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COMMENTARY

The real crisis risk at the ECB

THE euro zone has only recently recovered from a double-dip recession, but there are already questions about how prepared it would be for a new crisis. All eyes are on the European Central Bank, which has been the strongest line of defence against an economic slowdown.

While pessimists worry that the ECB has few tools left if it needs to revive growth - given the region's already rock bottom interest rates - such concerns are overdone. A far bigger risk is the replacement of Mario Draghi as the central bank's president this year. Will the new chief be willing to use all of the instruments available to take the monetary union out of any crisis? It's far from certain.

The ECB is still well behind the US Federal Reserve in terms of bringing its monetary policy back to normal. The Fed has raised rates nine times since the financial crisis, lifting them from 0-0.25 per cent to 2.25-2.5 per cent. It has also started selling some of the assets it bought under "quantitative easing," in a process known as "quantitative tightening".

By contrast, the euro zone's central bank only ended its net asset purchases at the end of 2018, more than four years after the Fed. Interest rates are still ultra-low: The main refinancing rate is stuck at zero, and the deposit rate is a negative 0.4 per cent (meaning lenders pay for the privilege of parking their excess reserves with the ECB). In March, Mr Draghi told investors they shouldn't expect any rate increases until at least the start of 2020, in an attempt to spur lending and help the euro zone through a soft patch of growth. He also announced a new round of cheap loans to the banks.

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None of this means the ECB has nothing left in the tank for a downturn. For a start, it could reactivate those net asset purchases to push down bond yields. That would offer breathing space to governments, which could spend more, and cut lending rates (helping companies and consumers). The ECB might also consider cutting its deposit rate even deeper into negative territory. That would encourage banks to lend their money rather than store it at the central bank, and lower the value of the euro, helping to boost exports.

Policymakers are examining whether long-term negative rates might hurt, rather than benefit, banks. Even if that were the case, they could mitigate the impact. For example, they could create a tiered system whereby banks wouldn't pay any charge for putting their excess reserves with the ECB until they hit a certain level.

Of course, these measures might have less of an impact than in the recent past. But a much greater threat is if we end up with a central bank that's unwilling to deploy its full toolkit of unorthodox measures. The euro zone would find itself with a dysfunctional monetary policy in addition to a non-existent common fiscal policy: A real tragedy.

This risk, unfortunately, is all too apparent. The list of contenders to replace Draghi includes some central bankers who are intellectually opposed to some unorthodox measures. For example, Jens Weidmann, the president of Germany's Bundesbank, has long questioned the use of bond-buying schemes. In 2016, he said that mammoth asset purchase programmes came dangerously close to the monetary financing of government deficits, which is illegal under European Treaties.

Mr Weidmann isn't opposed to other unconventional measures, including negative rates. It's possible that he could, if picked as president, become less hawkish. Or euro zone leaders could well choose another candidate who's more inclined to preserve Mr Draghi's toolkit. They might include Benoit Coeure, an ECB executive board member, or Francois Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Banque de France. Olli Rehn and Erkki Liikanen, the current and former governors of the Bank of Finland, are other more moderate possibilities.

As Mr Draghi has demonstrated, the ECB's effectiveness during a slump depends more on its leadership than on its financial instruments. As euro zone leaders mull over his replacement, they must make sure the central bank keeps the ability to do its job properly. BLOOMBERG