Here's what Draghi meant when he said the ECB would "cope"

Even the ECB is getting creative now.

At today’s  European Central Bank post-meeting news conference, we discovered that ECB President Draghi and his fellow Governing Council members are pulling on their walking boots for a trip into unexplored territory namely, negative interest rates.

We all dozed through his opening, oft-repeated remark that the ECB, "stands ready to act", (if economic developments so-demand), but then, much more significantly, he repeated the phrase in response to a journalist’s question about whether the ECB would ever consider taking the Deposit Rate negative-that counts as a hint in my book, the markets seemed to agree, and everyone sat up in their seats to listen with rapt attention as he pushed home the hint by saying the ECB would "cope" with any unintended consequences of negative interest rates. That removed the last obstacle-hitherto, the ECB’s response to negative rate speculation has always been to refer to such fears. He also repeatedly emphasised the extent to which the Governing Council feels the transmission mechanism from low ECB policy rates to increased and cheaper lending to real people and businesses had healed itself, even in the Periphery, i.e. therefore, conventional policy tools are once again back in play and potentially efficacious.

I was also impressed by the way he didn’t repeat his usual mantra about not pre-committing to interest rate moves-he usually leaps down anybody’s throat if they’re silly enough to try and get him to do that!

Here’s what he meant when he said the ECB would "cope" with any nasty side effects of negative policy rates. The most frequently sighted potential undesirable consequence is an inability on the part of banks to fund themselves adequately, because Money Market Funds will be unwilling or statutorily unable to lend to banks at negative interest rates, for fear of "breaking the buck" in terms of their redemption prices to investors. So, the story goes, banks will become illiquid. Again.

However, the ECB has already proved to us all that liquidity is its party piece-witness its  Long Term Refinancing Operations and Outright Monetary Transactions, (well, witness the latter’s description at least, since it’s yet to be used in practice). Liquidity is what the ECB feels it’s there for, and what its mandate allows, as opposed to anything that smacks of the provision of deficit funding to governments.

This is what Draghi meant when he said the ECB would "cope". Even as he spoke, the ECB’s boffins were no doubt crafting some new, diabolically clever liquidity scheme.

The psychological effects of actually paying money every day to deposit money at the ECB would have quite a dramatic effect upon banks-more than that to be expected from a cut of only 0.25 per cent, and not only would this small move down in interest rates have an amplified effect upon banks’ willingness to lend, it will also lead the man in the street to think again before putting his money on deposit. Why not go and spend it-surely all these weird experiments  monetary policy must lead to inflation at some stage, so maybe better to buy that car now, before it costs more next year?

And if it works for the ECB, why not for the Bank of England and its incoming and undoubtedly imaginative new Guv’, Mark Carney? His defeated  Deputy, Paul Tucker, has already floated the concept.

Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.