Central bankers are often proud to be boring. Not Mario Draghi. Two years ago, in July 2012, Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, took everyone by surprise by announcing that he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. The effect was dramatic. This August, he used the annual gathering of top central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to drop another bomb.
Draghi’s speech this time was more analytical but no less bold. First, he took a side in the ongoing debate about the appropriate policy response to the eurozone’s current stagnation. He emphasized that, along with structural reforms, support for aggregate demand is needed, and that the risk of doing too little in this respect clearly exceeded the risk of doing too much.
Second, he confirmed that the ECB was ready to do its part to boost aggregate demand, and mentioned asset purchases, or quantitative easing, as a necessary tool in a context in which inflation expectations have declined below the official 2% target.
Third, and to the surprise of most, Draghi added that there was scope for a more expansionary fiscal stance in the eurozone as a whole. For the first time, he expressed the view that the eurozone had suffered from the lower availability and effectiveness of fiscal policy relative to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. He attributed this not to pre-existing high public debts, but to the fact that the ECB could not act as a backstop for government funding and spare fiscal authorities the loss of market confidence. Moreover, he called for a discussion among euro members of the eurozone’s overall fiscal stance.
Draghi broke three taboos at once. First, he based his reasoning on the heterodox notion of a policy mix combining monetary and fiscal measures. Second, he explicitly mentioned the aggregate fiscal stance, whereas Europe has always looked at the fiscal situation exclusively on a country-by-country basis. Third, his claim that preventing the ECB from acting as a lender of last resort imposes a high price – making governments vulnerable and reducing their fiscal space – contradicts the tenet that the central bank must not provide support to government borrowing.