Open Europe Blog

The press have got very excited over suggestions from European leaders at the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, that they will activate the EFSF to buy eurozone government bonds from the secondary market in an attempt to reduce borrowing costs for Italy and Spain – a function which the fund has always had but has never been used (since the ECB has filled this role with its bond buying programme). Berlin has already moved to deny this, but there could be truth in it – not least because it’s legally possible but also because we’ve seen over the past few weeks that the ECB has refused to buy bonds despite the persistent rise of Spanish borrowing costs. It has become increasingly clear that Spain cannot withstand these interest rates for long – something needs to  be done.

If true, this could prove a important change. Despite always being possible, bond buying from the EFSF has up until now only been theoretical. When it comes to the unenviable task of backstopping Spanish and Italian government debt, the ECB has now officially passed the buck to eurozone governments. Over the last two years, the ECB has effectively managed to manipulate government bond yields by buying a limited amount of government bonds – some tens of billions a month at its peak (although with mixed success). In August last year, for example, the mere willingness of the ECB to buy Italian government debt may have prevented a full-scale run on that country as political uncertainty ran wild. But there’s a key difference between the ECB and the EFSF – while the former has deep enough pockets to move markets, the EFSF’s lending capacity is inevitably limited, meaning that making it into a lender of last resort for a country the size of Spain (let alone Italy) could prove risky. The ECB could stand behind Spain and Italy with, at least in theory, the ability to massively expand its balance sheet and thereby quarantine these problem countries. But the EFSF only has €250bn left to lend – to top up its lending capacity, it will need to pass 17 hostile national parliaments, which ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

This is to say that, if the buck has indeed been passed from ECB to the EFSF, then the Eurozone’s firewall just became a lot weaker – many have rightly previously questioned its capacity to purchase bonds and fund lending programmes to struggling countries simultaneously. Furthermore, the EFSF treaty states that secondary market intervention can only take place at the request of the recipient country and will come with some conditions (although probably not a full reform programme). Clearly this will come with significant stigma (once you go down the path of any external aid it is hard to return, as Spain is now finding out), while it is hard to imagine a country signing up to extra conditions just to manage its secondary bond market (especially since the ECB was previously doing this without any clear conditionality).

There are additional questions over what this means for the permanent eurozone bailout fund, the ESM, which is meant to be up and running this summer. Presumably, it will have to take over this bond buying role once it comes into force. The same problems apply here as do with the EFSF, but the ESM is also senior to other debt, meaning that as it buys up debt of a country other holders of this country’s debt become subordinated – this can result in further market uncertainty making it counter productive. Ultimately, if the ESM is to serve as a lender of last resort in any way, it almost has to be equipped with a banking license in order to allow it to lend and borrow freely, without being hostage to national parliamentary politics or very limited in size. Giving the ESM a banking license is a hot potato in Germany, but will Berlin have any choice if the markets start to question the firepower of the fund?

On the current path, presenting the EFSF/ ESM as lender of last resort – for Spain in particular – but without equipping it with the cash to actually allow it to fulfil this function, could set the stage for a showdown between markets and the funds – in that scenario we can only see one winner.

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