Open Europe Blog

A virtual Spanish bailout?

In case you’re wondering, we not talking about a bailout on Facebook or the like.

No, we’re referring to the quite strange comments by a Spanish finance ministry official reported in the press this morning. The official reportedly stated that Spain does not see a bailout request as imminent or immediately necessary but would be comfortable making the request for a precautionary credit line in order to potentially access the ECB’s new Outright Monetary Transaction (OMT) programme. All par for the course you would say, but the comments that really caught our eye were the following, via the FT and the WSJ:

“The credit line is not fundamental, it is circumstantial…One could say it’s a virtual credit line,” adding that Spain will likely not access any of the money from the ESM, while the ECB may not even have to buy any bonds. 

Let us elaborate, because this seems to amount to a bailout without any money. Essentially, the suggestion is that Spain would sign a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which wouldn’t include any new reforms or conditions, allowing it access to ESM money if it ever became necessary. This would supposedly satisfy the OMT requirements allowing the ECB to intervene in the secondary market for Spanish bonds if borrowing costs for Spain once more reach unsustainable levels.

A very neat idea in theory, as with most eurozone proposals, but we have a few concerns:

  • We can’t imagine the ECB or Germany would go for it. Both would likely request stricter reforms and conditions (probably rightly, as we noted recently Spanish labour market reform has some way to go), particulary since it would need approval from the Bundestag. 
  • More importantly, this may fail the ECB’s conditionality requirement. Although, details on the OMT are thin on the ground, the conditionality needs to be enforceable. The conditionality comes from a MoU which is tied to the ESM financial aid. Therefore if the ESM aid is not actually being accessed the conditionality is instantly voided since it cannot be enforced by withdrawing funding (since the funding is non-existent). 
  • A strange situation could arise where the ECB is then buying bonds without the ESM lending money, while no new conditions have been enforced. We’ve warned of the moral hazard and other negative impacts of this at length before. 
  • If the ESM is not lending to Spain but the ECB is buying its bonds surely the MoU and conditions essentially become a direct agreement between the ECB and Spain, putting pay to the view that these actions relate to monetary policy and maintain the independence of the ECB. 
  • As the ESM guidelines on precautionary loans note, they are only available to countries where there are no “bank solvency problems that would pose systemic threats to the stability of the euro area banking system.” We’re sure this will be fudged, with the eurozone suggesting the bank bailout solves any remaining provlems, although we’d maintain that €40bn is far from enough to solve the problem.
  • This is not to mention that Spain has huge funding needs and will in fact need real cash injections at some point, meaning the threat of intervention will surely not be enough to hold Spain over. 

We’ll end with an interesting, if somewhat mixed, analogy from the Spanish official:

“One does not just normally drop an atomic bomb. It has to be co-ordinated and discussed. But we [Europe] are all in the same boat.” 

Quite. As we’ve previously warned the OMT and Spanish bailout needs to be carefully structured, unfortunately a ‘virtual bailout’ is unlikely to do the trick.

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