Europe needs urgently needs a “credible” solution for Greece’s debt woes, the next recruit to the European Central Bank’s executive has warned, indicating he would impose a bigger burden on private Greek bondholders – despite past ECB objections.
Speaking to the European parliament, Jörg Asmussen urged a revised bail-out package for Greece to put its public finances back on a sustainable basis accompanied by “firewalls” to beef up eurozone banks’ finances and prevent contagion across the 17-country monetary union.
A “game changer” was needed to resolve the eurozone crisis and prevent a further loss of credibility by its political leaders, Mr Asmussen said.
His comments reflect the position of the German government, where Mr Asmussen is a senior official in the finance ministry. Wolfgang Schäuble, finance minister and Mr Asmussen’s current boss, has floated the idea of increasing the “haircut” taken by private Greek bond holders from the notional 21 per cent agreed in July.
Mr Asmussen said on Monday it was too early to discuss how big a revised “haircut” might be. But his remarks departed from the official position of the ECB, which initially opposed private sector involvement in the bail-out of Greece because of the signals it would send to investors. The ECB thinks its worries have been vindicated after seeing the crisis spreading since July to embrace Italy and Spain.
Since then, Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, has made clear that eurozone governments need to take responsibility for the consequences of their plans for Greece. Last week he told the European parliament: “I believe it is fully their responsibility to manage. We ourselves said there should be no default, no credit event and we also asked them to take a certain number of measures to protect us, the ECB.”
In the event of ratings agencies declaring Greece to have defaulted, the ECB would not be able to accept its government’s bonds as collateral in its crucial liquidity-providing operations. Without help from other governments, that would almost certainly lead to a collapse of the country’s banking system.
Mr Asmussen’s nomination to the ECB’s executive board was on Monday backed by the European parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee. He will succeed Jürgen Stark, who last month announced his resignation after unsuccessfully opposing crisis-fighting measures taken by the ECB.
In his evidence Mr Asmussen expressed confidence in the euro’s long-term stability. “Despite some media reports to the contrary we do not have a euro crisis,” he told the European parliamentarians. In separate, written answers, he suggested the ECB should “review” its policy of not actively promoting the euro as an international currency.
But Mr Asmussen stressed the limits of the ECB’s role, insisting that monetary and fiscal policies had to be kept strictly separate. He said the ECB’s emergency bond-buying programme should be temporary and stopped once Europe’s new bail-out fund, the European financial stability facility, was fully operational. In line with ECB policy, he opposed the idea of the EFSF having access to the central bank’s liquidity.
● ECB purchases of eurozone government bonds fell to just €2.3bn last week, the lowest since the programme was reactivated in August. The drop, revealed on Monday, reflected the ECB’s keenness to use the programme as little as possible.