The European Central Bank does not provide direct support to eurozone countries by buying new bonds. However, it can give indirect support by helping banks buy such bonds. In a move announced on 8 December, the ECB will increase the maximum term of its ‘longer-term refinancing operations’ (LTROs) from the current 13 months to three years. In other words, it will effectively provide three-year loans to banks by purchasing banks’ assets on a ‘repurchase (repo)’ basis, whereby banks agree to buy back the assets at the end of the three-year term.
The hope is that banks will use these loans (at an annual rate of 1%) to purchase new bonds from countries such as Italy and Spain. If banks are more willing to buy them, this should help reduce the interest rate at which governments are forced to borrow. Banks would benefit from the ‘carry trade’, whereby they borrow at a low interest rate (from the ECB) and lend at a higher rate to governments by buying their bonds.
To encourage banks to take advantage of these new longer-term repos,the ECB announced that the assets it was prepared to purchase would include securitised assets with a rating of single A (the highest rating is AAA). In other words, it would accept assets with a ‘second-best rating’.
But although the scheme would allow banks to make a clear gain from a carry trade, banks may be reluctant to use such loans to increase their holdings of sovereign debt of countries with large debt to GDP ratios, given concerns in the market about the riskiness of such assets.
Articles and podcast
ECB repo extension a fillip for sovereigns Financial News, Matt Turner (15/12/11)
Doubts over ECB move to boost bond sales Financial Times, Tracy Alloway (15/12/11)
ECB Chief Plays Down Hopes for Bigger Bond Purchases Wall Street Journal, Tom Fairless And Margit Feher (15/12/11)
Eurozone crisis ‘misdiagnosed’ BBC Today Programme, George Magnus (16/12/11) (second part of podcast)
Banks snap up €500bn in loans from European Central Bank Guardian. Larry Elliott (22/12/11)
Analysis: ECB cash to give indirect boost via banks Reuters, Natsuko Waki and Steve Slater (22/12/11)
Demand for ECB loans rises to €489bn Financial Times, Tracy Alloway and Ralph Atkins (21/12/11)
ECB’s rescue of eurozone banks is temporary BBC News, Robert Peston (21/12/11)
ECB Press release
ECB announces measures to support bank lending and money market activity ECB (8/12/11)
- Explain how repos work. What is the difference between repos and reverse repos?
- What is meant by the term ‘carry trade’?
- Why may banks be unwilling to gain from the carry trade possibilities of the ECB’s new 3-year LTROs by using them to fund the purchase of new sovereign bonds? What risks are entailed by their doing so?
- How do these new long-term repo operations differ from quantitative easing? Explain whether or not the effect is likely to be similar
- What are the arguments for and against the ECB engaging in a round of substantial quantitative easing?