Update: The Court ruled the OMT “Legal in Principle“. The final ruling will be later this year, but it is safe to assume that it will confirm the preliminary one.
Today is an important day for the ECB, as the European Court of Justice will issue an interim ruling on the Outright Monetary Transactions program launched in the fall of 2012. The Court needs to rule, upon demand by the German Constitutional Court, whether the program overstepped the boundaries set by the Treaties to ECB action. The ruling of course may have an impact on furture action by the ECB, notably the decision to launch a round of QE.
I think it is important to clarify once more that QE and the OMT (welcome to the wonderful world of EU acronyms) are not the same thing. If Mario Draghi manages to rally the Governing Council behind him, QE will consist of a vast program of sovereign bond purchases, in order to try to lift the European economy out of deflation. A European version in short, of what was done three years ago by the Fed and other major central banks in the world.
The OMT responded to a very different need, notably the need to defuse speculation on sovereign debt markets and to protect peripheral countries (at the time Spain and Italy) from the risk of default. The summer of 2012 was very difficult, as economic and political problems in Greece caused investors to flee from peripheral countries and spreads on sovereign bonds to increase at unprecedented levels. After the “whatever it takes” speech in July (But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough), the ECB in September engaged almost unanimously to step in the market for sovereign bonds and, if necessary, to stretch its mandate by acting as a lender/buyer of last resort for countries in trouble.
With the OMT program, the ECB commits to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds of countries in trouble that request assistance, thus de facto transforming itself into a lender of last resort. In exchange for ECB protection countries need to engage in a program of fiscal austerity and structural reforms. In other words with the OMT program the ECB offered insurance in exchange for reforms and austerity. A deal that would entail the loss of a good deal of sovereignty. It is not by chance that Spain always refused to apply for the program, in spite of heavy pressure, and that as of today no country ever used it. At the time the OMT program was wrongly interpreted as a clumsy attempt to implement quantitative easing in the Eurozone. It was instead clear, since the beginning that, as with any insurance scheme, its success would be measured precisely by the fact that the ECB would not have to intervene on bond markets.
So we need to be clear here. The European Court of Justice today and in the next months will not be deciding on QE and macroeconomic management. It will be deciding whether the EMU has the right to rely on an insurance mechanism that all countries have . It will be deciding whether EMU governments borrow in their own currency, or in a foreign one. A major decision indeed.
George Soros writes a piece on Project Syndicate, that is both pedagogical and very clear in outlining a possible answer to the current EMU crisis. He starts with a diagnosis of the EMU imbalances that rejects the “Berlin View”, and argues for the existence of structural imbalances
Normally, developed countries never default, because they can always print money. But, by ceding that authority to an independent central bank, the eurozone’s members put themselves in the position of a developing country that has borrowed in foreign currency. Neither the authorities nor the markets recognized this prior to the crisis, attesting to the fallibility of both. Read more
Il Sole 24 Ore just published an editorial I wrote with Jean-Luc Gaffard, on the structural problems facing the EU. Here is an English (slightly longer and different) version of the piece:
It is hard not to rejoice at the ECB announcement that it would buy, if necessary, an unlimited amount of government bonds. The Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program is meant to protect from speculation countries that would otherwise have no choice but to abandon the euro zone, causing the implosion of the single currency. As had to be expected, the mere announcement that the ECB was willing to act (at least partially) as a lender of last resort calmed speculation and spreads came down to more reasonable levels.
I have read an interesting article by Wolfgang Münchau, on the Financial Times. To summarize, Münchau argues that because of politician’s complacency, there is a chance that the new OMTs program launched by the ECB will never be used, and hence prove ineffective in boosting the economy. He therefore argues that the ECB should have done like the Fed, and announce an unconditional bond purchase program (private and public alike).
The piece is interesting because Münchau is at the same time right, and off the target. It is worth trying to clarify.
There was a lot of noise, yesterday, about the main central banks’ decision to coordinate in maximizing liquidity provision (in dollars) to households and firms. An excellent and clear explanation of what they exactly did can be found here.
Are we effectively at a turning point? I am afraid not, for essentially two reasons:
- The first is that, after an initial moment of euphoria, markets may realize what really happened, i.e. that central banks are preparing for a major Lehman-like event: If the euro breaks down, and if investors flee from it, central banks are ready to act to avoid contagion. This is reassuring, but it also informs us that the main monetary authorities of the planet are seriously considering the possibility of such an event occurring.
- Second, this move, per se, does nothing to address the main source of the problem: the lack of proper Eurozone governance, and the unwillingness of the ECB to act as a lender/buyer of last resort. Major changes on these issues would be a turning point, reducing the risk of a euro crisis, and hence making liquidity in dollars unnecessary.
A safe bet: Financial market euphoria will be short-lived.
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.