ECB keeps its head in the sand as German economy contracts

Draghi, where are you?

The Economist's Ryan Avent has made waves with a well-timed punchy question: why are we acting like the fact that the eurozone hasn't actually imploded means everything is alright there?

Some perspective is in order. Real euro-area output is at roughly the level of the end of 2006 and it is declining. The euro-area economy hasn't grown since the third quarter of 2011. Total employment is below the level first attained in the second quarter of 2006 and it is declining. The unemployment rate is of course at a record high 11.8%. And inflation—both core and headline—was virtually nil in the second half of 2012.

That's simply a dismal macroeconomic performance.

The European Central Bank deserves some credit for having halted the repeated attacks on the currency — and perhaps that credit should go to the president of the bank, Mario Draghi, himself. His declaration last July that the euro would be preserved "whatever it takes" is widely held to have been the turning point at which the survival of the euro was assured.

But the ECB's target should be higher than merely ensuring the continued existence of the currency it was created to oversee. And it's not just that the bank is trying, but failing, to boost demand in the eurozone. It has done, essentially, nothing. Interest rates remain well above even the zero-bound where conventional monetary policy falls apart, and its unconventional measures — which it was happy to employ when it was in a do-or-die situation — have been non-existent.

According to statistics released yesterday, Germany contracted by 0.5 per cent in the fourth quarter last year. Germany! That's the country that's supposed to be the beating heart of the eurozone. It's one thing when the analysis was that the ECB was unfairly trading Greek health for Germany; but based on who's being touted as success stories these days, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's trading German health for Estonian. (Estonian GDP grew by 8 per cent in 2011, but that still left it 9 per cent below its pre-crisis peak — it's certainly not an unambiguous success story).

Draghi is apparently hoping that global growth will sweep in and restore the European economy from without, and that all he needs to do is keep it ticking over until then. But the job of a central bank governor is not to wait for dei ex machinae. And given the size of the eurozone, it may be rather hopeful to conclude that the is such a thing as a separate worldwide economy. Can the rest of Europe have a proper recovery with the eurozone depressed? What about the economies of North America, or Japan?

There's a temptation, especially on the part of those pessimistic about the EU in general, to throw their hands up and declare the situation irreconcilable. But despite — maybe because of — the ECB failing to even recognise there's a problem, it's not clear that it has no possible solutions. Once it gets its head out of the ground, maybe it will realise there are things it could have been doing all along.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.