LISBON — The fate of the European Central Bank’s aggressive plan to stimulate the economy out of stagnation lies with the 340 million people in the 19-country euro alliance.
The critical question: Will enough of them make private decisions to consume, hire, invest, expand — in other words, to take risks?
The ECB plans to pump more than 1 trillion euros in new money into the region’s economy. That flood of cash should — in theory — make credit more available and reduce borrowing rates. It should boost inflation, demand and employment.
But central bank policies merely lay the groundwork. Borrowing and spending depend on businesses seeing profits and consumers feeling more confident and prosperous.
So how do Europeans feel? A series of vignettes from across the eurozone offers an early collective answer.
— Elpida Yiannaka, co-owner of wine bar, Nicosia, Cyprus:
Yiannaka opened the 50-seat Vini Platea a couple of months ago in the historic center of old Nicosia within the Cypriot capital’s Venetian-built walls. The summer will be pivotal to deciding whether it would be wise to expand.
Yiannaka says she considered hiring a couple more waiters to meet the holiday-season demand. But when business tailed off, that plan was scrapped.
To get the bar going, she needed a 10,000 euro startup loan from a bank. It proved an enormous hurdle.
“They made it really difficult for us, asking us to complete a ton of paperwork and get a bunch of guarantees,” Yiannaka says. “It wasn’t as it was before when it was much simpler to get a loan.”
Yiannaka’s calculation over whether to expand is just the kind of decision on which the success of the ECB’s plan will hinge.
“We’re not even thinking about asking for another loan right now,” she says. “But we’re not giving up; we’re going to give it our best shot.”
— Mario Polegato, billionaire chairman of Italian shoe company Geox SpA:
Polegato feels the ECB’s stimulus will help companies like his by bolstering consumers’ confidence in the economy and holding down the euro’s value, thereby making exports more affordable overseas.
Geox, a global company with 1,350 shops in 105 countries, is fortunate to have ample cash reserves, which shield it from Italy’s tight credit conditions.
Polegato warns that a shortage of loans for companies isn’t the whole problem. He says a more fundamental issue is that many entrepreneurs lack effective strategies to sell globally. And bureaucratic obstacles often block expansion.
“Many of the companies that shut did so because of a lack of competitiveness of their products, rather than for a lack of credit.”
Fixing that problem requires a change of culture and politics in Italy — not just more help from the ECB, he says.
“The big problem for Italy is growth, growth, growth,” Polegato says. “Entrepreneurs are not asking for loans because they don’t know how to globalize their business.”
— Joao Felix, CEO of a Lisbon startup that operates a car-sharing system for company fleets and private owners:
“It’s a turning point, no doubt about it,” Felix says at his small downtown office, where his four staffers sat at computers and a Lisbon city map covered one wall.
“Wider access to credit will help our customers prosper,” Felix says. “Consumers may start feeling richer … and so start spending more, giving a boost to consumption and investment … We benefit when our customers benefit.”
In launching his company in 2011, the year that debt-heavy Portugal needed a 78 billion euro bailout, Felix ruled out a bank loan. He wasn’t sure he’d have the cash flow to meet repayments. So he relied on private investors and a European Union innovation grant.
Now, he’s hoping for revenue of 500,000 euros this year, up from 100,000 in 2014, and he plans to hire.
Still, Felix frets that the squabbles among European governments over economic policy — namely, whether to adopt debt-reducing austerity or support growth — could undermine the ECB’s stimulus.
— Diego Martinez, consultant, Madrid:
The 43-year-old Martinez says lower interest rates have already brought improvements, and he expects the new ECB actions to provide a further lift.
“These measures mean that the sovereign debt held by banks isn’t profitable for them, so the banks are being compelled to make credit more accessible for families and companies so they can get some financial return,” Martinez says.
“I think there’s more cash flow now, and it’s noticeable, especially compared with recent years.”
— Carsten Sprenger, 45, financial services, Frankfurt area, Germany:
Sprenger considers the ECB’s move “a catastrophe.”
“This flood of money will eat up all of people’s savings,” he argues. “I am saving for my pension.”
The ECB’s move dismays many such people in Germany, with its conservative, savings-oriented culture. The notion of the ECB pouring a trillion-plus more euros into the economy is unpopular there. Germany’s post-World War II prosperity is associated with its former currency, the deutsche mark, and with the anti-inflation policies of its Bundesbank central bank.
— Leonardo Bassilichi, CEO of Bassilichi, a technology and software company that specializes in electronic payments, Florence, Italy.
The ECB’s decision “helps the optimism and shows a turning point that only goes so far but demonstrates a break with the old austerity.”
‘The fact that banks are getting this strength is important because our clients will be reinforced,” Bassilichi says.
Still, he cautions, governments must follow with reforms and ensure that money makes its way to people and businesses.
“We need to understand how governments will succeed in transferring this to the real economy, how they will require the banks to transfer the money,” Bassilichi says. “As a business, I need to see that the banks are circulating these resources.”
It isn’t enough to minimize funding costs on Italy’s debt, he says. People and businesses must feel the benefits of the ECB’s policies.
Bassilichi says his company hired 1,000 workers on Jan. 1 because it saw signs of change in Italy. It’s expanding into a new business — back office services — and has begun exporting its technology to Serbia.
“We will continue to invest; that is our destiny,” Bassilichi says. “If we don’t invest, we will die.”
— Javier Ruiz, economist and restaurant owner, Madrid:
Ruiz thinks the economic crisis can still be felt in the streets, and he’s seen little personal benefit. Still, he senses that at least the fear of spending has faded.
“People are less afraid of dipping into their pockets, but there’s not any more money around,” Ruiz says. “Before, people had 10 euros in their pocket and didn’t spend. Now, they’ll spend 1 or 2 euros.”
“You can tell there’s more work available, and people no longer have that feeling of bankruptcy and Europe sinking they had just three or four years ago,” he says.
McHugh contributed from Frankfurt, Germany. Hadjicostis contributed from Nicosia,Cyprus. Associated Press staff writers Carlo Piovano in Davos, Switzerland, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, and Jorge Sainz in Madrid also contributed to this report.
DAVID McHUGH, Associated Press
BARRY HATTON, Associated Press
MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS, Associated Press