Assets in Europe - the impact of the low interest rate policy

The asset debate has been the subject of intense attention of late: first due to the ECB's study on private assets in Europe - which dubbed Germany the poorhouse of Europe - and second as a result of the policy adopted in response to the crisis and the resulting extremely low interest rates, which threaten to effectively expropriate savers. We have taken a critical look at both theories in our latest Working Paper

The fact that the ECB study was conducted as a survey and using information that is no longer up-to-date means that due caution has to be exercised when interpreting the data. This is highlighted by a comparison with the macroeconomic data, which identifies what are, in some cases, major discrepancies that cannot be explained by methodological factors alone. Data "adjustments" and a look at the average per capita data (as opposed to mean household data) produce a completely different picture of the distribution of private assets in Europe: the "poor" are to be found in the south of Europe, mainly in Portugal and Greece, with Spain also at risk of being sucked into the vortex of the crisis. On the other hand, Germany's households on the whole certainly do not rank among the eurozone's "rich"; rather, they can be found in the broad middle section of the rankings (together with Italy and France, for example) with average per capita assets of EUR 113,000.

The impact of the policy adopted in response to the crisis onEurope's savers is most evident if we look at the interest on bank deposits and loans. A comparison with the average values for the pre-crisis years from 2003 to 2008 allows us to calculate the interest "lost" on the deposit side (interest losses) and the reduced interest burden on loans (interest gains) for 2012. The result is clear-cut: inGermany, the balance of interest losses and gains of private households is negative, whereas in the rest of the EMU, it is positive. WhereasGermany's savers/borrowers lost out on a total of EUR 5.8bn (per capita: EUR 71) in 2012, their counterparts in the rest of the euro area enjoyed relief to the tune of just under EUR 34bn (EUR 134 per capita). The net interest gains are particularly plentiful inItalyandSpain, with citizens in these countries EUR 12.5bn and EUR 11.5bn better off respectively.

This conclusion is extremely ambivalent for the ECB's crisis policy. On the one hand, the measures taken by the ECB are providing the private households in the crisis-ridden countries with relief while, on the other, the very same measures are placing a direct cost burden on the shoulders of German households. These diverging effects of the single monetary policy pose a further challenge to European monetary union. The longer the period of extremely low interest rates, the more pronounced these differences will become. As a result, German grumbling about ECB policy is set to become louder in the course of time.

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