The Owl of Frankfurt: Lagarde discovers her powers

Big shoes to fill

Christine Lagarde took over the ECB from Mario Draghi in 2019. Draghi was widely respected as the man who saved the euro. He promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ when prices for bonds of large euro countries were unsustainably low. Furthermore, Draghi introduced monetary policy tools that were considered radical at the time, such as quantitative easing (buying bonds) and targeted refinancing operations (lending to banks).

Critics suspected that Lagarde would be no match for her predecessor. Indeed, Draghi was an economist and former banker. By contrast, Lagarde was ‘merely’ a lawyer and politician.

Maybe that is why her opponents would systematically underestimate Lagarde. Time and again during her presidency, she followed the same strategy. Instead of trying to come up with new ideas herself, she listened to all options. Not just those of an inner circle of old central bankers and professors, but especially the alternatives suggested by junior staff and independent thinkers. Once Lagarde made up her mind on the right course to follow, she used her political skills to win the day.

The 2020 review

But let’s return to the start. Although Draghi’s ECB had performed better than under the disastrous Trichet, all was not well. Unemployment in the euro area was high. The ECB’s interest rates were negative. Inflation in the euro area was below the two percent target. The contemporary consensus said that the central bank was out of ammo.

It was in this context that Lagarde launched a monetary policy review. She wanted to know how the ECB could boost economic growth and fight climate change.

The policy review set in motion the bureaucratic cogs of the ECB. Meanwhile, Lagarde was subtly consolidating her power. She kept a tight grip on meetings and did not tolerate leaks. She also improved communication with national leaders and the European Parliament.

But most importantly, Lagarde read the Internet. And what she read did not make her happy. Lagarde’s advisors had assured her that the ECB’s hands were tied. They claimed that the institution was powerless in the current macroeconomic environment and that fiscal stimulus was needed.

But online, she discovered that central banks had historically used instruments that none of the very serious people were talking about. It was as if everybody suffered from amnesia.

In the spring of 2020, Lagarde held a secret meeting with three outsiders. The quartet of conspirators hatched a plan…


Next episode: the conference of the long knives

First episode: Paris, 2076

The Owl of Frankfurt: Paris, 2076

Eulogy by Aya Sissoko, President of the ECB, 8 January 2076

It is with great sadness that we say farewell to our honorary President and dear friend Christine Lagarde today.

Madame Lagarde will be fondly remembered as the fourth President of the European Central Bank, the predecessor of the Euro Central Bank.

Christine became President during a protracted malaise in the euro area. By throwing off the yoke of false dogma, she revitalized the ECB. Her curiosity, vision and political prowess changed the course of history.

Owl of Athens on Charon’s piece

Under her leadership, the ECB showed the world how to handle the climate transition. At the same time, the euro economy grew at a rate previously believed to be impossible.

Ask any of the Seven Bankers, and they will all agree: Christine was the first modern central banker. Her autobiography, published 30 years ago, is still a must-read.

Christine’s career set the gold standard for our profession. Not just for what she did during her presidency, but also for what she didn’t do.

Her resignation in the wake of the Crisis of 2033 was a clear statement against the all-powerful central banker. During her retirement, Christine refrained from commenting on current events.

Christine, Madame Lagarde, you were born Lallouette – the lark – but you will always be The Owl of Frankfurt.

On behalf of the 1.4 billion people who use the euro every day,

Bon voyage!


Next episode: Lagarde discovers her powers

Central banks will always be political

What do crypto enthousiasts have in common with defenders of independent central banks?

Based on the “Buy Bitcoin”-replies to ECB/Fed tweets, it seems the answer is “not much”.

However, that’s incorrect. Both groups think that their projects are apolitical.

Many central bankers view themselves as technocrats, divorced from politics.

But that’s a fantasy.

You see, anything a central bank does – even within its mandate – has political consequences.

Should monetary policy take into account climate change?

Should the central bank change interest rates or do QE to reach its inflation goal? Whatever option is chosen, monetary policy has distributional effects. For example, the German government has saved hundreds of billions in interest costs.

European non-financial corporations have benefited from low interest rates. Source

These two dilemmas illustrate that central banking is inherently political.

Therefore, economists should calculate the consequences of different monetary policy options. These scenarios will make the politics of the central bank’s actions explicit. For example, I estimated the effect of deeply negative interest rates (a proposal of Miles Kimball) on banks, governments, the ECB and the private sector.

Especially in the euro area, the ECB should take differences in asset mixes between countries into account.

Increased transparency will enable central bankers to defend monetary policy against criticism.

Update 26 January 2020: my arguments are obviously not new, see for example:

Hard work pays off

Remember Actually, lobbyists are good?

I wrote

it seems that the ECB is way ahead of the Federal Reserve when it comes to green central banking

Indeed, new ECB President Christine Lagarde acknowledged her institution’s climate responsibility at the European Parliament…

…and the European Investment Bank (EIB) will stop financing fossil fuel energy projects.

The hard work of the “climate and finance lobbyists” pays off!



Nederland is in de ban van het jaarlijkse zwartepietendebat. Maar ik wil het hier even hebben over de Hollandse zeurpieten.

-‘De inflatie in Nederland bedraagt meer dan twee procent!’

-‘Onze pensioenen worden gekort!’

De zeurpieten moeten niet lang nadenken over de schuldige.

-‘De ECB natuurlijk! Met een voorzitter uit Italië of Frankrijk, dat kan niet goed gaan. Spilzieke Zuid-Europeanen! Huilie-huilie.’

In werkelijkheid is de inflatie in Nederland hoger doordat de Nederlandse regering de BTW verhoogde. De pensioenen moeten lager doordat De Nederlandsche Bank de rekenrente vastkoppelde aan de risicovrije langetermijnrente.

De Nederlanders moeten dus stoppen met de zwarte piet door te schuiven naar de ECB. De verantwoordelijken zitten in Den Haag, niet in Frankfurt.

ECB gewauwel

Sommige economen in de pers zijn dol op metaforen. Maar vaak zijn hun schrijfsels hoogst verwarrend.

Vind jij deze commentaren over de Europese Centrale Bank (ECB) bijvoorbeeld duidelijk?

De ECB is een soort Monetair Tsjernobyl geworden, waar een Groot Monetair Experiment uit de hand is gelopen, en men nu nadenkt hoe je een Monetaire Sarcofaag kan bouwen.

Geert Noels

Met politi-clown Lagarde aan het roer gaan we dus de volle zee op zonder navigatie, een driekwart lege tank, geen reddingsvesten, en 2.5 lekkende rubberen reddingsbootjes.

Luc Nijs

Draghi en de ECB schuiven extra staven dynamiet bij de tikkende tijdbom die de op schuldfinanciering draaiende economie al is.

Stefaan Michielsen

Een lezer die geïnformeerd wil worden heeft hier niets aan. Dit soort gewauwel is pure stemmingmakerij.

Op zijn best is het tijdverlies om dit soort artikels te lezen. Maar je bang laten maken kan je duur te staan komen.

In de inleiding van ‘Hoe bankiers geld scheppen’ schreef ik dan ook:

Economen en journalisten die schrijven voor het brede publiek gebruiken vaak metaforen om financiële concepten uit de doeken te doen. Bijvoorbeeld: ‘Goedkoop krediet is als heroïne. Het werkt verslavend en de economie kan er een overdosis van krijgen.’ Dat klinkt goed op papier, maar wat betekent zo’n uitspraak nu eigenlijk?

Gelukkig zijn er andere economen die zich net als ik ergeren aan het gewauwel. Ik denk dat ik weet waarom Bart Van Craeynest opstapte bij Econopolis 🙂

Meer (Engelstalige) metaforen over centrale banken vind je in deze post.

Life insurers are the real yieldbugs

Pseudonymous banking expert Johannes Borgen recently discussed the impact of low interest rates on European life insurers. Because insurers discount the value of their liabilities, low rates are a huge problem.

But as Johannes Borgen points out, the regulator lets insurers use a hypothetical long term rate that “is a f**** joke. IT IS NOT EVEN REMOTELY LOOKING LIKE REAL WORLD INTEREST RATES ; which mean that all insurer liabilities are grossly undervalued.”


You can read his thread here:

By the way, yieldbug is a term used by Bloomberg journalist Joe Weisenthal to troll people who believe they deserve to receive interest on their risk free investment.

Duitse traantjes

Spaarders krijgen al jaren erg weinig rente op hun spaargeld. De Duitse journalist Holger Zschaepitz noemt dit een “geheime onteigening van spaarders door de financiële repressie van de ECB”.

Het is volgens Zschaepitz dus de schuld van de centrale bank. Maar in de Verenigde Staten is er ook een centrale bank, en daar krijgen actieve1 spaarders meer dan 2 procent rente. Hoe is dit verschil tussen de eurozone en de V.S. te verklaren?

Eén van de redenen is het feit dat de Amerikaanse federale overheid het voorbije decennium veel grotere tekorten opgestapelde dan de overheden in de eurozone.

Overheidstekort als percentage van het bruto binnenlands product in de Verenigde Staten (rood) en de eurozone (blauw). Bron van data en figuur: OESO.

Dit klinkt slecht voor de V.S., tot je naar de economische resultaten kijkt. De V.S. hebben een lagere werkloosheidsgraad en een hogere economische groei dan de eurozone. In plaats van hun schuldgraad te verkleinen, zouden landen met begrotingsoverschotten beter de belastingen verlagen of noodzakelijke investeringen doen2. Dat zou de economie in heel de eurozone een duwtje in de rug geven. En dan zou de ECB in navolging van de Fed de rente kunnen optrekken.

Journalisten en politici in Duitsland moeten beseffen dat ze deel uitmaken van een muntunie. De ECB kan niet enkel rekening houden met de Duitsers. Droog dus je tranen, Holger.

ECB board members need personal finance training

The ECB has released the declarations of interest of its executive and supervisory board members.

You’ll see that the forms are pretty vague when it comes to point IV – Financial interests. Board members should name “Any financial interests holdings in companies/firms listed on a stock exchange”.

Some members have included equity funds and bonds under this item, although one could argue if that’s really required.

However, the declarations of interest do contain some remarkable info:

  • German board members Sabine Lautenschlager-Peiter and Joachim Wuermeling own co-operative shares in banks. The value of these holdings is trivial.
  • Ed Sibley owns some shares in Bank of Ireland. Mr. Sibley adds: “These are the remnants from a share ownership scheme from when I worked for Bank of Ireland (until 2008). They are worth less than €500, and I am in the process of getting rid of them.”
  • Peter Praet owns shares of the National Bank of Belgium, one of the few publicly traded central banks.
  • The spouse/partner of Vytautas Valvonis works at the Lithuanian branch of Dankse Bank.
  • Several board members (Benoît CÅ“uré, Tom Dechaene, Yves Mersch,
    Gaston Reinesch, Vitas Vasiliauskas, Claude Wampach) teach at universities (see item II – private activities). The earnings from these professorships are trivial.
  • Mr. Wampach owns Turkish lira denominated bonds issued by the European Investment Bank. Let’s hope he hedged the currency risk 😉
  • The financial interests of board members Margarita Delgado (Spain), Catherine Galea (Malta) and Andreas Ittner (Austria) contain only securities from their home countries.
  • Constantinos Herodotou (Cyprus), Madis Müller (Estonia) and Pierre Wunsch (Belgium) have the most diversified investment portfolios – Mr. Müller even owns a gold ETF. They should teach their colleagues about the importance of diversification!