Earlier this year the ECB froze its securities market programme (SMP), which, since its inception in 2010, has bought over €210bn worth of sovereign bonds. The responsibility of buying sovereign bonds from various eurozone countries, it said, would now shift to the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) and European Stability Mechanism (ESM).
Despite the high level of interest rates in Spain and Italy, the ECB has not resumed its purchases of government bonds, and shows no enthusiasm for doing so. As mentioned, its official stance is that government bond purchases should be carried out by the EFSF/ESM.
However, many analysts (us included) believe the EFSF/ESM will not be able to react sufficiently – mainly due to its size but also the fact it lacks access to monetary creation, which the lender of last resort for governments must have.
To see the chain of events taking place, we only need look at the economic position of Spain, Italy, France and Portugal – which are all deteriorating. This reinforces the risk that investors will refuse to finance these countries, which will push interest rates to the point where there is a threat of default.
In these countries (obviously to different extents):
- the private sector continues to deleverage;
- the fiscal policy is and will be restrictive;
- there is a decline in real wages since labour's bargaining power is weakening;
- household demand is deteriorating, which leads to companies reducing their investment rate;
- sluggish activity is leading to job losses and preventing these countries from improving their public finances; and
- despite the decline in domestic demand in Italy, Spain and Portugal, there remains a substantial external deficit; in France, on the other hand, domestic demand has not started to fall yet, but the external deficit is rising.
The improvement in competitiveness due to the fall in wages (in Spain, Italy and Portugal, but not yet in France) is unable to improve foreign trade, either because the industrial sector is too small as a proportion of the whole economy (Spain, Portugal, France), or because this improvement is insufficient (Italy).
So there is clearly a downward spiralling risk. The crisis spreads from one country to the next via foreign trade and, since the external deficits are only partially being reduced, the crisis may be exacerbated by the rise in interest rates.
Therefore, we can see a continuous weakening of the economy. If the countries’ economic situation deteriorates, it will be increasingly difficult to finance their debts. Investors will be concerned about the countries’ situation and their solvency – in fiscal and external terms. Interest rates will rise further, and this means that countries and governments will be threatened with default.
Realistically, if this occurs the ECB will have to intervene because the officially planned solution (bond purchases by the EFSF/ESM) will not be sufficient. Given the size of the countries’ debts, the need to buy bonds will exceed the capacity of a bond issuer such as the EFSF/ESM – especially in the event of a bond market crisis affecting several eurozone countries.
Given that the lender of last resort for governments must have access to monetary creation, the only institution capable of buying bonds at the volumes required will be the ECB.
We believe that at the end of this process the ECB will have to intervene via massive government bond purchases (similar to the action taken by Bank of England). This is legal, provided that it relates to purchases in the secondary market, irrespective of some countries’ reservations.