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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.