The European Central Bank has been flooding euro zone banks with liquidity for years so they can make more loans. There are some signs of the success of this endeavor. Recently, bank lending was only about 1 percent lower than in the same month last year. The trend of the past few months seems to suggest lending may increase again soon in the euro zone.
The question is whether this positive trend is more a consequence of an economic recovery in the crisis countries, rather than a cause of the ECB’s policies.
The sequence of events indicates that first, confidence returned in the economic outlook and the financial system – and loans were issued afterwards, thanks to this confidence, and also, relatedly, to the ECB’s bank stress tests.
The view that only increasing lending would point the way out of the recession in many parts of the euro zone is probably too narrow.
Those who think so overlook the fact that, firstly, low confidence in the economic outlook inhibits investment and with it demand for credit, even at very low interest rates. In the euro zone, this means that without structural reforms and sustainable economic policy, investors will seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Secondly, after repeated bad experiences with excessive credit expansion, companies have opted to finance investments primarily using their own means. They are sitting on considerable cash reserves and can also raise new capital in the stock market relatively easily. That means in terms of extending credit, this economic cycle could take a different course to previous ones.
The euro zone’s economy could well be already on the way towards a sustainable growth model, which is less dependent on credit. That doesn’t mean it’s a case of the dreaded “secular stagnation” opposed by economists in the United States and United Kingdom, but rather a return to normalcy. A recent analysis by Oxford Economics found that the growth model of the past two decades, in which lending consistently grew faster than gross domestic product, was more of an exception in a historic context.