October 3, 2014

The ECB recently launched a two-pronged attack aimed at boosting bank lending to the private sector. These ‘prongs’ are the TLTRO (Targeted Longer Term Refinancing Operation), which got underway on 18th September, and the ABS (Asset Backed Security) and Covered Bond Purchase Program, which will soon get underway. Will these schemes be successful?

That depends on what constitutes success. The schemes cannot possibly foster economic progress, because creating money and credit out of nothing distorts price signals, redistributes wealth from savers to speculators and generally makes the economy less efficient. So, if success is defined as bringing about a stronger economy then failure is guaranteed. However, if success is defined as increasing the size of the ECB’s balance sheet by 1 trillion euros and adding 1 trillion euros to the money supply, then the schemes will probably, but not necessarily, be successful.

The challenge faced by the ECB as it tries to prod the commercial banks into lending more money to the private sector is the dearth of lending opportunities open to the banks. Due to the after-effects of the credit bubble that blew-up in 2008 and the ensuing years during which wealth was siphoned out of the real economy to prevent the holders of government bonds from suffering any losses (part of what we referred to back in 2010 as “the no bondholder left behind policy”), the euro-zone’s pool of willing and qualified private-sector borrowers has experienced severe shrinkage.

The new ABS purchase program is supposed to encourage the commercial banks to be more aggressive in their search for lending opportunities, in that the ECB is effectively saying “if you securitise it, we will buy it”. In other words, the ECB is effectively saying to the banks: “If you make new loans and bundle the loans into a security that can be sold, then you will definitely have a buyer for the security at an attractive price. You will therefore be able to shift the risk from your balance sheet to our balance sheet.” The extent to which the commercial banks will take advantage of this ‘generous’ offer is unknown.

The new ABS purchase program appears to have a better chance than the TLTRO of promoting increased bank lending to the private sector. The reason is that the ABS program enables banks to shift the risk of loan default to someone else (to the ECB and ultimately to tax-payers throughout the euro-zone), whereas the TLTRO is supposed to encourage banks to add risk to their own balance sheets. The TLTRO could still work, though, because the senior managements of banks are often guided by the same type of short-term thinking as most politicians. Just like the average politician is focused on doing/saying whatever it takes to win the next election, the average bank CEO is focused on doing whatever it takes to make the next quarterly and annual earnings reports look good.

Some analysts and commentators are concerned that the ECB’s new money-and-credit creation schemes won’t do enough to bring about the “inflation” that — according to their crackpot theories — the euro-zone needs. Therefore, they believe that the ECB should resort to Fed-style QE (outright large-scale monetisation of government bonds). This prompts me to address the question: Why hasn’t the ECB resorted to Fed-style QE? After all, it is blatantly obvious that Mario Draghi is as ignorant about economics as his Federal Reserve counterpart.

It’s first worth noting that the ECB does not appear to be facing a legal obstacle to the sort of QE programs implemented by the Fed. The ECB is legally prohibited from buying government bonds directly from any euro-zone government, but it is able to buy government bonds in the secondary market. In this respect it is in the same boat as the Fed. Like the ECB, the Fed is legally prohibited from buying US Treasury bonds directly from the US government, but it can buy as many Treasury bonds as it wants from Primary Dealers.

Rather than being legally constrained, the ECB appears to be politically constrained. Whereas some euro-zone governments and national central banks would be in favour of a full-blown QE program, other euro-zone governments and central banks, most notably the German government and the Bundesbank, would be very much against it. That’s why the ECB is coming up with half-measures. At this stage Draghi & Co. can’t get approval for the large-scale monetisation of government bonds, but they can get approval for a monetisation program that will supposedly result in additional credit to private businesses.

Lastly, if the ECB is determined to add 1 trillion euros to its balance sheet and the money supply over the coming 12 months then it will almost certainly find a way of doing so. If the ABS purchase program and the TLTRO don’t do the trick, then some other method will be concocted.

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