What will European QE look like? And will it work?

Claire Jones at the FT reports:

The European Central Bank is set to unveil a programme of mass bond buying next week to save the eurozone from deflation, but has bowed to German pressure to ensure that its taxpayers are not liable for any losses incurred on other countries’ debt.

This is not a surprise.  Alen Mattich had a good Twitter comment:

How could you trust ECB promise to “do whatever it takes” if it doesn’t accept the risk of holding national sov debt on its books?

Guntram B. Wolff has an excellent, detailed analysis, worth reading in full, here is one bit:

So the purely national purchase of national sovereign debt would either leave the private creditors as junior creditors, or the national central bank has to accept negative equity. What would negative equity mean for a central bank? De facto it would mean that the national central bank, that has created euros to buy government debt, would have lost the claim on the government. It would still owe the euros it has created to the rest of the Eurosystem.(4) The Eurosystem could now either ask the national central bank to return that liability, which it is unable to do without a recapitalisation of its government. Or, the Eurosystem could decide to leave the claim standing relative to the national central bank. In that case, the loss made on the sovereign debt would de facto have been transferred to the Eurosystem. In other words, the attempt to leave default risk with the national central bank will have failed.

…Overall, this discussion shows that monetary policy in the monetary union reaches the limits of feasibility if the principle of joint and several liability at the level of the Eurosystem is given up.

An important open issue is whether the ECB could buy Greek bonds, given that they are up for restructuring and (presumably) the Bank cannot voluntarily relieve Greece of any debt (see Wolff’s discussion).  There are plenty of rumors that Greece will indeed be excluded from any QE program, unless you imagine they settle things with the Troika rather more quickly than they are likely to.  Yet a bond-buying program without Hellenic participation doesn’t seem so far from hurling an “eurozone heraus!” painted brick through their front window in the middle of the night.

Overall, shuffling assets and risk profiles between national monetary authorities and national fiscal authorities would seem to accomplish…nothing.  Not buying up the debt of your biggest problem country also seems to accomplish nothing, in fact it is worth than doing nothing.

Here is my 2012 column on how the eurozone needs to agree on who is picking up the check.  They still haven’t agreed!  In the meantime, Grexit is a very real possibility, through deposit flight, no matter how badly Greek citizens may wish their country to stay in.

So, so far I am not so optimistic about this whole eurozone QE business, even though in principle I very much favor the idea.  It is again a case of politics getting in the way of a problem which does indeed have a (partial) economic solution.  The only way it (partially) works is if it (implicitly) bundles debt relief with higher rates of price inflation.  Have a nice day.


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