The radical transformation of the ECB

Students of my generation will remember what we learned about how the European Central Bank conducts monetary policy: The ECB makes one-week loans to commercial banks against top-rated collateral. This was called “Main Refinancing Operations”. The interest rate charged on these loans was known as the Main Refinancing Rate and was considered the key policy rate of the ECB, like the Fed Funds Rate in the United States. Then we learned something about Marginal Lending Facilities and Long-Term Refinancing Operations, but were told they were relatively unimportant.

This was indeed how the ECB operated – before 2009. Since then the ECB has changed its operations. It seems to me that the radical nature of this change has not been recognized enough by economists – let alone the general public.

Look at the chart below. It shows the assets held by the ECB system for purposes of monetary policy operations. The Main Refinancing Operations (the yellow area) have disappeared. In 2019 they constituted a mere 0.25% of the total monetary-policy related assets! The Long-Term Refinancing Operations (blue area) have replaced them and make up about 20% of the total now.

But the elephant in the room is the grey area that first appears in 2009 and then explodes after 2014. The ECB labels it “Securities held for monetary policy purposes”. What are those securities? Government bonds and a couple of corporate bonds as well. The ECB started to buy them with the “Securities Market Program” in 2009 and hugely expanded the purchases with the “Public Sector Purchase Program” in 2015. Last year, the ECB system held 2.6 trillion of assets in relationship with those programs. That is more than 80% of their total policy-related assets.

This means that the ECB of our old textbooks, the ECB that was envisioned by the founders of the euro, has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by an altogether different beast. The primary way in which the ECB conducts monetary policy these days consists in buying Eurozone government bonds in the open market.

This has made the ECB the single biggest lender to Eurozone governments. As I showed in my last post, 91% of all new government debt issued after 2010 is now being held by the ECB. It resembles a 3.2 trillion euro hedge fund, financed by short-term commercial bank deposits (aka “reserves”), holding a diversified portfolio of Eurozone government bonds. The equity owners of this fund are the Eurozone government themselves: they “own” the ECB, they are responsible for replenishing its equity if and when it is deemed necessary.

One implication of this radical transformation should be immediately obvious: Eurozone governments have in effect mutualized 91% of their post-2009 debt. Whenever a Eurozone government defaults on the bonds held by the ECB, the losses would be absorbed, eventually, by the other Eurozone governments.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing or a good thing. I’m not saying it is illegal or legal. But nobody should delude themselves or others that this is not what has been happing.

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