What to do of yesterday’s decision of the ECB? The tree looks
very rather nice, the forest much less. First, a look at what Mario Draghi announced:
- “[...] the Governing Council today decided on the modalities for undertaking Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs) in secondary markets for sovereign bonds in the euro area. [...] We aim to preserve the singleness of our monetary policy and to ensure the proper transmission of our policy stance to the real economy throughout the area. OMTs will enable us to address severe distortions in government bond markets which originate from, in particular, unfounded fears on the part of investors of the reversibility of the euro. [...] we act strictly within our mandate to maintain price stability over the medium term.” The technical note accompanying the decision explicitly states what markets wanted to know: “No ex ante quantitative limits are set on the size of Outright Monetary Transactions” In other words, bond purchases will be unlimited.The technical note also specifies the conditionality, the fact that the purchases will be on short maturities, and that they will be fully sterilized.
- Let’s go back to Draghi: “we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged. [...] inflation rates are expected to remain above 2% throughout 2012, to fall below that level again in the course of next year and to remain in line with price stability over the policy-relevant horizon.“
To summarize, the ECB will try to bring down the spreads, acting within its mandate, because speculation is perturbing the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and threatening stability. This can also help explain the decision to keep the rates unchanged: there is no point in using that lever, unless it is sure it works.
Why is the tree rather good? And what makes the forest more worrisome? The tree first.
Istat, the Italian statistical office, just released its Quarterly non-financial accounts for the General Government. As were to be expected, deficit is spiraling out of control (8% on the first quarter, against 7% in 2011), because of higher borrowing costs, and because the economy is doing very poorly.
Two days ago they released the provisional unemployment figures for May: stable above 10% (youth unemployment is at 36.2%!).
It seems that we come full circle, robustly installed in a Recession-Deficit-Austerity-Recession-Deficit-and-so-on spiral.
Austerity works, right? Why on earth, should Italy aim for a balanced budget in 2013? Is this required by current European rules? No(t yet). Is this reassuring markets? No. Is this boosting private expenditure? No. Is this killing the Italian economy? Yes.
Ah, and if at least we did something for those spreads…
It had to be expected. Yesterday Germany only placed 3.9bn euros worth of 10-year bonds, from 6bn euros on offer, and the yields started climbing. This means that we are quickly entering into a new phase of the euro crisis.
I think it is useful to list, and assess, the main arguments advanced against an enhanced role of the ECB as a lender/buyer of last resort. I can think of four of them: credibility, inflation, irrelevance, ineffectiveness.
There are two interesting developments in the eurozone crisis.
- The first is that there seems to be no discrimination coming from financial markets anymore. The French (and Dutch, and Belgian, and counting…) spreads are dangerously increasing, not for objective reasons, but rather because France (and then Belgium, and the Netherlands, and counting…) is perceived as the next country in line after Italy. It is clear that the process will not stop, and that today the only investment that is considered safe is German bunds.
- The second development is that besides the German government, the Bundesbank president, and of course the ECB, there is increasing consensus that only a radical shift in monetary policy can stop contagion, building a firewall around eurozone sovereign debt. It is impossible to have well functioning bonds markets with 17 governments de facto borrowing in foreign currencies, and without a lender of last resort.
The two developments are of course related. It becomes increasingly clear that national government, independently of their past wrongdoings or virtuous behavior, are less and less responsible for speculative attacks, that seem to be fueled by the perceived flaws in the EMU governance design: countries with very limited fiscal space and even more limited fiscal pooling, borrowing in a foreign currency without a Lender of last resort umbrella, and experiencing increasing external imbalances.
As somebody would have said some time ago, “it’s the eurozone, stupid!“
There is no need to write a post on the latest developments in Italy and in the eurozone. Paul Krugman says better than I could, how close we are to Armageddon.
There is only one very minor point of dissent, that for once makes me less pessimist than he is. I give more importance to the Italian internal factors than he does. If a solution is found to the current political turmoil, there may be a truce in the speculative attacks, and the spreads may go down to more manageable levels.
It remains true that without a rapid u-turn of the ECB, speculation will not be defused.