The plan is an attempt to spur economic activity in Europe by increasing the amount of money available. It calls for governments to increase their borrowing for various projects designed to increase growth and decrease unemployment. Rather than selling the bonds on the open market, a move that would trigger a rise in interest rates, the bonds are sold to the central banks of eurozone member states, which have the ability to print new money. The money is then sent to the treasury. With more money flowing through the system, recessions driven by a lack of capital are relieved. This is why the measure is called quantitative easing.
The United States did this in 2008. In addition to government debt, the Federal Reserve also bought corporate debt. The hyperinflation that some had feared would result from the move never materialized, and the U.S. economy hit a 5 percent growth rate in the third quarter of last year. The Europeans chose not to pursue this route, and as a result, the European economy is, at best, languishing. Now the Europeans will begin such a program – several years after the Americans did – in the hopes of moving things forward again.
The European strategy is vitally different, however. The Federal Reserve printed the money and bought the cash. The European Central Bank will also print the money, but each eurozone country’s individual national bank will do the purchasing, and each will be allowed only to buy the debt of its own government. The reason for this decision reveals much about Europe’s real crisis, which is not so much economic (although it is certainly economic) as it is political and social – and ultimately cultural and moral.
The recent leaks have made it clear the European Central Bank is implementing quantitative easing in this way because many eurozone governments are unable to pay their sovereign debt. European countries do not want to cover each other’s shortfalls, either directly or by exposing the central bank to losses, a move that would make all members liable. In particular, Berlin does not want to be in a position where a series of defaults could cripple Europe as a whole and therefore cripple Germany. This is why the country has resisted quantitative easing, even in the face of depressions in Southern Europe, recessions elsewhere and contractions in demand for German products that have driven German economic growth downward. Berlin preferred those outcomes to the risk of becoming liable for the defaults of other countries.
The major negotiation over this shift took place between European Central Bank head Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Draghi realized that if quantitative easing was not done, Europe’s economy could crumble. While Merkel is responsible for the fate of Germany, not Europe, she also needs a viable free trade zone in Europe because Germany exports more than 50 percent of its gross domestic product. The country cannot stand to lose free access to Europe’s markets because of plunging demand, but it will not underwrite Europe’s debt. The two leaders compromised by agreeing to have the central bank print the money and give it to the national banks on a formula that has yet to be determined – and then it is every man for himself.
The European Central Bank is providing the mechanism for stimulating Europe’s economy, while the eurozone member states will assume the responsibility for stimulating it – and living with the consequences of failure. It is as if the Federal Reserve were to print money and give some to each state so that New York could buy its own debt and not become exposed to California’s casual ways.
When the European Central Bank’s (ECB) governing council meets on January 22nd, it will take a historic decision. Among the main central banks, the ECB alone has abstained from a big programme of quantitative easing involving the creation of money to buy sovereign bonds with the aim of spurring growth and inflation. The economic case for QE in the euro area is overwhelming: the feeble economic recovery that has followed Europe’s double-dip recession is faltering; headline inflation has turned negative and longer-term inflation expectations have also declined to a worrying extent. Mario Draghi, the ECB’s president, seems determined to adopt QE in some form, but he will have to compromise on the way that the risks are shared among the euro-zone national central banks in order to get the policy through.
Insiders expect a programme of sovereign-bond purchases of around €500 billion ($580 billion) to be announced on Thursday. Anything less would be likely to disappoint markets that have already been anticipating a move by the ECB to adopt QE, causing, for example, the euro to weaken. The need to purchase government bonds arises from the scale with which the ECB needs to intervene. The central bank wants to raise the balance-sheet of the Eurosystem (the ECB along with the euro zone’s 19 national central banks) from €2.2 trillion to €3 trillion. Since late last year it has been conducting a form of QE by buying private assets, mainly covered bonds, a particularly safe form of debt issued by banks, and also some asset-backed securities. Such purchases may reach around €200 billion over a year. But the amount of eligible and available covered bonds, of around €1 trillion, is dwarfed by the value of sovereign bonds, of over €6 trillion. At one time it seemed that the ECB might buy conventional corporate bonds, but it seems to have decided that the market is too illiquid for it to operate in at scale.
But a big bond-buying programme is tricky in a monetary union where there is not one federal government but 19 national ones, of widely varying creditworthiness, ranging from triple-A for Germany’s to junk for Greece’s. The indications are that Mr Draghi will have to bow to stipulations set by Jens Weidmann, head of the German Bundesbank, if he is to get QE approved. Most notably, purchases of sovereign debt will not be made under the usual risk-sharing arrangements at the ECB, whereby the 19 national central banks of the euro zone share any losses in rough proportion to the size of their economies. The Bundesbank would normally expect to shoulder a quarter of any losses incurred by the ECB. But in this instance, each central bank is likely to be largely responsible for buying the bonds of its own country and will have to bear any losses on them on its own.
That is a good deal for the Bundesbank, because German bonds are so safe. But it marks a big break in precedent and will be seen as unsatisfactory by many members of the governing council. The compromise is necessary because on this occasion Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is backing Mr Weidmann. That is in sharp contrast with the previous clash between Mr Weidmann and Mr Draghi, in 2012, over the (unused) policy of “outright monetary transactions”, a conditional commitment to buy bonds of countries under siege in the markets, which gave teeth to Mr Draghi’s pledge to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. Mrs Merkel fears that QE will allow laggard governments, including those of Italy and France, to further delay indispensable structural reforms. The chancellor also worries that purchases made through the usual risk-sharing approach would in effect create by the backdoor “Eurobonds”, jointly issued bonds with the risk mutually shared among member states, to which she is strongly opposed.
Some way will also have to be found to deal with the problem of Greece, which in elections on January 25th may choose a new government that seeks some form of debt relief and tries to backtrack on reforms. One possible solution might be to stipulate that junk-rated sovereign bonds will be bought only if the country concerned is abiding by the terms of a euro-zone bail-out programme (Greece’s is due to expire at the end of February).
Markets may shrug off these messy details in their elation that QE is at long last under way, injecting money into the euro-zone economy and signalling the ECB’s commitment to arrest the fall in inflation. Most members of the ECB’s council will grudgingly take the view that it is better to get a big amount of QE along these lines than a much smaller dose with the usual risk-sharing arrangements. The effect of the QE that the council undertakes may also be stronger if, as is now expected, the bonds purchased will be held to maturity. But a package along these lines will set an unfortunate precedent, for it will embody the very fragmentation within the euro area that the ECB has been seeking to combat. That will add to the danger that the long-awaited QE programme may be coming too late to arrest the slide into a deflationary mindset.
In order to appease those who are worried that taxpayers across the Eurozone will end up carrying the can if one country defaults, the majority, if not all, of these purchases are likely to be undertaken by the national central banks. These will buy their own government’s debt in proportion to the size of the economy and will be limited to a maximum of about a quarter of outstanding debt. The ECB will provide the money for the purchases.
Man, this is hard to understand. It looks like the ECB will give Euros to the 19 other central banks, and those banks will buy their governments’ debt from banks and other institutions, up to 25% of that debt, which varies all over the place, depending on the fiscal discipline in the 19. Total sovereign debt is 6+ trillion Euros, so the program could be as large as 1.5 trillion Euros if all participated. Then the theory is that banks will lend the extra money and institutions will also invest or lend. Uh-huh.
We won’t bother quoting from the negative piece in the Telegraph on this, but this all doesn’t make too much sense to us. Aren’t the low-productivity countries with high debt just getting another kick at the can, another reason to spread more money around without any structural changes? It’s hard to see how this ends well.
Near term result, via WSJ: “Euro Slides to 11-Year Low Against Dollar.”