinking about ECB reform. A reasonably obvious change to make is to take monetary policy decisions away from the exclusive control of central bankers, along UK lines. But who would appoint any external members? Here we have a tricky problem - the lack of political union means that any political accountability may be too diffuse to be effective (as it is at present). But the point of this post is not to offer solutions, but to complain that not enough people are talking about the problem.