Energy, inflation, and the impotence of the European Central Bank

This is the blog version of episode 12 of The Finrestra podcast: “What can the ECB do when inflation is driven by energy costs? Three proposals” (listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or YouTube).

Euro area inflation was estimated at 5.1% in January 2022. That’s mainly due to energy costs. Furthermore, businesses will try to pass on their higher costs (transport, heating, materials) to consumers.


According to Isabel Schnabel, “Monetary policy cannot reduce the price of oil or gas.

I disagree, as I told the ECB back in 2020. If instead of government bonds, the ECB had bought a controlling stake in oil & gas majors, it could force them to lower prices.

That’s probably too radical for conservative central bankers.

But there are other, more conventional paths.

Energy makes up about 11% of Eurostat’s basket of harmonized index of consumer prices.

File:Weights of the main components of the euro area HICP (‰) - 2022 (estimated).png

What if that percentage was lower? Volatile (fossil) energy prices would have less of an effect on inflation. This would make the ECB’s job easier.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the ECB interferes with how Eurostat measures inflation.

Rather, the central bank could reduce our dependence on (fossil) energy.

How? Years ago, in 2017, I wrote a proposal for green investments in Europe. A European Green Infrastructure Company (EGIC) would install solar panels, build energy-efficient schools, networks of charging stations for electric vehicles… All of this infrastructure would be funded by the ECB. Why? It’s hard to imagine now, but we’ve had years were inflation was too low, i.e. below the target of the ECB. In my proposal, the EGIC would build in countries with low inflation and high unemployment. In case of the economy is overheating, new projects would be put on hold, so real resources like workers, machines and building materials can be used elsewhere in the economy.

If the EU had done this, there would be an abundance of renewable energy. This would price fossil fuels out of the market, making international energy prices almost irrelevant for European inflation.

Of course, in the real world EU politicians and central bankers have wasted the opportunity of low inflation and low interest rates.

But it’s never too late. Even without a European Green Infrastructure Company, the ECB can reduce the weight of (fossil) energy in consumers’ expenditure. High energy prices make it attractive to make buildings more energy efficient. In fact, central bankers like Isabel Schnabel have argued that the slow transition to a carbon-neutral economy is a market failure (see also this video).

The ECB could correct this market failure by making loans for energy-efficiency cheaper, for example by charging a negative rate of -5%. Banks would pass this on homeowners and landlords. At the same time, the ECB could raise rates on other loans. This would stimulate investments in building improvements, and reduce the demand for consumer loans. Companies would respond by increasing the production of building materials. It would also alleviate the labor shortage, because workers would be attracted by higher wages in the renovation business relative to other jobs.

Further reading:

The ECB can help fix the energy price crisis: Play the long game

Inflation: raising rates is not the answer


How can the European Central Bank (ECB) support a sustainable recovery? In a report for Positive Money Europe and Sustainable Finance Lab, Jens van ‘t Klooster and Rens van Tilburg propose that the ECB starts a Green TLTRO program.

Green TLTRO is a refinancing program for commercial banks. Banks can fund their green loans with longer term (several years) deposits from the European Central Bank (ECB). Green loans are bank loans that comply with the EU’s Green Taxonomy.

The figure below shows the balance sheet of a commercial bank with conventional (left) and green (right) TLTRO. Under TLTRO-III, the ECB funds 50% of a bank’s eligible assets. Under green TLTRO, the ECB funding is only available for green bank loans.

The interest rate on the Green TLTRO is determined by the volume of green bank loans. More green loans result in a lower interest rate on the funding from the ECB. With negative interest rates, banks have to pay back less to the ECB than they borrowed. This provides a strong incentive to banks to increase their lending to green projects, and to pass on the low rates to borrowers.

Is Green TLTRO a pie in the sky proposal? Only if you’re not keeping up with the times.

TLTROs are a well-established monetary policy tool. The ECB is currently doing TLTRO-III.

In a recent speech, ECB Executive Board Member Isabel Schnabel pointed out that climate change is a market failure. She said that collective action, including by the ECB, should correct this market failure and accelerate the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy.

Asked about the Green TLTRO report by MEP Bas Eickhout, ECB President Lagarde said that “climate change has to be part and parcel of our strategy review. Not because it is a secondary objective, but because of its impact on price stability, because of its significant impact on risk assessment and risk management. And the Green TLTRO, as you called it, is a matter that is of interest and that we will look at.”

What volume of green loans should the ECB target during the first 3 years? How low should the interest rate on Green TLTRO be? Should the eligible bank assets include loans to households for house purchases, a category that is currently exluded from TLTRO?

In a webinar on 12 October 2020, Jens van ‘t Klooster discusses the Green TLTRO proposal with Isabel Vansteenkiste (ECB) and Frederik Ducrozet (Pictet).

Update 2020/10/18: this is the video

Full disclosure: I have done consulting work for this report.