Monday, February 13, 2012

The ECB’s trillion euro bet

by Charles Wyplosz


February 13, 2012

Spreads on public debts in the Eurozone – with the exception of Greece – are falling hard and fast. This column argues that this is in large part because the ECB is now effectively guaranteeing Eurozone government debts. But it cautions that in doing so, the central bank is taking enormous risks.

With immense modesty, the President of the ECB Mario Draghi is giving the credit for falling spreads on Eurozone government debt to the courageous reforms announced in a number of countries, especially those where former academic economists act as prime ministers. Oh, how we would love to buy Mario Draghi’s interpretation! While simultaneity is not causality, it is hard not to see a link between the impressive decline in bond spreads and the ECB’s long-term refinancing operations (LTROs).

The story is that banks borrow from the ECB at very low rates (about 1%) and buy public bonds whose yields are much higher. The amounts are considerable – by the end of December LTROs had injected €250 billion of fresh cash. Rumours are that the next round will see an injection many times that amount. When one realises that the total lending capacity of the EFSF is €250 billion, it is not difficult to see why the LTROs have turned around market sentiment.

For months, many observers have argued that one of the necessary conditions to stop the crisis is an explicit guarantee of public debts to be offered by the ECB (see for example de Grauwe 2011 and Wyplosz 2011). Under its previous management, the ECB had rejected this approach on dubious grounds. They had argued:
  • It’s not in the mission (wrong, financial stability is in the mission);
  • It would create massive moral hazard (wrong, the moral hazard can and should be treated separately);
  • It would expose the ECB to financial risks (true, that is why a central bank is not a commercial operation); or
  • It is for governments to sort out their own mess (wrong, they plainly cannot).

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