The ECB's data on monetary developments in the currency union indicate improvements in the demand for money – a function of income, employment and the cost of credit. Unfortunately, these numbers have yet to show volumes of bank lending to the private sector that could be associated with a steady and sustainable increase in economic activity. Indeed, a mildly accelerating growth of the broad monetary aggregate, M3, still leaves bank loans to businesses and households in the three months to February 0.3 percent below their dismal year-earlier levels.
The hard numbers (not the survey data) on the real economy are consistent with these monetary indicators. Despite some improvement in the first two months of this year (from very depressed conditions of the year ago), industrial production in Germany's large manufacturing sector barely eked out a 0.2 percent growth over that period, while Italy and Spain recorded production declines of 1.2 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.
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The sustainability of higher consumer spending also looks questionable in view of high and rising unemployment rates – 11.3 percent in February from 11.2 percent in the previous month. Unemployment has risen in the first two months of this year in France (10.6 percent) and in Italy (12.7 percent), while the jobless rate in Spain has come down only a percentage point since the middle of last year to 23.2 percent, despite being Germany's favorite example of the "austerity growth model" driven by flexible labor markets (i.e., easier hiring and firing).
Bank lending is the ECB's test
It is, therefore, not surprising that the euro area banks are not finding many suitable customers for consumer loans. Their balance sheets in January and February showed a declining volume of lending to households. Even the mortgage lending, which the ECB calls "the most important component of household loans," marked no change from the year earlier.
The euro area bank lending will be the ultimate test of the ECB's large asset purchases, because these interventions are supposed to push up bond prices in order to improve the balance sheets of the banking sector, which is a major holder of the euro area government securities. That, in turn, is expected to make banks more capable -- and willing -- to expand their financing of consumer spending and business investments.
It is, therefore, quite possible that ECB's optimistic statements last Thursday may have been based on improvements in the bank lending for March, which will be published later this month.
Greece is Europe's heart and soul
But it is also possible that the ECB was trying to inject a note of sanity in the speculations about Greek debt negotiations fueled by hostile statements of Greece's euro area partners.
If you followed the ECB's press briefing last week, you may have noticed that the bank dismissed the rumors of the Greek exit from the currency union. The bank's president Mario Draghi said that he was not even ready to "contemplate" such a scenario.