Another day, another central bank failure.
The European Central Bank on Thursday stared a recession and financial crisis in the face and decided to do absolutely nothing about it. It was a page right out of the Federal Reserve's playbook, which on Wednesday stared a slowing economy and high unemployment in the face and decided to do absolutely nothing about it.
Both banks hinted strongly at some sort of action coming after August, when Europeans come back from vacation. But then they have been hinting at action for months now, without taking any, so you can excuse financial markets for being a little disappointed.
"The lack of action from either the Fed or the ECB this week stands in stark contrast with their dour economic assessments," Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman, wrote in a note. "The assessment and action will be brought into line, but not as soon as investors want."
Just last week, for example, ECB chief Mario Draghi said his central bank would do whatever it took to save the euro. Apparently he just didn't mean they'd do it in a hurry or anything.
The ECB kept its target interest rate on hold at 0.75 percent, or about half a percentage point higher than the Federal Reserve's own target rate. At a press conference, Draghi said the bank was preparing a plan to buy more European sovereign bonds to help ease funding pressures on Spain and Italy. But it also said those governments would have to ask for it first, preferably saying pretty please, with sugar on top.
Spain and Italy could use the help sooner rather than later. At last check, Spanish 10-year bond yields had jumped back above 7 percent, a sort of Death Zone for government borrowing costs. You can't stay above that level for very long without needing a bailout. Italy's 10-year bond yield jumped above 6 percent, uncomfortably high.
Investors fear the enormous economies of Spain and Italy will soon need bailouts, which could put a strain on all of Europe's finances. Such worries have brought manufacturing around the world, including in the U.S., to nearly a screeching halt.
The response by policy makers has been noticeably lacking, marked by "Coordinated inaction by the world's leading central banks: The Fed, the ECB, the Bank of England, [Peoples Bank of China]," Wharton economics professor Justin Wolfers tweeted.
In the Fed's possible defense, it has already slashed interest rates to nearly zero and launched multiple rounds of bond-buying. Some on the Fed worry the risks of further action outweigh the benefits.
The ECB, meanwhile, is handcuffed by a single mandate, to worry endlessly about inflation, even when said inflation is non-existent. And the ECB has Germany, the continent's paymaster, looking over its shoulder and constantly pushing back against aggressive action.
Draghi tried to put the ball back in the courts of the European politicians, all of whom are currently on vacation. Maybe while they're on the beach they're thinking hard about a dramatic fix to their problems, but history offers little reason to hope.
Similarly, the U.S. Congress could take steps right now to help the U.S. economy, but again, history offers little hope.
The only policy makers with free rein to do anything right now are the central banks, and they have taken the rest of the summer off.
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