In August 2012, the ECB president, Mario Draghi, said that the ECB would ‘do whatever it takes‘ to hold the single currency together and support the weaker economies, such as Greece, Portugal and Spain. At the same time, he announced the introduction of outright monetary purchases (OMTs), which would involve purchasing eurozone countries’ bonds in the secondary markets. There were no limits specified to such purchases, but they would be sterilised by the sale of other assets. In other words, they would not increase the eurozone money supply. But despite the fanfare when OMTs were announced, they have never been used.
Today, the eurozone economy is struggling to grow. The average annual growth rate across the eurozone is a mere 0.5%, albeit up from the negative rates up to 2013 Q3. GDP is still over 2% below the peak in 2008. Inflation is currently standing at 0.8%, well below the 2% target. The ECB’s interest rate (‘main refinancing operations rate’) is 0.25%.
The recovery is hindered by a strong euro. As the chart shows, the euro has been appreciating against the dollar. The euro exchange rate index has also been rising. This has made it harder for the eurozone countries to export.
So what can the ECB do to stimulate the eurozone economy? Other central banks, such as the Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have all had substantial programmes of quantitative easing. The ECB has not. Perhaps OMTs could be used without sterilisation. The problem here is that there are no eurozone bonds issued by the ECB and hence none that could be purchased, only the bonds of individual member countries. Buying bonds of weaker countries in the eurozone would be seen as favouring these countries and might create a moral hazard.
Reducing interest rates is hardly an option given that they are at virtually zero already. And expansionary fiscal policy in the weaker countries has been ruled out by having to stick to the bailout conditions for these countries, which require the pursuit of austerity policies.
One possibility would be to intervene in the foreign currency market by buying US and other countries’ bonds. This would drive down the euro and provide a stimulus to exports. This option is considered in the Jeffrey Frankel article.
Why the European Central Bank should buy American The Guardian, Jeffrey Frankel (13/3/14)
Draghi holds course in face of deflation threat Reuters, Paul Carrel and Leika Kihara (13/3/14)
ECB’s Draghi: Strong Euro Pulling Down Euro Zone Inflation Wall Street Journal, Christopher Lawton and Todd Buell (13/3/14)
Draghi Bolstering Guidance Seen as Convincing on Rates Bloomberg, Jeff Black and Andre Tartar (13/3/14)
ECB president Mario Draghi counters euro upswing Financial Times, Claire Jones (13/3/14)
Turning Japanese? Euro zone exporters must hope not Reuters, Neal Kimberley (14/3/14)
Prospect of ECB QE drives eurozone bond rally Financial Times, Laurence Mutkin (12/3/14)
Statistical Data Warehouse ECB
Winter forecast 2014 – EU economy: recovery gaining ground European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs DG
AMECO online European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs DG
- Why is the ECB generally opposed to quantitative easing of the type used by other central banks?
- What is meant by ‘sterilisation’? Why does sterilisation prevent OMTs being classed as a form of quantitative easing?
- Would it be possible for OMTs to be used without sterilisation in such as way as to avoid a moral hazard for the highly indebted eurozone countries?
- Is the eurozone in danger of experiencing deflation?
- What are the dangers of deflation?
- Why does the ECB not cut its main refinancing rate below zero?
- If the ECB buys US bonds, what effect would this have on the euro/dollar exchange rate?
- Would purchasing US bonds affect the eurozone money supply? Explain.
- What other means are there of the ECB stimulating the eurozone economy? How effective would they be likely to be?
The ECB president, Mario Draghi, has announced a new programme of ‘Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs)’ to ease the difficulties of countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The idea is to push down interest rates for these countries’ bonds. If successful, this will make it more affordable for them to service their debts.
OMTs involve the ECB buying these countries’ bonds on the secondary market (i.e. existing bonds). This will be limited to bonds with no more than three years to maturity. Although restricting purchases to the secondary market would not involve the ECB lending directly to these countries, the bond purchases should push down interest rates on the secondary market and this, in turn, should allow the countries to issue new bonds at lower rates on the primary market.
The OMT programme replaces the previous Securities Markets Programme (SMP), which began in May 2010. This too involved purchasing bonds on the secondary market. By the time of the last actions under SMP in January 2012, €212 billion of purchases had been made. Unlike the SMP, however, OMTs are in principle unlimited, with the ECB president, Mario Draghi, saying that the ECB would do ‘whatever it takes’ to hold the single currency together. This means that it will buy as many bonds on the market as are necessary to bring interest rates down to sustainable levels.
Critics, however, argue that this will still not be enough to stimulate the eurozone economy and help bring countries out of recession. They give two reasons.
The first is that OMTs differ from the quantitative easing programmes used in the UK and USA. OMTs would not increase the eurozone money supply as the ECB would sell other assets to offset the bond purchases. This process is known as ‘sterilisation’, which is defined as actions taken by a central bank to offset the effects of foreign exchange flows or its own bond transactions so as to leave money supply unchanged.
The second reason is that OMTs will be conducted only if countries stick to previously agreed strong austerity measures. This is something that it looking increasingly unlikely as protests against the cuts mount in countries such as Greece and Spain.
Super Mario to the rescue Financial Standard, Benjamin Ong (7/9/12)
Outright monetary transactions: Lowdown on bond-buying scheme Irish Times, Dan O’Brien (7/9/12)
Draghi comments at ECB news conference Reuters (6/9/12)
ECB’s Mario Draghi unveils bond-buying euro debt plan BBC News (6/9/12)
ECB Market Intervention: Outright Monetary Transactions (“OMT”) – A Preliminary Assessment Place du Luxembourg (9/9/12)
Evaluating the OMT: OrlMost Too late? Social Europe Journal, Andrew Watt (7/9/12)
Mario Draghi speech: what the analysts said The Telegraph (6/9/12)
ECB challenges German concern over bond-buying Irish Times, Derek Scally (26/9/12)
Draghi: efforts helping to support stable future MarketWatch, Tom Fairless (25/9/12)
Mario and Mariano versus the man with the beard BBC News, Paul Mason (6/9/12)
Good week for the euro – but also a warning BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (12/9/12)
The price of saving the eurozone BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/12)
Special Report – Inside Mario Draghi’s euro rescue plan Reuters, Paul Carrel, Noah Barkin and Annika Breidthardt (25/9/12)
ECB to face biggest test on euro gambit Financial Times, Michael Steen and Peter Spiegel (25/9/12)
ECB: Monetary policy decisions ECB Press Release, (6/9/12)
- What are the key features of the OMT programme? How does it differ from the former Securities Markets Programme (SMP)?
- In what ways does the OMT programme differ from the quantitative easing programmes in the USA and UK?
- How will the ECB’s buying bonds in the secondary market influence the primary bond market? What will influence the size of the effect?
- How does sterilisation work in (a) the bond market; (b) the foreign exchange market?
- Why is it claimed that the OMT programme is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving the crisis in the eurozone? What additional measures would you recommend and why?
- What are the risks associated with the OMT programme?