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ECB fires into the void

The reaction to Thursday’s ECB announcement brings to mind the phrase 'chasing the dragon'.

That is not to say Europe has developed a tolerance to easy money — it has been persistently indifferent to it. But any optimism in the reaction to Draghi's new bazooka on Thursday was odd given the dwindling confidence in what central banks can achieve.

After the ECB cut rates and boosted its purchasing to include non-financial corporate bonds, the markets moved initially as if economic growth was rampant. 

But it is lacklustre, so corporates are not likely to use ever cheaper debt on capex. They are more likely to engage in the only means of growth available to them: M&A, which is, of course, inorganic. 

The ECB's Targeted Longer Term Refinancing Operations, now rejigged, have not compelled banks to lend to small and medium sized enterprises. They do not want, nor can they efficiently take, the risk, even on terms like the ECB’s, it seems.

Hardly anyone thinks a further increase in risk appetite from capital markets investors is needed.

Draghi’s repeated pleas to politicians to embark on structural reform — made once again at Thursday’s announcement — are having no effect. His insistence that monetary policy can only go so far implies that QE is only a means of buying time for such reform.

But what if that never happens? Do we just push further on into negative rate territory? Does the ECB start buying, let’s say, olive oil, sherry or cars? Canned goods? Time itself?

Maybe it would be the best stimulus in the long term if Draghi just said, “You’ve wasted the time I bought you. Sorry, but you’re on your own.”

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