08 May 2010

Letter to Trichet

At the risk of sounding brash, I believe that Jean-Claude Trichet made a major tactical error Thursday morning by muting calls for the ECB to initiate quantitative easing.

The argument against QE in Europe is that the ECB's actions would necessarily be political, possibly opening up the ECB to scrutiny and jeopardizing the central bank's independence. However, the exigencies of the crisis necessitate bold action and I am surprised that Trichet would allow himself to be caught flat footed on this issue. He was unique amongst central bank governors in the summer of 2007 when he (by fax from the beach) provided unlimited liquidity to the European banking system. This bold action ameliorated the onset of the panic of '07.

Trichet is attempting to restore normality to the markets by withdrawing this liquidity support. This is a mistake. Trichet should have said that the ECB was prepared to come into the market with overwhelming force to drive down the unproductive interest rates on European government debt. With the TED spread and the LIBOR-OIS spread approaching panic levels (in plain English, European banks are no longer lending to each other overnight) he should have reiterated his commitment to provide unlimited liquidity.

If he feels that the "traditional" QE is unpalatable or unworkable, he should initiate a political process by which German bunds (the yields on which are currently plunging do to "safe-haven" searching) are issued and the proceeds used to purchase the debt of weaker European countries (which are in danger of being priced out of the lending markets due to their surging yields.) If this were implemented on a significant scale, it could go a long way towards driving a convergence between bond yields on the debt of European countries.

This may be a good opportunity to raise a domestic issue I've been kicking about in the back of my mind. The political separation between the two control levers of the economy, Fiscal Policy (the Spending and Taxation decisions made by Congress) and Monetary Policy (the control of overnight interest rates by the central banks) is necessary but unworkable. If I were in charge, I would make a commitment to restrain overnight interest rates around 0% for three years. Any adjustment necessary to restrain inflation by choking economic activity should be made on a quarterly basis by manipulating the tax rate on corporations and individuals. This is of course politically impossible, however, it cuts to the heart of the biggest danger facing the economy today, the surging national deficit and the possibility, however remote of a U.S. sovereign default. By increasing taxes temporarily if necessary to restrain economic growth, the government would bide its time by funding the exploding national deficit. This would increase its ability to maneuver by stocking some dry powder in the case that additional Keynesian stimulus is required. Which it will be.

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