Saturday, September 8, 2012

What's Behind the ECB's Unlimited Bond Buying Program?

It's kind of hard not to smell a rat in Mario Draghi's proposal for the European Central Bank to make "unlimited" purchases of sovereign bonds of troubled EU member nations. According to the proposal, the ECB will buy an EU member's bonds if the member requests assistance and submits to fiscal oversight by the EU. The latter, however, has been the problem with Greece. It doesn't want to submit to the EU's fiscal oversight. And when it did agree to terms demanded by the EU, it failed to comply with them. In return, Greece has been given break after break after break. It effectively defaulted months ago, but the EU papered the default over with a loan workout that forced creditors to sustain losses (which they may have recouped via credit default swaps, so the losses actually fell on the writers of the CDSs or their unfortunate direct, secondary or tertiary counterparties who held the ultimate risk of loss). Stated otherwise, the EU has supported Greece without Greece having to do the full austerity dance it was supposed to do.

The two countries that Draghi's proposal was aimed to help, Spain and Italy, insist that they will not submit to fiscal oversight by the EU (for domestic political reasons). If they really mean it, that means they won't get bond buying assistance from the ECB. Possibly, their hardline insistence that they won't ask for help (and thereby submit to central oversight) is a bluff, meant to get Draghi to drop the fiscal oversight condition. They could simply let market forces push their bond yields higher. That would shove the EU closer to the brink. Draghi might then drop the fiscal oversight condition when the markets threaten to go haywire. Of course, the bluff isn't really aimed at Draghi, who seems amenable enough to U.S. Fed-style money printing, but at the Germans and other northern Europeans of the frugal persuasion. The Greeks have proven themselves adept at brinksmanship with Germany and its economic allies. Spain and Italy have little incentive to be any more austere.

Germany may be wealthy enough to bail out Greece. But it can't bail out both Spain and Italy, which have much larger economies. So a move by Draghi to drop the fiscal oversight condition could lead to German withdrawal from the EU. That could be catastrophic. But writing blank checks to Greece, Spain and Italy could be catastrophic for Germany, and one can't expect Germany to knowingly sign up for a catastrophe. Mario Draghi may be playing a most dangerous game, and he'd better play it well or the abyss will beckon.

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