From climate change to equality, Lagarde turns ECB more political

(Reuters) – Since taking the helm a year ago, Christine Lagarde has turned the European Central Bank’s attention to social issues like climate change and inequality, broadening its horizons but also opening it to attacks that could test its independence.

Lagarde’s efforts to use the bank’s leverage to fight global warming, gender imbalance or income inequality may have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing, deep recession.

But they could yet reshape the currency union’s most powerful institution and help redefine the role of central banking in an era where the threat of runaway inflation has faded into obscurity.

The ECB as an institution is one of a kind. Its president is uniquely powerful in swaying policy and the broader economic debate, as Lagarde’s predecessor Mario Draghi demonstrated in 2012 when he said the bank would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro here, catching markets and some colleagues unaware.

The bank’s role is also open to interpretation because of a vaguely worded Treaty.

Unlike the Fed, which has a dual mandate of nurturing price stability and employment, the ECB must first keep prices stable, then support the “general economic policies” of the European Union.

In stark contrast to her predecessors – all men with degrees in economics and decades of central banking experience – the former politician Lagarde has demonstrated a willingness to use this leeway to promote the euro zone’s wider social good.

“In addition to the narrow angle from which we have historically looked at monetary policy over the course of previous decades, we need to enlarge the horizon and be courageous in tackling some of these issues, although they are not the traditional areas that monetary economists look at,” Lagarde said last week.

For the ECB, this is a new mission.

Former chief Jean Claude Trichet would say that fighting inflation was the only needle in the ECB’s compass, while Draghi often warned about the dangers of unelected bureaucrats going beyond a narrow definition of their mandate.

What it will mean in practice depends on the outcome of the overarching review the ECB is currently carrying out – its first in 17 years. But Lagarde has already hinted at giving up market neutrality in asset buying and giving climate risk greater consideration.

Her interpretation of the bank’s mandate is already irking some, however, particularly in Germany, who claim that the ECB is turning political by meddling in social policy without the authority or the right tools to do so.

That criticism could morph into an existential threat if it alienates the ECB’s biggest shareholder, Germany, where parts of the establishment have time and again challenged the central bank, including through the highest courts.

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