Michael Hennigan noted fairly enough that my previous post was a bit on the arcane side. I’m afraid he will see this one as no better.
I think it is worthwhile to take a step back and think about how ECB bond buying could have positive effect, and to think about the effectiveness of past and possible future bond-buying programmes in that light. A useful starting point is to recognise that the willingness to pay for a bond with a given face value and coupon rate depends on the “risk free rate” and the perception of default risk. If everyone agreed on the default risk, then the demand curve for bonds would be perfectly flat. If a bond buying programme did not actually change the perception of default risk, then bond buying would have no effect on secondary market price and thus on yields. (A useful way of thinking about official bond buying is that it shifts the market supply curve leftwards; if the market demand curve is horizontal, then there will be no change in price (and thus yields)).
However, if there are varying perceptions of default risk, then – even if the bond buying programme itself does not change anyone’s perception of default risk – the programme will raise bond prices (and reduce yields), as the market moves up along a downward sloping demand curve. (The differing perceptions of default risk is what makes the demand curve downward sloping, given the resulting variation in willingness to pay.) My sense is that this is what broadly happened in the first phase of bond buying. The weak commitment to the programme did little to change actual perceptions of default risk. Thus, while purchases were somewhat effective in reducing yields, the positive impact was very limited, as ultimate default risks were left largely unchanged. The programme ended up in failure.
It seems Mario Draghi is well aware of this, and he wants any future to operate quite differently. The key is to provide a credible commitment to keep yields down and ensure that expectations of a “bad expectational equilibrium” do not take hold. But there is understandable concern over moral hazard. Although some European policy makers seem to have a difficult time giving up on market discipline (even after Deauville), I don’t see how we can pull out of the crisis unless the perception of default risk is kept low. This leaves “conditionality” as the only feasible disciplining device. But I don’t see how the ECB would be in a position to make a credible commitment to do what it takes unless this alternative disciplining device is in place, which explains the requirement that benefiting countries enter a programme.
The goal should be to take risk of sovereign debt restructuring off the table as far as possible in any future programme. (The example of Greece shows that the possibility of restructuring cannot be completely removed; and it did the credibility of the Trichet-led ECB no good to make ludicrous statements that restructuring was impossible.) Mr. Draghi’s (vague) commitment to revisit ECB seniority can be viewed as backing up this approach, so that even in the low probability event that there is a restructuring, the losses would be shared with official creditors.
(As an aside, I think that a major factor behind the fall in Irish yields is the that, even if there is need for a second programme, the risk of a debt restructuring being part of that programme has fallen significantly.)
Overall, Mr. Draghi seems to moving in the right direction. Let’s hope he can deliver.