European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi faces the most decisive moment of his presidency today (6 September) when he tries to heal divisions among policymakers and deliver on his promise to save the euro. A leaked draft reveals that the plan includes buying 'unlimited' quantities of government debt from troubled countries.
The leaked draft, seen by financial news agency Bloomberg, revealed that the ECB president has proposed unleashing a bond buying effort that would be ‘unlimited’.
The central bank would also relinquish its senior status among creditors, a measure seen as critical to encouraging private bond investors.
Investors are waiting to hear how the ECB will start a new bond-buying programme to help bring down the borrowing costs of Spain and Italy, after disagreements on the Governing Council over the plan were played out in public last week.
Renewed ECB intervention in the eurozone's bond markets is crucial for buying governments time to come up with a longer-term response to the bloc's debt crisis.
Germany's Bild newspaper reported, however, that Jens Weidmann, who heads the Bundesbank and disapproves such ECB intervention, considered quitting over the disputed plan although he was dissuaded from doing so by his country's government. His predecessor Axel Weber resigned last year over the ECB's first bond purchase programme.
Investors are looking for Draghi to back up his promise to do "whatever it takes" to preserve the euro, when he speaks after the Governing Council meeting.
"This meeting is absolutely crucial, because expectations are extremely high. If the ECB does not deliver, we will get into another bad patch," said Gilles Moec, senior European economist at Deutsche Bank.
Buying or not buying?
Spanish and Italian government bond yields have fallen significantly since Draghi said on 2 August that the ECB would buy bonds issued by Madrid and Rome.
However, the debt purchases – which would succeed the ECB's Securities Markets Programme that has been dormant since March – would resume under strict conditions and only if the countries first sought help from the eurozone rescue fund.
Markets have been expecting Draghi to unveil a bold plan after today's monthly policy meeting. But while he is likely to deliver a framework for new bond purchases, he will give no details of planned amounts or explicit targets for yield spreads or levels of interest rates, two central bank sources told Reuters.
"A number of investors expect that the button will be pushed without further ado, but it is a bit more complicated than that," Deutsche Bank's Moec said.
Weidmann-Draghi balancing act
Securing majority support on the Council for a plan Weidmann can live with represents the biggest balancing act Draghi has faced since he took over the ECB presidency on 1 November last year.
Weidmann has expressed concern that intervening in the bond market to reduce the borrowing costs of struggling eurozone countries such as Spain and Italy – which had reached levels that were unaffordable in anything but the short term – would break the ECB taboo of financing eurozone member states.
Other ECB policymakers see a greater urgency to help Spain and Italy to prevent the eurozone crisis from deepening.
One of the sources said the ECB is keen to attach strict conditions to its new programme. These will be enforced by the International Monetary Fund – which has a reputation for being tougher than European Union institutions – to keep up the pressure for reform.
Due to the paperwork involved in requesting such intervention, the source added that the ECB is unlikely to start buying bonds as soon as today.
Some details of the ECB's new bond-buying programme were revealed by MEPs after Mario Draghi appeared in front of the European Parliament's economic and monetary affairs committee on Monday (3 Sept.).
The European Central Bank said on 2 August that it was prepared to buy Italian and Spanish bonds on the open market but only after these countries had made a formal request to activate the region's bailout funds and accepted painful reforms to restore their public finances.
The bank has already spent €210 billion buying bonds under its now dormant Securities Markets Programme (SMP) since May 2010, with limited impact, but ECB President Mario Draghi said the new effort would be different in scope and conditionality.
The German government has resisted calls from Italy and struggling countries to introduce common eurozone bonds or take other action to help alleviate the bloc's sovereign debt crisis, saying it would remove pressure to enact painful reforms.
- 6 Sept.: ECB meeting expected to spell out more details of the plan.
- The Guardian: ECB planning 'unlimited, sterilized bond-buying' reports says
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