Tuesday

31st Mar 2020

ECB ready to buy government bonds, Draghi signals

  • Draghi - Government bonds could be on the ECB's shopping list for the first time. (Photo: Council of European Union)

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi has indicated that he is prepared for the bank to buy government bonds if necessary to ward off a spiral of recession and deflation in the eurozone.

Addressing MEPs on Monday (17 November) as part of his quarterly 'monetary dialogue' with members of the European Parliament, Draghi said that the bank's governing council was "unanimous in its commitment to using additional unconventional instruments within its mandate".

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He added that "unconventional measures might entail the purchase of a variety of assets, one of which is sovereign bonds."

He also said the ECB is "committed to scale the total magnitude of our measures - lending operations as well as outright purchases".

The ECB is planning to increase its liabilities by around €1 trillion from €3 trillion to €4 trillion over the next 18 months, a similar level to that seen in 2012 when the bank stepped in to calm market speculation that Italy and Spain could need an EU bailout.

Draghi hopes that this will help stimulate financial activity which will trickle down to businesses and consumers

But buying up the bonds of eurozone treasuries - a process known as "quantitative easing" but which is essentially the same as printing money - would be a new step for the ECB.

The bank has hitherto only bought private sector bonds and any new decision would require the support of a majority of the its 24-member Governing Council.

Earlier this autumn, the ECB unveiled new programmes to buy packaged loans and private bonds as well as a new two-year scheme offering cheap money to banks who increase their business lending.

The Frankfurt-based bank argues that despite offering billions of euros in cheap loans to banks this money is not finding its way to businesses, with Draghi noting that the ECB's "very accommodative monetary policy stance does not sufficiently reach some final borrowers in the euro area".

The bank's intention to expand its activities in the financial markets is not popular in Germany.

Last week, the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises Angela Merkel's government and the Bundestag, warned that the ECB "should avoid massively expanding its balance sheet as long as it does not forecast deflation in the euro area."

Critics of the bank also believe that by loosening the conditions and collateral requirements it attaches to loans, the ECB's portfolio is becoming increasingly risky.

Draghi played down such fears, telling deputies that the ECB has "never had to recognise a loss stemming from the Eurosystem credit operations".

Lawmakers have lately become agitated by the eurozone's increasingly unimpressive economic performance.

Although the 18-member currency area recorded growth of 0.2 percent in the third quarter of 2014, the eurozone economy is forecast to expand by a mere 0.8 percent over the entire year, followed by a scarcely more impressive 1.2 percent in 2015.

But while the ECB is comfortable with a more activist role, Draghi has been at pains to stress the need for governments to bear their share of the load in improving economic conditions.

"Monetary policy alone - however - cannot overcome financial fragmentation in the euro area," he noted, adding that governments need to implement "structural reforms… to improve the business environment and setting incentives to invest", he said.

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