BRUSSELS: With the eurozone’s moribund economy once more sparking global fears, the region’s cash-strapped leaders are now hoping the EU’s investment bank can pull the bloc out of the doldrums.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned this past week the combination of feeble growth, high unemployment and super-low inflation made the sickly 18-nation single currency area the “most worrying feature” of the world economy.
The bloc’s recovery from its debt crisis has run out of steam, with growth stagnating in the second quarter.
Many agree that the main culprit is a lack of investment, which has failed to return to pre-crisis levels after declining twice as much as Japan and the United States between 2008 and 2012.
“There is a dearth of investment in Europe and this is the reason for weak growth,” said Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan last weekend at a meeting of European Union finance ministers.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has taken to the barricades to reverse the trend, cutting rates and launching schemes to pump liquidity into the economy to encourage banks to lend to households and companies.
But so far this unprecedented effort by the ECB is proving a disappointment, with private banks skittish to take on more risk in the uncertain environment.
Another potential savior often cited is the European Investment Bank (EIB), a little-known EU institution sometimes described by hopeful officials as a “sleeping beauty” that holds back on its true lending potential.
Based in Luxembourg, the bank is the key component of an ambitious plan by incoming European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker to invest 300 billion euros ($390 billion) over the next five years.
The EIB and Commission are now drawing up concrete proposals, which should be available in November, timed to coincide with Juncker’s official taking of office.
But the bank’s director, former German European affairs minister Werner Hoyer, has sought to lower expectations about the impact of the programme.
“The EIB is no magic wand,” said economist Fredrik Erixon, director of the Brussels-based European Center for International Political Economy.
“It’s not that the EIB is sitting on a big pile of cash.”
The EIB works with member states and other European institutions to finance projects that further Brussels’ ambitions, with a marked emphasis on lending to companies rather than the state.
“It’s important that public investment does not crowd out private investment,” a European official told AFP, describing the EIB’s strategy.
The bank seeks only viable, money-making projects, ever wary of maintaining its prized triple-A credit rating.
This makes the EIB “more conservative than a typical private bank”, Erixon said.
EU member states, whose ministers sit on the bank’s board, often bristle at this conservatism, especially those from countries with over-extended finances eager for stimulus.
Every few years a big push is made to loosen the EIB’s purse-strings.
The last try was in June 2013 by France, whose President Francois Hollande took office a year before on a promise to promote growth in Europe as opposed to German-backed austerity.
EU leaders at the time agreed to add 10 billion euros to the EIB’s coffers, a commitment they estimated could equate to 180 billion euros of spending in the real economy.
A year later, France is again calling for an EU-wide investment strategy. Germany agrees, but urges a strict focus on private investment.
The proposals now being considered are almost certain to favor private investment, although European Economic Affairs Commissioner Jyrki Katainen, often hawkish on government spending, said “things are not black and white.”
Whatever the Commission and the EIB come up with will take time to implement and the amounts involved will probably disappoint.
“You get the false impression that projects are ready and waiting for investment,” said Erixon.
If Juncker were to get his wish, the 300-billion-euro push in investment would require tens of billions of euros in member state cash, not easy in budget-conscious times.
“I am an optimist, but I’m not naive,” said Bernadette Segol, head of the European Trade Union Confederation.
“Where is the 300 billion going to come from? Is it really new money?” she asked.
Unicredit chief economist Erik Nielsen believes the shot-in-the-arm should be a no-brainer, and recommends a two percent boost in government spending.
“If we don’t think our governments can raise public investment without creating value for our societies . . . maybe we should close up shop and go home,” he said.