Business World

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Oliver Sinnott: 'Big boots to fill - so will Draghi's successor have 'whatever it takes'?'

 

Mario Draghi: History will judge him kindly. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Bloomberg
Mario Draghi: History will judge him kindly. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Bloomberg

Oliver Sinnott

While speaking to a Bank of Italy representative at a conference in London in 2011, I asked what she thought of the then governor of the Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi, who had just been announced as the next European Central Bank (ECB) president.

"Mario operates at a different level and he is going to go in there and change everything," was her memorable and seemingly over-effusive reply.

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I was sceptical. I wondered if the ECB was capable of change. But eight years later, her prediction has proven extraordinarily accurate. Draghi has done much to change the ECB's DNA.

To understand how big the transformation has been, one needs to look at the ECB's history. Established in 1998, it was based in Frankfurt and modelled on the German Bundesbank, which had zero tolerance for above-target inflation.

This was to placate Germany, which, haunted by its 1930s hyperinflation experience, worried about giving up control to potentially less disciplined central bankers.

Contagion rips through the Eurozone

When Draghi took over as ECB president, the eurozone debt crisis was reaching a peak.

The crisis that spread through Greece, Ireland and Portugal was beginning to affect the borrowing costs and debt sustainability of larger peripheral countries (and banks) in Spain and Italy. It was threatening the very existence of the eurozone.

To make matters worse, before Draghi took over, the ECB raised rates twice to dampen inflation.

This horrified many market participants, as it further demonstrated the ECB was overly focused on inflation and had underestimated the crisis.

After all, inflation would be a minor issue if the eurozone imploded, surely prompting a much more severe recession and banking crisis across the entire region.

'Super Mario'

Defeating the eurozone debt crisis was going to have to be Draghi's first and most important challenge and he did not disappoint. Within six weeks of his appointment, he reversed the two interest rate rises engineered by his predecessor and provided cheap loans to help banks.

Then, in July 2012, he uttered the words for which he is famous: "Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough."

This warned eurozone break-up speculators that they could be betting against all of the ECB's resources. It proved to be a masterstroke.

Default risk in all peripheral government and bank debt tumbled as a result. The graph above, which shows peripheral government bond spreads (a proxy for default risk) illustrates this.

Breaking taboos

While, under Draghi's stewardship, the ECB successfully turned the corner on the financial crisis, but inflation continued to undershoot the ECB's target of "below, but close to, 2pc". In order to stimulate the economy and inflation, in addition to keeping the financial crisis at bay, he introduced two controversial policies.

Firstly, he cut interest rates below zero, effectively charging institutions for placing money at the ECB. One rationale was that if banks were penalised for holding excess cash, they might be more inclined to lend it and help revive the broader economy.

Then, in 2015, the ECB began a Quantitative Easing (QE) programme, which in its most basic form is "printing" money to buy bonds.

In theory this would boost activity by increasing money supply and lowering borrowing costs. In addition, it was probably hoped (unofficially) it would depreciate the euro. QE faced huge opposition from Germany in particular.

Draghi has his critics

Despite all this stimulus, critics of Draghi would point out, inflation has been below its target for over five years. This is not in doubt.

However, this is a problem experienced by almost all developed market central banks in recent years.

There are many reasons for this, including ageing demographics, globalised cheap labour and technological advancement.

In addition, it is widely accepted now that central banks have much more power to lower inflation than they do to raise it.

Perhaps Draghi's biggest critic will be his successor, who may complain that after so much stimulus there is not enough ammunition to fight the next crisis.

Certainly, given interest rates are negative and QE approached legal and operational limits, they may need to be even more inventive going forward.

However, it is possible that his successor goes down a different path.

New president, new direction?

There is growing speculation that the next president will be a northern European, perhaps even the German Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, who has opposed Draghi's unconventional policies.

The appointment of Weidmann, or a similar-minded person, may mean the ECB will be less willing to act as a circuit breaker during future crises leading to potentially more financial market volatility and putting more onus on governments to intervene.

However, a still fragile eurozone economy and the lack of a proper eurozone fiscal union suggests stepping back from interventionist policies may be a luxury the next ECB president cannot afford.

Certainly, Draghi did not have that option when he took over at the height of the eurozone debt crisis.

Thankfully, he recognised the ECB was on the wrong path and, despite considerable criticism, had the courage to change course and step in when European politicians and institutions did not.

While I am not keen on negative interest rates and acknowledge QE may have negative consequences in the future, I believe survival of the single currency in those critical early years owes more to him than anybody else. For that reason, I believe history will judge him kindly.

Oliver Sinnott is a fixed income fund manager with Davy Asset Management

Irish Independent

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