Open Europe Blog

Today’s edition of French daily Le Monde – which, unlike a large majority of newspapers, is delivered to newsagents at noon – features an interesting story.

According to the paper, the ECB and eurozone governments have intensified talks about the possibility of launching a ‘concerted action’ to keep Spain’s (but also Italy’s) borrowing costs at reasonable levels. The recipe is quite simple. The first step would be the eurozone’s bailout funds – the temporary EFSF and, as soon as it is up and running, the permanent ESM – buying Spanish/Italian bonds on the so-called primary markets, where national treasuries try to sell newly-issued public debt.

The ECB would follow suit, and would resume its bond purchases on the secondary market – after keeping quiet for almost five months. This would tackle the short-term emergency. The second step, according to Le Monde, could be giving the ESM a banking licence, so that it can have unlimited access to ECB liquidity.

In order for this ‘concerted action’ to kick off, though, Spain has to make a formal request for an EFSF bond-buying programme. According to the paper, this could be overcome by offering Mariano Rajoy’s government ‘softer’ conditions.

Sorry for once again being the bearers of bad news, but this is not as easy as it sounds. First of all, the Spanish government remains very reluctant to request anything the markets may see as a fully-fledged bailout. Just think of how consistently Rajoy and his ministers have avoided using the word rescate (bailout in Spanish) when referring to the €100bn rescue package for the Spanish banking sector. Secondly, giving Spain ‘softer’ conditions could potentially open Pandora’s box and prompt Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for the same treatment.

On top of this, there are also other problems with this ‘concerted action’, which Le Monde seems to overlook. Should the EFSF start buying bonds, this would not necessarily mean that the German Bundesbank would suddenly change its mind and support massive bond market interventions by the ECB. See, for example, the Bundesbank’s reply to Mario Draghi’s latest remarks. Unusually late by German standards, but no less categorical in making clear that the bank “hasn’t changed its opinion” (i.e. its opposition) to such interventions.

Now, unanimity in the ECB’s Governing Council is not needed with regard to bond purchases. But it would be politically very difficult to outvote the Bundesbank over and over again – not to mention that the Dutch and the Finns are likely to be sympathetic to the German concerns. On a more technical note, bond purchases on the primary markets can be addictive, similar to what has happened with ECB liquidity to eurozone banks. In other words, it could be quite difficult for, say, Spain to finance itself in a normal fashion after EFSF/ESM purchases are phased out. As we have stressed before, no-one wants to see a situation where the eurozone faces zombie states similar to the peripheral zombie banks now reliant on ECB liquidity.

All very speculative at the moment (Le Monde does not actually mention any specific sources), but it’s clear that things are moving quickly. Keep following us on Twitter @OpenEurope if you want to keep up to speed!   

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