Forward guidance and the semiotic turn of the European Central Bank

Alexandre Abreu(a) and Daniel Seabra Lopes(b)
(a) Department of Economics / CSG-Research in Social Sciences and Management, ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal (b) Department of Social Sciences / CSG-Research in Social Sciences and Management, ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

Published in JOURNAL OF CULTURAL ECONOMY 2022, VOL. 15 (1), pp. 14-29 https://doi.org/10.1080/17530350.2021.1921829

This article discusses central bank forward guidance as a performative (Austin) and conative (Jakobson) practice – hence, as a form of audience-centred communication that intends to transform their behaviour when deployed by a narrator who is simultaneously also a character in the story. Taking the European Central Bank (ECB) as its primary example, the article conveys how the double role of narrator and character assumed by this institution renders it more permeable to reactions from the markets and the public. As such, ECB forward guidance is frequently misguided, with its communicative imperatives indeed being ‘corrected’ and ‘reoriented’ by market actors and publics wishing to perceive the European Central Bank as behaving like an impartial and just frontline hero. While acknowledging the presence of conversational features within these reflexive communication practices, the article approaches forward guidance as an unfolding story, not only due to the relevance of the characterisation processes through which the European Central Bank is repositioned as hero or villain by its publics, but also because exemplary episodes exhibit a reminiscent quality that isolates them from their original context and opens them up to the possibility of re-activation – as indeed happened during the recent Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

Received 14 June 2020 Accepted 30 March 2021

European Central Bank, forward guidance, monetary policy, discourse, tale, characterisation

Daniel Seabra Lopes danielslopes@iseg.ulisboa.pt © 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

Language can change reality and influence outcomes – this is understood in practice by us all and theoretically by those with a knowledge of semiotics. It is also increasingly accepted and practised by central bankers whose discursive turn has deserved considerable attention from social scientists (Holmes 2014, Gabor and Jessop 2015, Braun 2016, 2017, Riles 2018). Central banks produce declarations in order to influence the future, through a practice that has come to be known as forward guidance. This consists of central banks publicly providing ‘information about future monetary policy intentions’ (ECB 2017), not for mere referential or declarative purposes, but with a clear performative intent – that is, to persuade other agents, such as financial market players, stakeholders, policymakers, as well as small and medium enterprises and individual depositors, to take certain actions, thereby changing social and economic reality in accordance with the objectives expressed by the central bank.

At least in its explicit form, forward guidance is a relatively recent component in the toolkit of central bankers. While they have long issued public statements, some of which referred to the future [15] in various ways, the overt and systematic application of communication to bring about monetary policy outcomes is no more than two or three decades old. Gabor and Jessop (2015) locate the emergence of this communicative orientation in the pre-2008 Great Moderation days, when monetary policy basically consisted of inflation-targeting via the management of interbank monetary market short-term interest rates, with central banks adopting a neutral stance vis-à-vis both securities markets and fiscal policies, with the expectation – and as postulated by the efficient market hypothesis – that these reflect the trends in the banking segment. While the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have sporadically deployed forward guidance since as early as the late 1980s and 1990s (Committee on the Global Financial System 2019, p. 11), other influential central banks only turned to forward guidance in earnest after the tumultuous events of 2008/9. The Bank of England introduced a policy of ‘explicit forward guidance,’ following the appointment of Mark Carney as governor in July 2013 (Bank of England 2013, Weale 2013), with the European Central Bank claiming to have adopted such a practice by that same date (ECB 2017), even though Mario Draghi’s famous 2012 ‘whatever it takes’ statement, insofar as it expresses a commitment regarding the ECB’s future actions contingent on certain conditions occurring, is often mentioned as an eloquent de facto example of such action.

Referring specifically to Draghi’s announcement, Douglas Holmes (2018, p. 180) suggests that it implied a reconfiguration of central bank discursive practices: instead of speaking to the public to convey their expectations, as in the pre-2008 era, central banks would now rather enter in conversation with the public. The somewhat subtle distinction by Holmes between ‘speaking to’ and ‘converse with’ is related to the recent unfolding and nurturing of specific conversation channels by the major central banks, ranging from large informal networks of stakeholders and market agents (Holmes 2014, p. 49) over regular Q&A sessions with politicians, to media protocols and institutional facilities, such as Internet blogs and portals (Braun 2016, p. 18–19, Riles 2018). In sum, despite being in line with the pre-crisis discursive paradigm (Braun 2018, p. 201–3, 208–11), explicit forward guidance would thus signal the heightened importance of communication, at a time when the central bankers were confronted with unprecedented dilemmas and forced to act in ways different from those prescribed by monetarist ideology and common-sense neoliberalism (Ertürk 2014, p. 217–18, Braun 2016, p. 17–19).

While accepting that central banking communication alone is insufficient to bring trust to markets and implement monetary policies (see Gabor and Jessop 2015, and the following section), this article focuses on forward guidance as a performative (Austin 1962 [1955], 1970 [1956]) or conative practice (cf. Jakobson 1960) – that is, as a form of communication centred on the addressee or a public and intending to transform behaviours. Approaches such as that by Holmes (2014) ascribe a somewhat prominent position in this language game to central banks, more or less akin to that of a teacher who, through either ‘communicative imperatives’ (p. 9) or a more pedagogical rhetoric (p. 112–13), leads their publics to incorporate monetary policy intentions and ‘do the work of the central bank’ (p. 11). However, insofar as central banks have imperfect control over this process, given the heterogeneity of their audiences, we would argue – following Smart (2006) – that forward guidance is often ‘corrected’ and ‘reoriented’ by journalists and market actors, thus bringing about outcomes different from those originally sought and potentially leading to a reformulation of those initial intentions. Moreover, in this process, central banks are not mere narrators of an outside reality conceptualised as ‘inflation’ or ‘the economy’ (see Smart 2006, Holmes 2014), but also characters of an unfolding story, who are treated and regarded in different ways by different audiences: some expect them to act as impartial and ultimately just actors, while others regard them as intrinsically responsible for some of the iniquitous features and outcomes of the economic and financial system, or at least for not doing enough to correct them (Fontan et al. 2016, van’t Klooster and Fontan 2020).

The weaving of the central banks’ unfolding story is therefore a reflexive process that exhibits conversational features, to recall an idea advanced by Black (2002) à propos regulation in general and recently applied to central banks by Douglas Holmes (2014, p. 136–58, 2018). Notably, it is characterised by formulations and reformulations (or forward and backward movements). Still, [16] in line with the theme of this special issue, we think that, despite these conversational characteristics, such a narrative deserves to be approached as a story or tale, rather than a conversation, due to the presence of a narrator function and the relevance of the characterisation processes by which an actor – the central bank – is repositioned as hero or villain.

In the following, we seek to analyse this relationship between narration and characterisation, taking the European Central Bank (ECB) as our empirical object and relying on publicly accessible documentary data relevant to the period between 2007 and 2020. The article proceeds as follows: the next section places forward guidance within the context of the central bankers’ toolkit and illustrates it with Mario Draghi’s famous example of ‘whatever it takes.’ Drawing on this empirical basis, the third section proposes a semiotic reading of forward guidance as a conative and performative form of communication, associating its importance with both central bank independence and endogenous money. The fourth section is dedicated to the practice of forward guidance, viewing its announcements as the beginning of a story in which the narrator also plays a part, with the ECB’s own role susceptible to reformulation whenever not matching with certain audience expectations. The fifth section appreciates the influence of past stories on present forward guidance in accordance with Christine Lagarde’s announcement of the ECB’s Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, in order to illustrate this reminiscent quality. The article concludes with a reappraisal of the role of the ECB as both narrator and character.

The toolkit of central bankers and the place of forward guidance
As is accepted, one of the main tasks of central banks is to implement monetary policy, that is to say, to manage interest rates and the money supply to bring about certain macroeconomic outcomes – commonly price stability (as in the case of the ECB mandate) or a dual package comprised of low inflation and maximum sustainable employment (as in the case of the Federal Reserve mandate). To achieve this, the typical toolkit at the disposal of central bankers includes the following instruments:

  • Discount rate, i. e., the interest charged by the Central Bank to commercial banks when the latter borrow funds from it. By affecting the cost of borrowing of commercial banks, this influences the cost of lending by commercial banks to the economy at large, thereby influencing levels of consumption and investment. Increasing the discount rate has a contractionary effect, whereas decreases return an expansionary impulse.
  • Reserve requirements, i. e., the share of the money deposits that commercial banks are to hold in reserve with the Central Bank. According to the standard money multiplier view, higher required reserve ratios constrain the ability of commercial banks to extend loans from its existing deposits; as such, increasing reserve requirements reduces the money supply, while lowering them causes an expansion in the money supply.
  • Interest on reserves, i. e., the interest paid by the Central Bank to commercial banks on the reserves mentioned above. The logic of this tool is that higher interest on reserves encourages commercial banks to increase their reserve deposits at the Central Bank, thereby absorbing liquidity and reducing the money supply.
  • Open market operations, i. e., the buying or selling of government bonds from commercial banks in order to increase the money supply. The buying of government securities (exchanging them for newly-issued money) increases liquidity and is expansionary, while selling them reduces liquidity and exerts a contractionary effect.
  • Quantitative easing, i. e., an enhanced form of open market operations where the Central Bank buys a broader range of government and other securities in order to increase or decrease liquidity.
  • Forward guidance, or the recourse to press conferences, formal statements and other means of communication to express the Central Bank’s future monetary policy intentions and bring about certain outcomes.

[17] As this list conveys, monetary policy is significantly prospective – namely, directed towards the future and designed to produce specific macroeconomic effects (stationary, expansionary, or contractionary) in both financial markets and the wider economy. Additionally, the deploying of such a policy cannot be reduced to communication alone: this also implies the establishing and application of rules, such as those regarding the eligibility of collateral associated to banking securitisation practices in the pre-2008 era and even subsequently (Walter and Wansleben 2020); or, more recently, the mobilisation of the central bank’s balance sheet to underpin open market and quantitative easing operations (Braun 2018). Central banking involves still other practices that reach beyond the monetary policy toolkit in the strict sense, such as those stemming from direct supervisory powers – which were extended for the ECB following the implementation of the Banking Union and the Single Supervisory Mechanism in 2014 and which now imply the regular oversight of the major banks in each Eurozone country by ECB-led teams incorporating staff from the respective national central banks. For the moment, however, let us examine forward guidance communication in greater detail.

Through forward guidance, the central bank states its future policy intentions to commercial banks, investors and other economic agents, thereby seeking to shape their expectations. As the ECB (2014, p. 65) puts it somewhat more formally, forward guidance involves informing these audiences of how the central bank ‘assesses current economic conditions [...], but also what this assessment implies for its future monetary policy orientation.’

Forward guidance may take on different forms. A taxonomy proposed by the Bank of England (2013) includes open-ended guidance (for example, announcing that the Central Bank does not expect to increase the discount rate for a significant period), time-contingent guidance (for instance, announcing that the Central Bank does not expect to increase the discount rate until a specific point in the future) and state-contingent guidance (for example, announcing that the Central Bank does not expect to increase the discount rate until inflation has reached 2 per cent). Another typology is that proposed by Campbell et al. (2012), with its poetic names appealing to the tale-like features of this instrument. The authors correspondingly distinguish between Delphic forward guidance – ‘forecast[ing] macroeconomic performance and likely monetary policy actions’ (p. 1) – and Odyssean forward guidance – ‘publicly commit[ing] the [central bank] to a future action’ (p. 1). The former does not commit the central bank to any course of action, but merely serves to clarify the central bank’s intentions, ‘presumably improv[ing] policy outcomes by reducing private decision-makers’ uncertainty’ (p. 2). The latter, by contrast, involves a much stronger kind of policy commitment: just like the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus, the central bank metaphorically ties itself to the mast of a given policy course of action, purportedly in order to resist the call of whatever sirens may attempt to lure it (Campbell et al. 2012, Praet 2013). The intention thus is to ‘change public expectations of [the central bank’s] actions tomorrow in a way that improves macroeconomic performance today’ (Campbell et al. 2012, p. 3).

Yates (2013) provides the following example of Odyssean forward guidance working in practice:

Forward guidance at the zero bound is trying to convince markets that once the economy eventually recovers, you won’t move interest rates around as you did historically. Instead you will wait for longer before responding to rising inflation and growth. If they believe that you can tie your hands (and only if they do) then their forecasts of interest rates tomorrow will be lower. And that will lower longer term interest rates: so the rate you have to pay on a loan that you won’t pay back until after tomorrow falls today! This in turn will raise the disposable income of borrowers, encouraging more spending, activity, and inflation.

As this example illustrates, Odyssean forward guidance involves a fundamental time-consistency challenge: in order for it to generate any effects today, it has to be credible; and, in order to be credible, the central bank needs to stay on course if and when the time comes to demonstrate its willingness to act as announced. The extent of this challenge depends on the extent to which the act of communication itself changes reality so that the actual need to take action is removed, as is well exemplified by the celebrated ‘whatever it takes’ episode.

[18] In July 2012, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi took what probably amounted to the most important and influential action of his mandate, simply by uttering the following words at the Global Investment Conference in London: ‘The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough’ (Draghi 2012). These words were spoken at the height of the Euro- crisis, at a time when peripheral country bond spreads reached unsustainably high levels and seemed destined to bring about government defaults and the collapse of the Euro. As an almost immediate consequence of this speech and the way in which it was perceived by financial market agents, bond yields (the cost of government financing) began to drop substantially across the Eurozone, as did the spreads between the ‘peripheral’ and the ‘core’ Eurozone economies, and the existential threat to the Euro was substantially mitigated at least over the short term (Wanke 2017).

The ECB went on to deliver on its promise in a number of ways in subsequent years, by undertaking such expansionary monetary policy initiatives as announcing an Outright Monetary Transactions programme in September 2012 (although never actually implementing it); incrementally lowering its refinancing rate from 0.75 per cent in July 2012 to 0.0 per cent in 2016; and finally launching its Asset Purchase Programme, better known as Quantitative Easing, in March 2015 (Szczerbowicz 2015). However, many would agree with the claim that ‘[w]hat is fascinating is that the ECB at first did not have to make any (financial market) interventions to bring about the desired changes. Their announcement alone was sufficient’ (Wanke 2017, p. 1).

A glance at the trend in bond yield spreads over the past few years would seem to support this view: years of continuously increasing bond yields were reversed immediately after, and seemingly due to Mr. Draghi’s famous statement, as Figure 1 clearly illustrates.

Figure 1: Spain and Italy 10-year bond spreads vis-à-vis German bond yields
Source: Portuguese Parliament (Assembleia da República) http://bawerk.net/2013/09/03/a-complete-guide-to-european-bail-out-facilities-part-1-ecb/

Considering that the Outright Monetary Transactions programme was announced but never actually implemented, and if we discount the lowering of refinancing rates from 0.75 per cent in July 2012 to 0.0 per cent in March 2016 (not so exceptional taking into account how the ECB had already lowered it from 1.50–0.75 per cent between July 2011 and July 2012), it was not until three years later, in March 2015, that the ECB actually did anything close to ‘whatever it takes’ – nevertheless, the crisis-averting effects on financial markets were certainly felt much earlier than at that point.

A semiotic reading of forward guidance
From a semiotic perspective, forward guidance is especially interesting because it amounts to a form of communication in which the message superficially seems to be about the context (the current [19] and future economic conditions) and/or the addresser/sender (the Central Bank), but the real focus actually lies on the addressee/receiver insofar as the message is meant to elicit a specific intended response. In Roman Jakobson’s model of the functions of language (see Figure 2), this may therefore appear as having a referential (orientation to the context) or expressive (orientation to the sender) function; however, it really serves an ‘appealing’ (Bühler 1933) or conative (Jakobson 1960, p. 355) function: a form of communication oriented to the addressee and seeking to persuade or influence their behaviour. According to Jakobson – who draws on Eugene O’Neill’s play The Fountain to provide an example – this function would best be exemplified by imperative sentences such as ‘Drink!’ (pronounced ‘in a fierce tone of command’).

Figure 2: Jakobson’s functions of language and their associated elements in the communication process
Source: Adapted from Jakobson (1960, p. 353 and 357).

Jakobson (1960, p. 355) adds that one characteristic of imperative sentences with a conative function is that they cannot be subject to a truth test: one can ask of a referential sentence such as ‘one drank’ whether it is true, but it would make no sense to ask the same of the imperative ‘Drink!’ In the conceptual framework of another philosopher of language and communication, J. L. Austin (1962 [1955], 1970 [1956]), forward guidance may be subsumed under so-called ‘performative utterances’ or ‘performatives.’ These are sentences that do more than describe reality; uttering them actually changes, or is intended to change, reality. Whether they indeed do so as intended – or, in other words, whether they give rise to word-to-world correspondence – is, according to John Searle (1989), the appropriate criterion for their truthfulness. Thus, in contrast to Jakobson, Searle argues that performatives are liable to a truth test. Such a test is related to the degree of fit between the utterance and the reality that is actively brought about by the utterance itself. Thus, in the specific case of forward guidance, its truth as a performative might be said to depend on success in the time-consistency challenge mentioned in the previous section. We shall return to this point in the following section and propose the abandoning of this impasse between reference and performance in favour of a broader understanding of central bank communication.

The discursive turn in central banks is often related to their decreasing subordination to political actors and decision-makers. The so-called independent status of central banks, while correctly challenged by some as more myth than reality (Cargill 2016), has at least formally liberated them from traditional control and oversight by the state and, at the same time, opened them up to greater scrutiny from the general public, to whom they must now provide meaningful arguments. Hence the centrality of speeches, press conferences, and regular hearings at political venues – such as the so-called monetary dialogues in which the ECB president periodically explains the policies of the bank to the elected members of the European Parliament. The critical events of 2008 and afterwards did not substantially alter this scenario. On the contrary, the crisis situation led central banks to undertake even more proactive engagement with their publics, through unprecedented data disclosure initiatives (Riles 2013), informal meetings and conversations across a network of selected contacts (Holmes 2018, p. 188–99), open days (Braun 2016, p. 18) and a host of online channels and interactive platforms – such as the ‘ECB Listens Portal’ (see Figure 3), the ECB blog and even a new, [21] downloadable speech data set with over 7 million words for researchers interested in analysing this content (European Central Bank 2019).

Figure 3: A capture of the ECB listens portal, presenting a public consultation on what the ECB should take into consideration in the review of its monetary policy strategy. Here, the ECB addresses the general public but note how the images give prominence to young business professionals in action (particularly women, in line with the bank’s policies in favour of gender balance and diversity) in what may be perceived as either conference or workplace meetings.
Source: Portuguese Parliament (Assembleia da República) https://www.ecb.europa.eu/home/search/review/html/form.en.html (Accessed 27 March 2020).

[21] Formal independence from political actors is certainly one reason behind the growing importance of central bank communication – whose efficacy also requires the mobilisation of a variety of communication means (such as the Eurosystem communication channels that link the ECB with national central banks, European institutions, and the press) and the stability of parliamentary democratic regimes based on the alternation of centre-right and centre-left governments, which are legitimated by elections (notwithstanding high abstention rates) and committed to the maintenance of the extant status quo, by avoiding any open confrontation with other sovereign states and international institutions. Notwithstanding the importance of these aspects, we argue that the conative dimension taken on by this communication also needs to be understood in relation to the endogenous theories of money creation espoused by various heterodox economists and schools of thought, which recently have been given mainstream prominence in a paper published by the Bank of England (McLeay et al. 2014). The endogenous view of money creation sustains that ‘the principal way [to create money in contemporary economies] is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money’ (McLeay et al. 2014, p. 14). In this framework, debt is the principal means through which new money appears in the economy. It is also therefore loans that originate deposits, rather than the other way around. Commercial banks are thus not mere intermediaries of loanable funds, but rather the very creators of money – that is, generally accepted means of payment.

Under such conditions, monetary policy takes on particular characteristics: as most money is created endogenously through firms and individuals deemed creditworthy taking out loans from commercial banks, central banks have less control over this process than generally supposed – especially as far as the upside is concerned, i. e., expanding money as opposed to constraining it. In fact, as Braun (2016, p. 17– 18) suggests, this may be the very reason for the outing of such a counter-intuitive vision of money by the Bank of England within the context of quantitative easing. Figure 4 illustrates this lack of control over the expansion of the quantities of money, as well as the divergence in the evolution of the money base (currency plus reserves) and broad money M3 (which includes deposits) in the Eurozone between 2008 and 2013. Figure 4 testifies to the ECB’s difficulty in boosting the money supply (M3), despite the massive increases to the money base brought about through open market operations and other traditional means. In a crisis situation such as that depicted here, commercial banks and borrowers are like the proverbial horse: you can lead them to the water, but you cannot make them drink.

Figure 4: Eurozone money base and broad money M3 indexes for 2004-2013 (2008=100)
Source: European Central Bank, Statistical Wharehouse and Abreu (2013)

[21] Such an understanding of money creation clarifies the significance of the semiotic turn in central banking: in a world where there are major limits to the ability of central banks to control the money supply and where money creation is significantly dependent on the animal spirits of commercial lenders and borrowers, it becomes only logical that attempts to influence the latter’s perceptions and expectations take on great importance. This is especially the case in contexts where the relationship between the money base and the broad money supply has broken down.

Forward guidance in practice: narration and characterisation
Despite all the efforts that central banks put into addressing and nurturing their audiences, their roles as storytellers remain ambiguous. As stated above, central bankers are not mere narrators simply seeking to impress their audience in a specific way. Certainly, they are also called upon to play a central part in the stories they tell, and in this context different audiences may regard them as impartial and just actors, or alternatively as being responsible for iniquitous outcomes. In a nutshell, central bankers appear as both narrators and characters of a tale in the making, in which they may yet end up playing the role of either the hero or the villain – depending on how audiences react. In this vein, forward guidance statements may be seen as the opening action in [22] a sequence that requires a perfect alignment of reactions in order to eventually become interpreted as a success story.

Let us return to the famous Mario Draghi episode to clarify this further. One may say that the uniqueness of the whole event lies precisely in its tale-like quality, which starts out with a difficult situation (the Euro crisis) and mobilises a reputedly just and impartial hero (the ECB), whose action comes in the form of a promise (the readiness to do ‘whatever it takes’), which, in turn, leads to redemption and denouement (saving the Euro). However, if this is indeed a tale, then it was not produced by the ECB alone and cannot be premised solely on Mario Draghi’s promise at the London conference in July 2012. Its constitution as a tale involved Draghi’s announcement and its interpretation by a sequence of attentive listeners who (while also guided by their own private interests) reacted in ways that largely corresponded to the ECB’s original intention. These listeners include the financial market agents whose renewed expectations contributed through a drop in bonds yields, the financial press who reported on the event and, last but not least, politicians and the public in general, who breathed a sigh of relief and became more confident in the ECB’s capacity to tackle critical situations (even the Euro’s detractors had to admit that Draghi’s declaration helped to restore the common currency).

Such an alignment of intents, interpretations and interests is hard to achieve and should therefore never be taken for granted. We would agree with Braun (2016) that greater attention needs to be paid to just how the public actually interprets and reacts to central bank discourses, especially in terms of selecting certain statements as significant while downplaying others. A closer reading of the ‘whatever it takes’ speech (Draghi 2012) does indeed reveal that it opens up with an awkward metaphor of the Euro being like a bumblebee that ‘flew very well for several years,’ maybe because there was something holding it aloft, even though it was now time for this bumblebee to ‘graduate into a real bee’– a moment of pure nonsense (cf. Nelson 2017) that testifies to Draghi’s uneven abilities as a narrator and the whole episode as an atypical case of forward guidance. Fortunately, the focus of the story was located in another brief – but clearly more assertive – sequence of words which, retrospectively, became exemplary of central bank forward guidance (even if the ECB’s official recourse to this monetary policy tool is reported to have started only as of July 2013). When we take into account events prior to July 2012, we may easily encounter other examples of the ECB’s hesitant role as both narrator and character in the story. The speech at the London Global Investment Conference was preceded by a succession of hesitations, zigzags, and faux pas regarding unconventional [23] policies and their supposedly temporary character. Gabor (2014, p. 169) identifies at least three failed ECB attempts to exit extraordinary measures: the first relates to the phasing out of the Long-Term Refinancing Operations (LTROs) in December 2009, the second stems from the tightening of collateral requirements in January 2011, and the third encapsulates the increase in the reference rate in March 2011. In each of these three cases, the announcements made by the ECB elicited no corresponding reactions from either financial market agents or journalists, let alone the public. Thus, no convincing story resulted, and the ECB was forced to reformulate its intentions and prolong its extraordinary measures. One could say that in this instance the ECB was backward guided by its publics, invited to pull back and pursue a different direction – just as it would be eight years later in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis (see below).

To recapitulate, forward guidance announcements – either explicit or implicit – may therefore be viewed as the beginning of a projected story in which the narrator also plays a role. Such a role will require confirmation by different audiences. Should the message flow in a linear and resonant way from the sender to successive layers of receivers (and new senders) – that is, whenever these audiences incorporate the message as intended – a tale may be generated in which the ECB plays the role of the hero. If, on the contrary, the narrators, characters, and publics are imperfectly aligned, the message becomes subject to different interpretations and the resonant linearity of forward guidance is compromised. Instead of cohesion, there is division. Under such conditions, a tale may still be generated, even multiple and contradictory tales, and in some of them the ECB plays the role of the villain. This indeed happened with the events surrounding Greece’s third bailout programme in 2015, when a left-wing government elected on the promise to challenge the extant status quo was held in check by the ECB and, after six months, eventually confronted with a tough choice: to accept and even reinforce the conditions imposed on Greece by its creditors or, alternatively, to leave the Euro and the European Union (see Galbraith 2016, 2018, Del Vasto 2019). However, in most forward guidance cases, the ECB will likely review its original position so as to adapt it to what can be expected from an impartial and just character – and try again.

At this point, we may return to the impasse between performance and reference alluded to in the previous section. Thus, while Jakobson (1960) argued that it would make no sense to submit imperative sentences to a truth test, Searle (1989) defended that performatives begged for a word-to-world correspondence that would always require verification. Given the central bank forward guidance in a world of endogenous money, we propose that this impasse should be abandoned rather than resolved, because it rests on simplistic premises. Thus, even when forward guidance announcements are formulated in a determinate, quasi-aphorismatic tone – as exemplified by the declaration ‘whatever it takes’ – they are often accompanied by hesitations and the attribution of uncertain and even incognizable properties to financial markets (see Beckert and Bronk 2018, Svetlova 2018). Indeed, a quick lexical search in the ECB speech data set (European Central Bank 2019) reveals that the words ‘uncertain’ and any derivative thereof appeared 2,019 times in the period from 2008 to mid-2020 (including in the titles of cited references), whereas ‘monetary policy,’ ‘inflation’ and ‘Euro’ appeared 10,862, 11,077 and 22,674 times, respectively. It should be added that this only applies to the ECB communications in English, which nevertheless constitute the bulk of this archive. In our view, such ideas of uncertainty and of an unknowable market ontology should not be simply accepted at face value, but also understood as motifs within a storytelling process that serves to situate any central bank action in a context that is both challenging and open – a context that does enhance heroism in case of success, but also admits reformulation and recharacterisation when matters do not unfold as expected. Such an ambivalent context renders word-to-world correspondence less relevant. As such, we maintain that the conative function of central bank forward guidance is better grasped when – following the idea of market collaborations proposed by Annelise Riles (2013, see also Black 2002) – it is related to a collaborative dimension typical of international institutions. These international institutions, while not directly linked to state power, still rely on a bureaucratic-hierarchical organisation and deploy centralised governmental procedures.

[24] Reminiscent forward guidance: from ‘whatever it takes’ to ‘no limits’
Compared to what may have happened when the central banks’ job was largely about managing the short-term interbank monetary market interest rate, effective forward guidance is more conditional and difficult to obtain in times of endogenous money, globalised finance, and recurrent crises. However, when it does prevail, felicitous forward guidance generates tales in which the central bank plays the role of the hero. These tales do not resemble market news with their short-term validity; rather, they persist in the memories of financial actors and the wider public, raising legitimate expectations that may compromise subsequent central bank actions when bearing in mind that claims of unknowability about the future are more difficult to hold regarding the past. Thus, seven and a half years after Mario Draghi’s famous declaration at the height of the Euro crisis, the world once again was faced with a large-scale disaster – this time due to the Covid-19 pandemic which deeply affected EU countries, leading states to implement emergency measures and quarantine periods that halted all non-essential economic activities. At the time of writing, the situation in many countries remains problematic, and while vaccination campaigns have started to be rolled out, it is too soon to draw any definitive conclusions regarding the outcome of the public health as well as economic crises. There is, however, a strong likelihood that the continuing unfolding of the twin crises will leave a perennial mark in the Eurozone’s debt markets. For the moment, we may take note of some recent ECB statements that explicitly reminisce about Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes’ moment.

In a press conference held on 12 March 2020, the recently appointed ECB president Christine Lagarde started out by recognising that the spread of the coronavirus ‘has been a major shock to the growth prospects of the global and euro area economies and has heightened market volatility’ (ECB 2020a). Notwithstanding, Lagarde also stated that the ECB would not be pushed to the frontline, recommending instead ‘an ambitious and coordinated fiscal policy response [from national governments] to support businesses and workers at risk’. As such, ECB interest rates on the main refinancing operations (0.00 per cent), marginal lending facility (0.25 per cent) and deposit facility (−0.50 per cent) were left unchanged, coupled with an extension to the terms of the banking Long-Term Refinancing Operations (LTROs) and the announcement of a temporary €120 billion envelope of net asset purchases, which, combined with the existing Asset Purchase Programme, was expected to ‘support favourable financing conditions for the real economy in times of heightened uncertainty’ (ECB 2020b). Given the serious nature of the threats posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, this technocratic reaction was judged insufficient by the journalists present. In fact, one openly asked Lagarde whether this was her ‘do whatever it takes’ moment and whether she had expected to get one so quickly (ECB 2020a). Echoing this concern, the buy-sell spread on Italian bonds immediately widened (with the interest on ten-year bonds rising from 1.3–1.8 per cent), while the indexes of major European stock exchanges dropped significantly (Inman 2020).

The comparison with Draghi’s statement gave a hint as to what was actually expected from the ECB under such circumstances: to step out into the frontline. A week later, the ECB stepped up to provide a new response in the form of a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) of private and public securities, running until the end of 2020 (ECB 2020c). On her Twitter account, Lagarde stated that ‘[e]xtraordinary times require extraordinary action. There are no limits to our commitment to the euro. We are determined to use the full potential of our tools, within our mandate’ (Figure 5). Lagarde also published a post on The ECB Blog in which she further explained the impact of the new programme (Lagarde 2020). Acknowledging the devastating effects of the pandemic on the Eurozone economy, the ECB president affirmed that monetary policy must accompany health and fiscal policies in responding to the crisis, thereby taking measures to ‘keep the financial sector liquid and ensure supportive financing conditions for all sectors in the economy’. The post concludes with a determined statement and a thoughtful word about the ECB’s ultimate addressee: ‘We will do everything necessary within our mandate to help the euro area through this crisis, because the ECB is at the service of the European people’.

Figure 5:A capture from Christine Lagarde’s personal Twitter account, announcing the ECB’s Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme.
Source: Portuguese Parliament (Assembleia da República) https://twitter.com/lagarde (27 March 2020).

Despite the socio-economic context being different, the story somewhat repeats itself with the ECB’s reluctant behaviour preceding the announcement of another (in this case, the fifth) asset purchasing programme in a determined, quasi-aphorismatic tone. The expression ‘no limits’ refers to the unlimited buying of sovereign bonds from Euro area countries, which contrasts with the previous 33 per cent maximum of a government’s outstanding debt or of any particular bond issue. Thus, in this regard, Lagarde has indeed gone one step further than Draghi. The closing expression ‘within our mandate’ was also employed by Draghi in his most famous statement within the scope of a ‘constitutional gambit’ (Holmes 2018, p. 184) that renders words more powerful by attaching them to institutions perceived as legitimate – in fact, the words ‘mandate’ and ‘treaty,’ alongside its derivatives, appear 1,875 and 1,003 times, respectively, in the ECB speeches from 2008 to mid-2020. And, as was the case after the announcement of ‘whatever it takes,’ the bond yield spreads plummeted across the Euro area – particularly those for Italian and Greek sovereign debt – testifying to the performative effect of the ‘no limits’ declaration. Again, it still remains too soon to draw conclusions regarding the impacts of such a measure, or of the unfortunate declarations that preceded it. For the purposes of this paper, two facets deserve emphasis. The first is how, after expressing a poorly aligned intention of leaving the burden of the crisis to Euro area states, the ECB seems to have been guided in a more consensual direction by the press and financial market actors, before assuming its expected role as frontline hero and producing a new, and apparently better aligned decision.

The second facet is the component of reminiscence that, in our view, constitutes a necessary ingredient for any accomplished tale, rendering it adaptable to novel yet comparable circumstances. Here, we draw on Walter Benjamin’s (1969 [1936]) notion of the tale as a story which is neither frozen in time, nor stuck in a particular situation: without a fixed context, it lingers in the collective memory and is susceptible to later re-activation at times when and in situations where its meaning resonates more strongly. ‘Resonance’ is the term applied by Beunza and Stark (2012) to designate a specific form of cognitive interdependence associated with the deployment of financial models, which leads traders to think along similar lines, fostering their over-confidence and possibly causing collective failure. Notwithstanding the relevance of their analysis and its applicability to the universe of traders, our use of the term resonance is related to reflexive communication flows across the different but interconnected channels that link central banks to their publics. More specifically, this refers to the cohesive effects and the evocative quality of successful narratives that become an enduring part of the public memory.

Contrary to the motif of the unknowability of markets that allows for context-shifts and recharacterisation processes, ignorance about accomplished tales is clearly more difficult to sustain by central banks and other technocratic actors in the midst of a communicative exercise of international institutional power.

This article contributes to the discussion on central bank communication and its effects by relating forward guidance to the concept of the tale at the core of this special issue. The analysis highlights [26] the distinction between narration and characterisation, which carries implications for the ongoing debate on the performativity of economics. For instance, these two separate actions – narration and characterisation – tend to be confused in orthodox performativity accounts, under the general premise that declaration is action (sse Mäki 2013). However, the semiotic/conative function here attributed to central bank communication authorises an ampler view that sees forward guidance as a story in the making, a story to which different audiences contribute, either by incorporating the central bank’s initial intentions or by otherwise orienting the central bank, as a character in the story, in a more appropriate direction – thus leading it to play the role of frontline hero whenever necessary. While storytelling is present in more open conceptions of performativity (MacKenzie et al. 2007, Holmes 2014, Boldyrev and Svetlova 2016), less attention has been devoted to characterisation as a reflexive process, although this appears to be a relevant ingredient in collaborative projects involving some degree of central coordination, formal communication, and speechifying procedures. More specifically, characterisation is here seen as a particular form of enacting central bank monetary policy tales under conditions perceived as uncertain or critical. And, just like economic theory is reconfigured when put into practice, the monetary policy tale itself needs to be conceived of not as a preformed narrative, but rather as a plot that finds its way through dissemination and audience reaction. In this vein, central bank discourses must be adaptable to shifting circumstances, a condition that, in the case of the European Central Bank, is pursued through recourse to the motifs of the unknowability or unpredictability of market moves. These motifs allow for recharacterisation (the central bank may thereby be viewed as a less powerful, but simultaneously more trustable actor), render word-to-world correspondence less significant and open up the context for monetary policy action.

We have also seen that central banks span a variety of addressees or audiences – in the case of the ECB, ranging from specific financial market players over journalists to the generality of European citizens. We have mainly focused on the wide-reaching statements that encompass these different publics, while noting the difficulties in putting forward narratives that lead to perfectly aligned interpretations so as to incorporate the expectations or levels of trust necessary to the enactment of central bank policies. As a matter of fact, the ECB’s hesitant and dubious behaviour seems rather common nowadays. This renders these communicational processes increasingly collaborative, even conversational (cf. Black 2002, Holmes 2018, Riles 2018), especially among selected circles of partners. Although the notion of tale is not incompatible with the idea of a conversation – especially the more performative and dialogical notion of a tale, as found in the work of orality scholar Paul Zumthor (1987) – we consider that it applies better to the characterisation processes involved and the reminiscent quality of exemplary stories that become independent of particular contexts and eligible for later reactivation. Moreover, while the central bank thoroughly controls its conversational settings, it is less capable of directing a story that unfolds as it speaks.

Naturally, storytelling, characterisation, and reminiscence should not be overemphasised to the point of dismissing the quantification and modelling deployed in central banking and actually supporting the ECB’s decisions and speeches. This part of central bank action was not contemplated in this article; however, as other authors suggest (Smart 2006, Holmes 2014, Svetlova 2018), the technical knowledge produced inside financial institutions is rarely treated as plainly objective and even less assertively mobilised, but rather incorporated into the reflexive storytelling processes that make up contemporary central banking.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

This study was supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology through the following grant: PTDC/IVC-ANT/4520/2014.

[27] Notes on contributors
Alexandre Abreu is Assistant Professor of Economics and Development Studies in the School of Economics and Management at the University of Lisbon. He holds a PhD in Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His research interests include the political economy of development, income distribution and the Euro crisis.

Daniel Seabra Lopes is Assistant Professor in the School of Economics and Management at the University of Lisbon, with a PhD in Cultural and Social Anthropology (New University of Lisbon). He has conducted ethnographic research among urban Roma communities and, more recently, in diverse institutional contexts, including retail banks and courts. He has published articles in a number of international journals, including Economy and Society, European Societies, Social Anthropology, Anthropological Quarterly, Cultural Studies and the Journal of Cultural Economy.

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