Europe Is Japan? Goldman Expects ECB To Become The BOJ, Purchase Private Assets

Goldman's ex-employee Mario Draghi is in a box: he knows he has to do something, but he also knows his options are very limited politically and financially. Yet he has no choice but to escalate and must surprise markets with a forceful intervention as per his words last week or else. What does that leave him? Well, according to Goldman's Huw Pill, nothing short of pulling a BOJ and announcing on Thursday that he will proceed with monetization of private assets, an event which so far only the Bank of Japan has publicly engaged in, and one which will confirm the world's relentless Japanization. From Pill: "Given the (to us) surprisingly bold tone of Mr. Draghi’s comments last week, we nevertheless think a new initiative may well be in the offing. We have argued in the past that the next step in the escalation of the ECB response would be outright purchases of private assets. Acting in this direction on Thursday would represent a significant event. We forecast the announcement of measures to permit NCBs to purchase private-sector assets under their own risk to implement ‘credit easing’, within a general framework approved by the Governing Council. This would allow purchases of unsecured bank debt and corporate debt, enabling NCBs to ease private-sector financial conditions where such support is most needed." Why would the ECB do this: "A natural objection to outright purchases of assets issued by the private sector is that they involve the assumption of too much credit risk by the ECB. But substantial risk is already assumed via credit operations." In other words, the only thing better than a little global central banker put is a whole lot global central banker put, and when every central planner is now all in, there is no longer any downside to putting in even more taxpayer risk on the table. Or so the thinking goes.

Of course, a rational person may wonder: why would the ECB, which a week ago was arguing for impairing senior debt, suddenly go ahead and monetize not only senior but subordinated debt. And one step further, one may also wonder if this is merely the latest iteration of a Goldman call that should be faded. Because if so, the market is in for a rude awakening. Alternatively, if Draghi does go the full Shirakawa, expect merely a brief LTRO-type response higher, to be followed by yet another major swoon lower as the drug addict demands more, more, more, only that more no longer exists with each succeesive asset dilution iteration.

From Goldman:

We forecast that the ECB will permit NCB purchases of private sector assets

ECB President Draghi’s comments in London last week have raised market expectations that important new measures will be announced by the Governing Council on Thursday (August 2).

Were the Spanish government to request support from the EFSF ahead of Thursday’s meeting and accept the implied conditionality, we would expect the ECB to offer significant support to sovereigns, including through outright ECB purchases of government debt via the SMP. This would mark a significant acceleration and intensification of what we have previously forecast. However, our base case is that events will not move so quickly: the Spanish government is pre-funded through October and, according to the latest reports, an immediate Spanish request to the EFSF is unlikely. We do not expect the ECB to move unilaterally: we view explicit and concrete political support for its actions via EFSF conditionality as a prerequisite for an extension of support to the sovereign markets.

The ECB therefore risks disappointing heightened expectations. Bringing forward measures to ease private-sector financing conditions in the periphery is a likely response. Well-flagged possibilities in this regard include a further easing of collateral eligibility standards and new longer-tenor refinancing operations. But precisely because these measures have been anticipated, they are unlikely to satisfy the market expectations raised by Mr. Draghi’s comments. And we would in any case view the  effectiveness of such measures as questionable, given the segmentation of financial markets and dysfunctionality of financial systems in the periphery.

Given the (to us) surprisingly bold tone of Mr. Draghi’s comments last week, we nevertheless think a new initiative may well be in the offing. We have argued in the past that the next step in the escalation of the ECB response would be outright purchases of private assets. Acting in this direction on Thursday would represent a significant event. We forecast the announcement of measures to permit NCBs to purchase private-sector assets under their own risk to implement ‘credit easing’, within a general framework approved by the Governing Council. This would allow purchases of unsecured bank debt and corporate debt, enabling NCBs to ease private-sector financial conditions where such support is most needed. Progress in centralising banking supervision at the ECB would facilitate such support for the banking sector.

1.Market tensions continue to mount in the Euro area, in an environment of ongoing macroeconomic weakness.

2.Thursday’s comments by ECB President Draghi in London have raised expectations that the ECB will resume purchases of peripheral sovereign debt via its Securities Markets Programme (SMP). Peripheral markets have rallied as a result.

3.Anything short of an announcement of such a resumption at next week’s ECB Governing Council meeting risks disappointing markets. Indeed, expectations have been raised further on reports that a package of additional measures (interest rate cuts, new liquidity operations) is being prepared in parallel for the August 2 ECB monetary policy meeting.

4.Thus far, we have assumed that the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) would be the authorities’ first line of defence in addressing sovereign market tensions. We continue to hold this view. Moreover, we anticipated that the ECB would act in a supportive manner towards sovereign markets should the EFSF take up its responsibility in this regard, for example by offering another longer tenor LTRO operation on a fixed rate / full allotment basis (thereby supporting Euro area banks’ purchase of peripheral sovereign debt). We also continue to hold this view. And recognising the limited capacity of the EFSF / ESM, we have assumed that ultimately the ECB’s balance sheet will need to be mobilised to fund financial support for vulnerable Euro area sovereigns. Our view here is also unchanged.

5.How then to interpret the (to us) surprising boldness of Mr. Draghi’s remarks in London last week? We see them as reflective of an accelerated pace of events, rather than a fundamental change of character. We organise our further analysis around two possible explanations for this acceleration: (a) that Mr. Draghi expects an imminent Spanish request for EFSF support, and therefore foreshadows ECB action as part of a more comprehensive policy response; and (b) that Mr. Draghi’s concerns about contagion and spillovers from sovereign funding tensions in Spain have become more acute.

The Spanish are coming

6.We had been working on the assumption that – with the Spanish sovereign pre-funded for several months yet – we would not see Spanish recourse to the EFSF until the early autumn, as the usual political prevarication prevailed.

7.Mr. Draghi was clearly aware of the market expectations he was creating last week; hence, his comments might suggest he is confident that the Spanish government will turn to the EFSF sooner than that, opening the way for new ECB actions in the coming weeks. Comments from the German and French governments in the aftermath of Mr. Draghi’s remarks, which point to the EFSF as the vehicle for addressing market tensions, would support this view.

8.We continue to doubt the ECB will act ahead of a Spanish request for EFSF support. A unilateral reactivation of SMP purchases of sovereign debt by the ECB in the form seen on past occasions risks being not only ineffective, but even counterproductive – for all the usual reasons:

  • As Friday's statement from the Bundesbank demonstrates, its resistance to central bank purchases of peripheral sovereign debt remains strong. The Bundesbank is not alone. Reigniting discord within the ECB's decision-making bodies by restarting the SMP threatens to disrupt once again the ECB's capacity to act on this and other dimensions of policy. And such discord inevitably implies commitment to such interventions is somewhat ambiguous, thereby undermining their effectiveness;
  • Given how ECB holdings were treated in the Greek debt restructuring, subordination concerns understandably persist among market participants. Declarations of a willingness to take losses on SMP holdings ring hollow: actions speak louder than words in this context. While the ECB may have the opportunity to demonstrate such willingness sooner rather than later in the Greek context, the effectiveness of unilateral SMP purchases is questionable: they need to encourage rather than deter the natural longer-term holders of peripheral sovereign debt from re-entering this market;
  • Above all, were the ECB to restart SMP purchases unilaterally, the incentive for the Spanish government to seek EFSF support – and accept the implied conditionality – would be reduced. An opportunity to hardwire the necessary consolidation, reform and adjustment into the institutional system would be lost. Broadly speaking, we take a positive view of the Spanish government’s policy programme. While we see scope for accelerating and deepening structural reform, if anything we view their envisaged fiscal adjustment as possibly too aggressive. But these measures have not arisen spontaneously: they have come in response to market pressure. For market pressure to be relieved by external financial support, we view the introduction of greater conditionality as crucial to maintain the momentum of adjustment.
  • More generally, it has been a long-held ambition of the ECB to ensure governments have explicit financial involvement with regard to peripheral sovereign debt purchases via the EFSF, rather than leaving the ECB to take sole responsibility. And involving the EFSF introduces the necessary formal conditionality and political accountability to the process, which – as last year's experience in Italy demonstrates – the ECB acting alone lacks.

9.As we have argued in the past, such concerns make us even more sceptical of proposals to cap peripheral sovereign yields or  target spreads through an ECB commitment to potentially unlimited SMP purchases of peripheral government debt. Market participants seek the certainty offered by such an unconditional commitment to stabilise yields. Given the multiplicity of uncertainties they face at present, that desire is understandable. But such an unconditional commitment by the ECB renders public budget constraints very soft. Irrespective of their behaviour, governments are able to borrow at the rates pegged by the ECB, serving to create moral hazard and scope for 'free-riding' on others' disciplined behaviour.

10.For the ECB in the current environment, this tension between satisfying markets and constraining government is inescapable. It lies at the heart of the difficult course the ECB has charted throughout the financial crisis. Managing the trade-off entails offering external financial support to governments in return for their acceptance of conditionality. Hence, involvement of the EFSF to provide political legitimacy to that conditionality appears crucial.

11.All this leaves the initiative for triggering the next steps in the hands of the Spanish government. Should a request for EFSF support be forthcoming ahead of or in parallel with the ECB Governing Council meeting next Thursday, it would open the door for the ECB to announce supportive measures on that occasion.

12.As we have said in the past, in parallel with EFSF purchases of Spanish sovereign debt subject to adherence to the conditionality expressed in the required Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), we would expect the ECB to support sovereign markets through a repeat of the longer-tenor LTROs that served this purpose earlier in the year. These fund banks to buy domestic sovereign debt in the primary market (where the ECB is prohibited by the Treaty from operating directly). The latest data reveal greater reluctance on the part of Spanish banks to increase their holdings of sovereign debt, while Italian banks continue to show a willingness to do so. In the former case, some ‘arm twisting’ may be required to ensure demand at sovereign auctions, but with public ownership of the Spanish banking sector on the increase, this should be possible.

13.Moreover, recognising the inadequate capacity of the EFSF in the face of sovereign tensions in Spain and / or Italy, we have argued that ultimately – and probably sooner rather than later –the ECB will be drawn into funding that vehicle. With  considerations in the German Constitutional Court delaying the introduction of the EFSF’s permanent (and slightly larger) successor (the European Stability Mechanism, ESM) until at least mid-September, this concern will be particularly acute in the coming weeks.

14.We have always argued that the typical characterisation of how this funding would be provided – giving the EFSF / ESM a banking licence – was an unnecessarily clumsy and provocative route in the face of the well-known institutional and political sensitivities. Admittedly, having the ECB make outright government debt purchases via the SMP in parallel with EFSF / ESM interventions (as envisaged above) is not much (if any) better in this regard, but nevertheless has returned to the discussion. A less controversial scheme, perhaps involving the publicly-owned development banks of the larger Euro area countries, could be found. But these institutional and legal niceties should not detract from the underlying economic reality: one way or another, the ECB’s balance sheet has been and will be mobilised to support sovereign funding. As reflected in the preceding discussion, the crucial question concerns the terms on which this funding is provided.

Addressing contagion (1): Cross-country sovereign spillovers

15.All this assumes that Spain will request EFSF support. Yet German Finance Minister Schaeuble is reported on Saturday as saying a Spanish request for EFSF support is not imminent, as Spain does not face immediate funding problems. And in this Mr. Schaeuble is correct. Having taking advantage of the post-LTRO euphoria in the first quarter, the Spanish government has pre-funded itself, probably through early October. On Spain’s part, there is no urgency to seek external financial support.

16.But Spanish tensions have implications elsewhere. One rationale for immediate ECB action is to contain potential contagion across countries. After all, the introduction of the SMP back in May 2010 stemmed from the concerns that disorder in Greek sovereign markets was dragging down ‘innocent bystanders’ with more modest fundamental problems, simply because of adverse market dynamics. In his London remarks, Mr. Draghi appeared to endorse this line by reviving discussion of the need to re-establish an effective transmission of monetary policy throughout the Euro area.

17.Italy is the most pressing case in this regard. With a primary fiscal surplus, even from its initial high level of sovereign debt the Italian fiscal situation is sustainable – provided that outstanding debt can be rolled over at reasonable rates. But this crucial condition is not met in the current challenging environment. Political pressure is therefore building in Italy: despite accepting the pain of fiscal austerity (and suffering a deep and prolonged recession as a result), Italy has not been rewarded by the markets or by their European partners.

18.In his London comments, Mr. Draghi referred to the impact of ‘convertibility risk’ on interest rates, yields and financial conditions. These remarks are consistent with our own interpretation of recent developments: as the risk of Euro exit has mounted through the crisis, a redenomination risk has become embedded in some asset prices. Uncertain as to what a paper Euro-denominated asset originating from the periphery really represents, foreign investors have been unwilling to hold, still less buy, such assets – and peripheral financial conditions have tightened significantly as a result. Viewing the emergence of this redenomination risk as a systemic problem of which Spanish funding tensions are simply a symptom, one can argue that a systemic solution is required. However well Spain and Italy behave, they are victims of a systemic problem over which they have limited influence.

19.The impact of such systemic considerations could justify ECB actions to contain sovereign spreads. But unfortunately for ECB policy makers, spreads do not come with labels. As we have argued in the past with respect to the distinction between liquidity and solvency risks, a grey area exists between spreads arising from systemic risks and those coming from country-specific economic fundamentals. Attempts to cap sovereign spreads run foul of the dangers expressed above: while they can offset the impact of systemic risks beyond the country’s control, they can also induce free-riding and moral hazard.

20.Conditionality is therefore required. And that leads us back to the role of the EFSF/ ESM in providing the political legitimacy for such conditionality. In the end, the elimination of redenomination risk requires fundamental changes that prompt long-term private holders of sovereign debt back into peripheral markets. Introducing incentive problems makes achievement of that goal harder rather than easier.

Addressing contagion (2): Spillovers from public- to private-sector financing

21.Concerns about spillovers from Spanish sovereign funding tensions not only extend to other countries, but also to the Spanish private sector. Mr. Draghi’s remarks about the impairment of the monetary policy transmission mechanism reflect the extremely difficult financing conditions facing Spanish companies and households, and weak pass-through of official ECB rate cuts to the Spanish real economy. Our own recent analysis of the relationships among official interest rates, bank lending rates and sovereign yields support these concerns. And we have demonstrated that these concerns are not unique to Spain: similar issues arise in Italy and the rest of the periphery.

22.One approach to addressing this problem is to reduce the sovereign spreads that are associated with higher bank funding costs and financial market dislocations. SMP purchases of sovereign debt are a natural vehicle for the ECB to use in that context. But such an approach immediately runs into the problems identified above: the effectiveness of such interventions will be greater the less conditional they are, but the risk of free-riding by the fiscal authorities will be greater.

23.An alternative approach would be to bypass the sovereign spreads and support private-sector financing directly. With its broad and widening definition of collateral eligibility, purchases of bank covered bonds and 3-year LTROs, the ECB has already engaged in variants of this approach, a path now being mimicked by some other central banks. But scope exists to go further.

24.Collateral eligibility could be relaxed again and the haircuts imposed on collateral values reduced. Indeed, the ECB is already engaged in a review of its collateral framework: we anticipate that this will look to remove sovereign credit ratings from the system, in an attempt to eliminate the ‘cliff risk’ inherent in the current system. While the rationale for such a measure may be systemic, it is undoubtedly convenient in the specific circumstances faced by Spain now. And a review of the collateral system offers scope to make more aggressive easing measures elsewhere. Further longer-tenor LTRO operations could be envisaged, out to 5 or 10 years.

25.But, particularly in Spain, the efficacy of such measures is open to question. With the replacement of private unsecured financing with funding from the ECB’s 3-year LTROs against eligible collateral, assets on Spanish bank balance sheets have become encumbered. While bank funding at ECB operations is now cheap and readily available, insufficient free collateral is available to exploit this. Buying covered bonds – as the ECB has done in the past – does not help in this respect (as it also, by nature, involves encumbering bank assets), while changes in collateral eligibility and haircuts have a marginal impact.

26.Outright central bank purchases of unsecured bank debt – something that we have discussed previously – would address this issue. They would support banks’ balance sheet flexibility and facilitate the flow of credit to bank-dependent (and thus credit-starved) small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly if marginal incentives were introduced to expand new credit and direct it towards SMEs. Of course, despite the recapitalisation scheme being put in place in Spain, other constraints (notably capital problems) weigh on banks' ability to lend. And credit demand is weak. So such measures are not a panacea. But in a  bank-dependent economy where the traditional interest rate channel of monetary policy transmission is impaired by market segmentation, they may be the most effective tools available. And the prospect of assuming responsibility for banking supervision across the Euro area may make the ECB more willing to act aggressively through the banks.

27.Extending the chain of logic developed above, this would point to the desirability of bypassing not only the sovereign space, but also the banking system by buying corporate debt. Admittedly corporate debt markets in the periphery are underdeveloped. But were the ECB to initiate purchases, issuance would no doubt quickly follow. And financing the larger corporates that are able to issue would improve their working capital position and thereby indirectly ease financing pressures on their SME suppliers as payment periods normalise.

28.A natural objection to outright purchases of assets issued by the private sector is that they involve the assumption of too much credit risk by the ECB. But substantial risk is already assumed via credit operations. And, by their nature, credit easing measures involve the assumption of credit risk. The more aggressive the measure, the greater risk assumed. If – as the macro data suggest – Spain and Italy need substantial stimulus, then imparting that via credit easing means that a lot of risk will need to be taken. And given the present segmented state of Euro area financial markets, for a given willingness to accept risk, it may be preferable to make targeted interventions in the countries and sectors where tensions are most acute – even if this means the risks inherent in any single position is greater.

29.The risk assumed can also be distributed across countries in a politically acceptable manner. As with the risk associated with the national schemes for bringing unrated corporate loans as collateral introduced last December, one could envisage the ECB approving a set of voluntary national private asset programmes proposed by NCBs to reflect their particular circumstances, where the credit risk in those operations remained on the NCB balance sheet. Of course, this would not eliminate the risk faced by Germany and the Bundesbank: to the extent that such purchases create TARGET 2 balances (which is likely to be significant), the Bundesbank would still suffer losses in the event of Euro break-up or a peripheral country exit. But the idiosyncratic risks associated with an individual purchase (or indeed any cyclical or sectoral risk that does not lead to exit) would fall on the peripheral country alone, and not on Germany or other Euro area countries. (Of course, in some respects this is a disadvantage: only the ‘catastrophe risk’ is mutualised, but other forms of risk are concentrated at the national level. Thus the risk sharing benefits of a more integrated financial sector are forgone.)

30.Such a scheme allows NCBs to undertake quasi-fiscal action (since credit easing is a form of public subsidy) and monetise the fiscal consequences (by expanding their balance sheets). NCB purchases of private-sector assets (within a framework overseen by the ECB that leaves the credit risk inherent in such operations lying on the NCB balance sheet) offer scope for surgical interventions targeted to address the most impaired elements of monetary policy transmission, while limiting the potential adverse consequences for incentives (especially of governments). Cosmetically, such measures will add to the impression of a renewed Balkanisation of monetary policy in the Euro area. But, with Euro financial markets deeply segmented, such targeted measures offer a way of managing the consequences of that segmentation for the private sector and real economy while maintaining the pressure for governments to act on fundamentals in a manner that reduces and ultimately eliminates the segmentation over time.