It seems that many economists agree that the ECB has to get more involved in dealing with the current crisis in the euro area. Politicians (at least some of them) disagree. They cite fear of inflation, take moral stance on past recklessness, argue that sinners have to repent and repay, etc. By now, hundreds of articles have been written on the potential damages from the collapse of the euro area, so I am not going to repeat them here. I want to focus on what the ECB can do to stop the self-fulfilling collapse of several European economies.
The standard view on ECB is that they have to print money in order to buy bonds of governments in trouble like Greece, Italy, Portugal, etc. But there is another thing that they can do. About 18 months ago, the chief economist of Citigroup, Willem Buiter, wrote an article in which he noted that the ECB can use its future profits to stop the acceleration of these negative dynamics on the bonds market. According to his estimates, the ECB has a “non-inflationary loss absorption capacity of … at least €2.4trn and more likely over €3.4trn.” In other words, the ECB can put credibly on the market a firewall of over €2.4 trillion. Certainly this ought to stop the ever-increasing yields on Spanish and Italian debt from rising further.
How does this work? Central banks run very profitable operations – they issue pieces of paper that we call money on which they pay us no interest. With the printed money they buy interest-bearing securities like government bonds. Because of the interest rate differential between the 0% rate on currency and the yield on bonds, central banks generate profits every year. Well, the actual calculation of the profit (seigniorage) is a bit more complicated (see Buiter’s article), but the mechanics are not changed much. This profit is generated even if inflation is 2% (ECB’s mandate).
One way to imagine Buiter’s proposal is the following: Suppose that the ECB issues bonds worth €2.4 trillion (note that they do NOT print money equal to €2.4 trillion). These bonds would most likely have a yield close to the yield on German bonds (2.6% for 30-year bonds) because one can expect that if the euro is alive, the ECB will be mechanically generating this revenue from their activities. After issuing these bonds, the ECB can make an announcement that for countries which are solvent when the yield is 5%, they will not allow these yields to go above 5% (one can adjust the numbers for the state of the cycle, but the idea is that they restrict the yields from increasing due to the lack of confidence). If yields are above 5%, they buy the bonds with the revenue generated through their own issue. If this announcement happens, and if the ECB just starts with some symbolic purchases, yields will go down quite rapidly and yields on Italian debt for example will return to sustainable levels.
Notice that if the ECB has to buy the bonds, then they will be generating yet another profit stream from the difference between their 30-year bond (at 2.6%) and the Italian yield (currently at 6.5%). But even if Italy fails and does not repay the bonds bought by the ECB, the ECB can fully absorb the loss. This is why Buiter calls this quantity the “non-inflationary loss-absorbing capacity” of the ECB.
Is there any magic or a free lunch here? Not really. The seigniorage of central banks has to be transferred by law to the governments of the euro zone. So, effectively what the ECB does is that it takes future government revenues and puts them today to create a firewall. They can commit to having this revenue in the future because of the nature of their operations. Governments – even though they are the eventual recipients of this flow – cannot commit today because the markets do not trust them anymore. The essential role played by the ECB in this case is to put the certain revenue stream on the table and to tell the markets – this future revenues will be used to absorb losses or to repay debt and not for other spending. It is quite likely that they will never have to buy even one government bond out of this facility.
Will the ECB do it? I am somewhat skeptical. It does require a bit of resolve to go beyond the standard thinking.