Trichet's Rein at the ECB: No Party for Europe

Trichet's Rein at the ECB: No Party for Europe

The retiring head of the European Central Bank presided over disaster: fixated on 2% inflation, he missed the housing bubble

Jean-Claude Trichet will be retiring as head of the European Central Bank at the end of October. He will step into retirement having wreaked the sort of destruction on the European economy that hostile powers could only dream about. Tens of millions of people across the eurozone countries are unemployed or underemployed because of his mismanagement of Europe's economy.

Meanwhile, the world teeters on the brink of another financial crisis because of the failure of the ECB, along with the IMF, to effectively address the sovereign debt crisis. Most incredible of all, Trichet probably thinks he has done a good job.

This last point really is central because the ECB, like much of the economics profession, continues to be controlled by a bizarre clique that believes that the most important, and possibly only, goal that a central bank should pursue is a 2% inflation target. By this measure, the ECB has done reasonably well, even as the eurozone economy has crumbled around it. After all, inflation in the eurozone economies rarely exceeded 3% and averaged well under the 2% target over the last decade.

However, the low and stable eurozone inflation rate is not going to provide much help to the 21.2% of the Spanish workforce that is unemployed, or the 14.6% of the Irish workforce, nor the millions more elsewhere in the eurozone who have lost their jobs as a result of the collapsed of the housing bubbles - which the ECB let grow unchecked.

If Trichet and his colleagues at the ECB had been awake, they would have noticed that real house prices in Spain had more than doubled between 1998 and 2006. The same was true in Ireland. There was no remotely comparable increase in rents, strongly indicating that this boom was not being driven by the fundamentals of the housing market.

And in both countries, the massive run-up in house prices was having a predictable effect on the economy. Both countries experienced huge building booms and surging consumption, as homeowners spent according to their bubble-generated housing wealth. In both cases, this led to extraordinary balance of trade deficits, which were clearly unsustainable for advanced economies.

How could Trichet and his colleagues have failed to have noticed these housing bubble and the economic distortions that they were creating? Or, insofar as they did notice them, did they have a theory by which economies can seamlessly replace the 10 percentage points of GDP-worth of demand (or thereabouts) that was being generated by the housing bubbles in these countries?

It didn't help that much of the rest of the eurozone also had bubbles in their housing markets (Germany was the big exception), although they were not creating quite as large distortions as in Spain and Ireland. Nor did it help matters that important non-eurozone countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom, also had bubbles in their housing market and that the whole process was being driven by over-leveraged banks.

It is very difficult to see how a central banker in the eurozone could have looked at the economic situation in 2004, 2005 or 2006 and not be concerned about the impending disaster that eventually overtook these economies. The warning signs were all over the place, but rather than taking the regulatory and monetary actions necessary to deflate these bubbles - including giving clear and persistent warnings - Trichet and his colleagues focused on their 2% inflation target.

Remarkably, even after the collapse of the bubbles, with the eurozone economies smouldering in the wreckage, the ECB continues to be obsessed with its 2% inflation target. While the Federal Reserve board lowered its overnight money rate to zero and has introduced several rounds of quantitative easing to try to reduce longer-term rates, the ECB never lowered its short-term rate below 1.0%. It actually raised it to 1.5% last spring in order to "stem inflationary risks".

More recently, along with its troika partners, the European Commission and the IMF, the ECB has had the whole eurozone financial system, and indeed, the world financial system, teetering on the brink of disaster as it tries to squeeze additional concessions out of Greece and other debt-burdened economies. While the betting is that a resolution to the debt crisis will be reached before the whole system explodes, the ECB and its partners are imposing enormous risks on everyone else for concessions that are of questionable value, at best.

It would be tragic if Trichet is allowed to go into retirement thinking that he has done a good job. In terms of public service failures, Trichet's performance ranks a notch or two below Michael Brown watching New Orleans drown when he was head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

Humiliating Trichet is not just a question of justice or morality, although is painful to see someone who has caused so much harm escape with impunity. More importantly, it is an issue of incentives. The people given responsibility for economic policy should be held accountable for their performance. If Trichet is toasted into retirement, we have no reason to expect any better results from his successor. That would be a real disaster.

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