Ruhr Economic Papers

Ruhr Economic Papers #194

Driven by the Markets? ECB Sovereign Bond Purchases and the Securities Markets Programme

by Ansgar Belke

08/2010, 15 S./p., 8 Euro, ISBN 978-3-86788-219-4



After the dramatic rescue package for the euro area, the governing council of the European Central Bank decided to purchase European government bonds – to ensure an “orderly monetary policy transmission mechanism”. Many observers argued that, by bond purchases, national fiscal policies could from now on dominate the common monetary policy. This note argues that they are quite right. The ECB has indeed become more dependent in political and financial terms.
The ECB has decided to sterilise its bond purchases – compensating those purchases through sales of other bonds or money market instruments to keep the overall money supply unaffected. This is to counter accusations that the ECB is monetizing government debt. This note addresses how effective these sterilisation policies are.
One problem inherent in the sterilization approach is that it reshuffles only the liability side of the ECB’s balance sheet. It is not well-suited to either diminish the bloated ECB balance sheet or to remove the potentially toxic covered or sovereign bonds from it. In addition, the intake of potentially toxic assets as collateral and by outright purchases in the central bank balance sheet artificially keeps the asset prices up and does not prevent the (quite intransparent) risk transfer from one group of countries to another to occur. Finally, sterilization takes place in a setting of still ultra-lax monetary policies, i.e. of new liquidity-enhancing operations with unlimited allotment, and, hence, does not appear to be overly irrelevant. A credible strategy to deal with the financial crisis should deal primarily with the asset side of the ECB balance sheet.
This note also addresses negative side effects of the SMP such as, for instance, the fact that the ECB is currently curbing real returns at the bond markets through its bond purchases. Currently, the real return of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian bonds only amounts to 3 to 3.5 percent. This is almost certainly not enough to attract private capital these countries are heavily dependent on.
The most worrisome aspect is that the euro area has stumbled into a perpetuation of unconventional monetary policies by the execution of the SMP. Of course, the intentions are to bail out banks (but not just banks) and to support governments with issuance. What is diffi cult to see at the moment is how, once started, it will be able to stop.
Finally, the ECB has been too silent about the following key questions which tends to frighten potential private investors in euro area sovereign bonds: What exactly is the composition of the sovereign bonds the ECB is buying? Which criteria are applied to select bonds to purchase? How is the ECB’s bond purchase strategy characterized in cases and periods of primary issuance? How long is the SMP going to last and what amounts may be spent?

JEL-Classification: G32, E42, E51, E58,

Keywords: Accountability; bail-out; bond purchases; central bank independence; insolvency risk; Securities Markets Programme; transparency