The Five Key Differences Between The ECB's OMT And The Fed's QEternity

With their recently announced additional bond purchase programs, both the Fed and the ECB have added a new chapter to their respective handbooks. While at first glance they are both simply the end-game of money-printing-monkeys, Morgan Stanley sees some similarities but more differences that are critical to understand when judging the awesomeness (or not) of these actions. The ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT), in contrast to the previous SMP program, will be ex ante unlimited in size but conditional upon government action. Likewise, the Fed’s additional purchases of agency MBS are ex ante unlimited in size (the monthly pace will be US$40 billion but the program is open-ended) and conditional (though not upon government action but labor market performance). Another parallel is that there was only one dissenting member each in the two policy committees (Jeffrey M. Lacker and Jens Weidmann). However, this is where the similarities end. Looking at the details, the two programs actually differ in five important respects.


Via Morgan Stanley:

First, the Fed’s MBS program is up and running and started last Friday. By contrast, the start of the ECB’s OMT is conditional upon a country going into an EFSF/ESM program or a precautionary program (ECCF), or a country in an existing program regaining market access. Hence, while this is not our base case, there is a possibility that the OMT will never be activated.


Second, while both programs are aimed at unblocking the monetary transmission mechanism, the Fed’s MBS purchases are targeting the mortgage market, while the ECB will buy short-dated government bonds. Both make sense to us, because the origin of the US financial crisis was in the mortgage market, which in the Fed’s analysis requires ongoing support, while the epicenter of the current European crisis is in the government bond markets.


Third, while the Fed’s buying program will lead to a further increase in the central bank’s balance sheet, the ECB plans to fully sterilize its purchases. Note, however, that sterilization is merely a fig leaf to placate German concerns because the size of the ECB’s balance sheet is entirely demand-driven due to its current policy of full allotment at its refinancing operations. Provided they have enough collateral, banks can take out any amount of liquidity they like. Note also that the term deposits which the ECB offered to banks when it sterilized the SMP purchases were eligible as collateral in the refi operations.


Fourth, the conditionality attached to the Fed’s and the ECB’s purchase programs is very different in nature. The Fed has tied its MBS purchases to an economic variable – it will continue until there is a substantial improvement in the labor market, while the ECB has tied the OMT to a political variable – whether or not a country goes into and adheres to an adjustment program. As government action (or non-action) is unusually more difficult to predict than labor market performance, this makes the scope of the OMT much more difficult to predict than the Fed’s MBS program.


Fifth, while the Fed’s action is fully aligned with its dual mandate, which includes ‘sustainable employment’ alongside price stability, there are some – the Bundesbank and the German Constitutional Court – who view the ECB’s OMT as potentially violating the ECB’s mandate, which prohibits direct monetary financing of governments. While the ECB’s position is very clear – it views the secondary market bond purchases, which are aimed at unblocking the monetary transmission mechanism, as in line with its mandate – the challenge coming from Germany provides additional uncertainty about the scope and effect of the program.