Mario’s Magic

Mario Draghi, the ECB President, can look back over his first twelve months in office with a great deal of satisfaction with what he has managed to achieve.  What he has done has been necessary, but it is not sufficient to maintain the integrity, and indeed the existence of the Euro.

Mr Draghi took over from Jean-Claude Trichet with the peripheral Eurozone bond markets in crisis.  At his first meeting of the ECB last November, he reversed the ill-timed interest rate increase made by his predecessor in July.  At his second meeting, he cut interest rates again and announced a Long Term Repurchase Operation (LTRO), which allowed any Eurozone bank to borrow as much money as it wished (subject to collateral rules) at a rate of 1% for 3 years.  In February, he announced a second LTRO.  For banks in Italy and Spain in particular, this was a lifeline as the money enabled them to buy into bonds issued by their governments which were then yielding much more than 1%, and so locking in a profit stream.  These two LTROs injected over one trillion euros of new liquidity into the banking system and eased the escalating liquidity crisis in the Spanish and Italian banking systems.  Though providing liquidity to markets in times of great stress is part of the job description of any Central Banker, Draghi, was seen to be very bold by opting for 3 year LTROs, much longer than anything else that had been previously done by the ECB and in unlimited size, which restored confidence to the system.

Unfortunately, the Eurozone’s problems were much worse than a banking liquidity crisis.  As 2012 progressed, it became clear that the Spanish banking system had a major issue of solvency.  In July, the Eurozone countries appeared to agree that the new bail-out mechanism, the ESM, would be able to lend directly to the Spanish banks, without the funds becoming a liability of the Spanish government and thus increasing the sovereign debt.  This was conditional on obtaining agreement to the setting up of a European Banking Union.  Within a few weeks however, Germany, Finland and Holland reneged on this agreement and Spanish bond yields rose as fears of a Spanish bailout and debt restructuring returned.

At a speech in London, just before the Olympics, Mr. Draghi made a dramatic comment: – “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro.  And believe me, it will be enough”.  In placing the preservation of the Euro as its highest priority, it effectively downgraded the importance of its previous prime priority, the control of inflation – the only acceptable target for German Central Bankers.  He quickly gained the support of all the political leaders and all the other ECB members apart from the Head of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann.

Draghi’s plan was that once a country had requested a bailout from its Eurozone partners, which had been approved by the other member states (unanimously, but with conditions), then the ECB would be prepared to purchase unlimited amounts of that country’s bonds to ensure that the interest rates in that economy would be aligned with what the ECB regarded as reasonable.  To Draghi, this would ensure that the ECB’s policy on interest rates was not sabotaged by the markets pricing in a Euro-exit risk premium that should not exist.  For Mrs Merkel and other Northern European leaders, the power to decide on a bailout still remained with them, but the ECB was doing the hard work of putting up the money.  Draghi’s manoeuvrings had isolated the Bundesbank, which was the only dissenting voice within the ECB.

Over the last twelve months, Draghi’s boldness and creativity have kept the Eurozone with a functioning monetary system.  The financial markets have understood and applauded his moves, sharply bringing down the cost of borrowing for the peripheral governments.  For his actions to continue to be successful in keeping the Euro together, however, he needs the politicians to make some difficult decisions.  The Northern European creditors must be prepared to (i) take losses on their Greek bailout loans, (ii) lend Greece more money to get it back on its feet, and (iii) when Spain and possibly other countries come to request bailouts, then the conditionality they impose needs to be politically bearable within the debtor countries.  In turn, the Southern European debtors must be prepared to adopt structural reforms and spending cuts that are painful but necessary for their countries to live within their means.  German and Italian elections next year will bring confusing political rhetoric, but it will be their politicians’ actions rather than their words that will determine whether Mr Draghi will go down in history as the man who saved the Euro.