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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.