Twenty years ago this summer, Europe’s currency arrangement, the ERM, began to tear apart. Fixed exchange rates last as long as the markets fear that central banks can out-buy the sellers. The Bank of England ran out of reserves in September, making George Soros famous, and the system broke up in the middle of 1993. There was no buyer of last resort for the weaker currencies.
Under EMU the sovereign bond market plays the role of the forex market. There is no buyer of last resort for the weaker sovereign bonds. The unwillingness of the ECB to play this role means that Spain and Italy can be forced out of the market. Their total bond stock is approaching €3 trillion. Ongoing deficits and rollovers mean their gross issuance could not conceivably be financed by official lenders.
So they must be kept in the market or the crisis enters the endgame. The ECB has suspended its SMP (Securities Market Programme) which bought sovereign bonds in the secondary market. It pursued this programme in half-hearted fashion, worrying in public about the quality of the bonds it was buying. Sterling would have crashed out of the ERM more rapidly if the Bank of England had gone around bad-mouthing the quality of the sterling it was supporting back in 1992.
Selling sterling to the Bank of England, if the latter possessed unlimited reserves, would have been a mug’s game. Selling Spanish or Italian bonds to somebody with unlimited stocks of Euros would be suicidal.
The Brussels summit has opened the way for the ESM to buy bonds in the secondary market, so the ECB has been replaced with a buyer whose balance sheet constraint is known. This is actually a retrograde step. The ESM could quickly become Bank of England Mark II if a sizeable bond market run re-emerges.
Nobody in their right mind will short an asset into the Central Bank against money. They cannot run out of the stuff. Nobody can operate a credible reverse tap in the Spanish and Italian bond markets except the ECB, or some agency with unlimited facilities at the ECB.
Some useful decisions were taken at Brussels last week but the crisis will persist until this central issue is addressed. Spain and Italy cannot pay more than 4%, or maybe 4.5%, and retain debt sustainability. A reverse tap operated by the ECB places credit risk on its balance sheet and extends the moral hazard (liberally available to European banks) to Mediterranean governments. So the fiscal compact must be implemented and the political commitment problems resolved.
The devil is never in the details. The devil is in the principles.