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Mario Draghi is pleading for help. The question is whether anyone is listening.

The president of the European Central Bank shocked markets on Thursday by cutting already low interest rates even further and announcing plans to buy up large swaths of bank loans. With those moves, Mr. Draghi is making it clear he is doing everything he can to restart European growth and that governments must now share the job.

Most economists had dismissed the chances of Mr. Draghi cutting rates further this week. His decision to provide yet another fuel boost to the continent's sputtering economy suggests strongly that he thinks there is a real and imminent risk of Europe falling into a deflationary spiral. But there is no assurance that eurozone leaders will agree when they meet for an economic summit on Oct. 7.

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Mr. Draghi has urged co-ordinated action, saying European governments need to reform barriers that make it difficult to open businesses and hire and fire workers.

He has also suggested it would be helpful for the continent's wealthiest countries to ease up on their austerity fixation and spend more.

So far, though, his ideas have met with little enthusiasm, especially from Germany and France.

In the absence of aggressive and co-ordinated action, the already feeble euro zone economy could lapse into prolonged period of deflation, as Japan did during its lost decade of the 1990s. Economists fear deflation – a condition in which prices persistently fall – because it raises the real burden of carrying debt, and causes consumers and business to postpone purchases since they know goods and services will be cheaper in the future.

At the Jackson Hole conference of top central bankers last month, Mr. Draghi surprised his audience by veering off script to announce that the ECB "will use all the available instruments needed to ensure price stability in the medium term." His statement amounted to a blunt declaration of his intent to stop deflation in its tracks.

But achieving his goal involves delicate negotiations with national leaders. One particularly sensitive notion is the idea that the ECB should embark on mass purchases of government bonds and similar assets – quantitative easing, or QE, in the jargon.

QE has been employed by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks since the financial crisis as a way to drive down longer-term bond yields and interest rates. The ECB has resisted the trend, largely because of opposition from Germany, which fears such a program would require it to bail out the heavily indebted countries on Europe's periphery.

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On Thursday, Mr. Draghi bobbed and weaved around the QE question, drawing a dubious distinction between QE and his new program of buying up bank loans in the form of asset-backed securities (ABS) and covered bonds, which he insisted was merely a form of credit easing.

Translation: Yes, this is QE, in everything but name.

ABS are packages of loans that banks sell off in slices to investors; covered bonds are securities backed by specific loans. By buying them up, Mr. Draghi hopes to allow Europe's fragile banks to shift loans off their balance sheets, opening up room for new lending, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses.

Mr. Draghi declined to say how much ABS and covered bonds he would buy, but most observers think it will amount to about €500-billion ($700-billion) over the next three years, according to Reuters. That would make the program roughly equivalent to the annual GDP of Switzerland – but still far smaller than the Fed's QE efforts.

Could the ECB expand the program even further or introduce full-fledged QE? It's not likely, unless Germany has a change of heart. And with bond rates already at rock bottom levels across most of the euro zone, there might not be much payoff from QE anyway.

Mr. Draghi has done everything he can. Now it's up to European leaders to do their bit.

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About the Author

Ian McGugan is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and has been writing about investing, economics and business for more than 20 years. He joined the Globe and Mail in 2010. He has been executive editor of Canadian Business magazine and founding editor of MoneySense magazine. More


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