QE, zero rates, and a Chinese surprise

It's central bank mania!

It's central bank day, and for once all three reporting banks – the Bank of England, European Central Bank and Bank of China, which for the second month in a row announced its decision after the Bank of England – have done something interesting.

The Bank of England announced, as expected, that it would be increasing its quantitative easing program by a further £50bn. In the accompanying statement, it struck a sombre note:

UK output has barely grown for a year and a half and is estimated to have fallen in both of the past two quarters. The pace of expansion in most of the United Kingdom’s main export markets also appears to have slowed. Business indicators point to a continuation of that weakness in the near term, both at home and abroad. In spite of the progress made at the latest European Council, concerns remain about the indebtedness and competitiveness of several euro-area economies, and that is weighing on confidence here. The correspondingly weaker outlook for UK output growth means that the margin of economic slack is likely to be greater and more persistent.

The new round of asset purchases will also have been encouraged by the consistently falling inflation. Textbook QE raises inflation, and although the economy isn't behaving according to many textbooks these days, the Bank will still have wanted to wait until it was within spitting distance of its mandate before acting.

Minutes later, however, the Bank of China stole some of the shine, by cutting its interest rates for a second month running. It lowered its benchmark interest rate by 0.25 per cent, and also lowered its one-year lending rate by 0.31 per cent.

Business Insider's Sam Ro sums up why that matters:

China's growth rate has been decelerating lately, which had some economists concerned that its economy would land hard. In a hard landing, the unemployment rate picks up and the economy risks sinking all the way into recession. China is the second largest economy in the world. And for most economies, China is also the main source of growth.

Falling interest rates could mean that the Chinese central bank is starting to get edgy.

Finally, an hour ago the ECB announced its monthly move on interest rates. And they went for some unconventional monetary policy! Admittedly, not as unconventional as paying for people's holidays: they lowered the deposit rate to zero per cent (as well as cutting its main refinancing rate to 0.75 per cent and the emergency funds rate to 1.50 per cent). If you park your money with the central bank, they won't give you a penny cent.

Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska explains the reasoning:

A positive deposit rate was the last thing anchoring money market rates to zero — or vague profitability. This is because banks could arbitrage the difference between the rates they received at the ECB and the rates money market funds were able to invest at.

By cutting the deposit rate, the ECB is killing this arbitrage. There will not be any profit associated with taking money from non-banks and parking it at the ECB for a small profit. Non-banks won’t even be able to get zero. This will leave real-rates exposed to further deterioration. The ECB, of course, is hoping that non-banks will choose to channel that money into risky assets instead…

With the deposit rate where it is, the ECB has well and truly reached the zero bound. The only way down now would be to ban money. Their call, it seems.

Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war