The Eurozone crisis plays on to a familiar tune. Finance ministers meet on the weekend only for markets to dismiss their efforts the following Monday. This column argues that Europe’s leaders have lost touch, that the ECB has the firepower but is not prepared to use it, and that the outcome of all this is depressingly clear: Defeat by the financial markets.
Imagine an army going to war. It has overwhelming firepower. The generals, however, announce that they actually hate the whole thing and that they will limit the shooting as much as possible. Some of the generals are so upset by the prospect of going to war that they resign from the army. The remaining generals then tell the enemy that the shooting will only be temporary, and that the army will go home as soon as possible. What is the likely outcome of this war? You guessed it. Utter defeat by the enemy.
The ECB has been behaving like the generals. When it announced its programme of government bond buying it made it known to the financial markets (the enemy) that it thoroughly dislikes it and that it will discontinue it as soon as possible. Some members of the Governing Council of the ECB resigned in disgust at the prospect of having to buy bad bonds. Like the army, the ECB has overwhelming (in fact unlimited) firepower but it made it clear that it is not prepared to use the full strength of its money-creating capacity. What is the likely outcome of such a programme? You guessed it. Defeat by the financial markets.
Financial markets knew that the ECB was not fully committed and that it would stop the programme. As a result, they knew that the stabilisation of the price of government bonds would only be temporary and that after the programme is discontinued prices would probably go down again. Few investors wanted to keep these bonds in their portfolios. As a result, government bonds continued to be sold, and the ECB was forced to buy a lot of them.
There is no sillier way to implement a bond purchase programme than the ECB way. By making it clear from the beginning that it does not trust its own programme, the ECB guaranteed its failure. By signalling that it distrusted the bonds it was buying, it also signalled to investors that they should distrust these too.
Surely once the ECB decided to buy government bonds, there was a better way to run the programme. The ECB should have announced that it was fully committed to using all its firepower to buy government bonds and that it would not allow the bond prices to drop below a given level. In doing so, it would create confidence. Investors know that the ECB has superior firepower, and when they get convinced that the ECB will not hesitate to use it, they will be holding on to their bonds. The beauty of this result is that the ECB won’t have to buy many bonds.
Why has the ECB not been willing to use this obvious and cheaper strategy?
Part of the answer has to do with the objections that have been raised against the idea that the central bank should be a lender of last resort in the government bond markets of a monetary union. Some are serious (moral hazard); others are phony (inflation risk). I discussed these in De Grauwe (2011) (see also Wyplosz 2011). My impression, however, is that these objections hide another more fundamental reason. The people sitting around the table in Frankfurt continue to believe that financial stability is not part of their core business, and, to use the words of Trichet, that there is only one needle on the Frankfurt compass and that is inflation. As long as this view prevails the ECB will be reluctant to do the obvious.
The result of this failure of the ECB to be a lender of last resort has been that a surrogate institution, the EFSF/ESM, had to be created that everybody knows will be ineffective. It has insufficient firepower and has an unworkable governance structure where each country keeps its veto power. In times of crisis it will be paralysed. As markets know this, its credibility will be weak.
To hide these shortcomings European leaders are now creating the fiction that by some clever leveraging trick the resources of the EFSF/ESM can be multiplied, allowing the ECB to retire to its Panglossian garden of inflation targeting. European leaders should know, however, that leverage creates risk, very large risks. These appear with full force when liquidity crises erupt. Thus when the leverage trick will be most needed, it will fail as it will show how risky the positions are of those who have guaranteed the leverage construction. Governments which now enjoy AAA creditworthiness will take the full blow of a 100% loss on their equity tranches and will lose their creditworthiness in one blow. The whole risky construction will collapse like other clever financial constructions of the recent past.
Academics have the reputation of living in an ivory tower far away from the realities of the world. My impression is that instead of the academics, it is the European leaders who have been living in an ivory tower. Disconnected from the economic and financial realities, they have created an institution that does not work and will never do so properly. Now they are creating a financial gimmick that, in their fantasies, they expect to solve the funding problems of major Eurozone countries. It is time for the European leaders to step back into the real world.
De Grauwe, P, (2011), The ECB as a lender of last resort, VoxEU.org, 18 August.
Wyplosz, C, (2011), They still don’t get it, VoxEU.org, 25 October.