The current turmoil in the eurozone bond markets shows striking parallels to the situation in autumn 2008. Then, bank depositors had lost confidence in the stability of the institutions holding their assets, and the threat of a run on a bank could only be avoided by comprehensive government guarantees for all banks. Today, we are observing a bond-run: a self-fulfilling crisis of confidence in the stability of most eurozone sovereign borrowers. This is driving long-term rates up, so that for more countries a temporary liquidity problem is becoming a permanent solvency problem. As regulators still treat government bonds as the safe core of the financial system, this spiral threatens the stability of financial institutions not only in the eurozone but also in the rest of the world. It intensifies the recessionary tendencies in the global economy so that, in turn, the financial situation of governments becomes worse. It is a vicious circle.
It can be broken only by stopping the bond run as soon as possible. One way out would be a joint liability for the debt of eurozone members. But, as the reaction of Angela Merkel’s government to a recent proposal of the German Council of Economic Experts has shown, the prospects for such a solution are not good.
One option is the Soros plan, as outlined in the Financial Times on October 24. The authorities would use the European Financial Stability Facility to enable the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort without violating its statutes. The ECB would provide almost unlimited amounts of liquidity while the EFSF guaranteed the bank against the solvency risks that it would incur. Acting together, they could resolve the liquidity problems facing the banks and enable fiscally-responsible governments to issue Treasury bills for less than 1 per cent.
Unfortunately, policymakers have not even started to consider this plan seriously. They originally envisaged the EFSF as a way of guaranteeing government bonds. They would have to reorient their thinking if the rescue fund were to be used to guarantee the banking system. In July, when the EFSF was proposed, it would have been large enough to take care of Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Since then, contagion has spread to Italy and Spain and efforts to leverage the EFSF have run into difficulties.
Since the Soros plan would take time to prepare, in the interim the ECB would be faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation on its own. Last week, the Bundesbank’s president questioned the right of the ECB to act as a lender of last resort. The following day, contagion spread to the rest of the eurozone. The markets are testing the ECB.
It is imperative that the ECB should not fail that test. The central bank must stop the bond-run at all costs because it is endangering the stability of the euro. The best way to do it is to impose a ceiling on the yield of sovereign bonds issued by governments that follow responsible fiscal policies and are not subject to adjustment programmes. The ceiling could be initially fixed, at say 5 per cent, and gradually lowered. By standing ready to buy unlimited amounts, the ECB would, in effect, turn the interest rate ceiling into a floor from which bond prices would gradually rise without the ECB having to buy unlimited amounts.
Normally, central banks fix only short-term interest rates, but these are not normal times. Government bonds that were considered risk-free when financial institutions acquired them, and are still treated as such by the regulators, have turned into the riskiest of assets. Italian and Spanish bonds are viewed as too risky to buy with a yield of 7 per cent because they are regarded as toxic, and the yield could just as easily rise to 10 per cent. Yet the same bonds would be attractive long-term investments in the current deflationary environment, at, say, 4 per cent, as long as the excessive risk was removed by imposing a 5 per cent ceiling on interest rates.
The recent bond runs have developed because authorities clash on the propriety of bond purchases by the ECB. The Bundesbank remains vociferously opposed. However, the deflationary threat is real and is beginning to be recognised even in Germany. The statutes of the ECB call for the maintenance of price stability and that requires equal diligence with regard to inflation and deflation. The asymmetry is not in the statutes of the ECB but in the minds of Germans who have been traumatised by hyperinflation. Yet, the board of the ECB is an authority whose independence has to be respected even by the Bundesbank.
The interest rate ceiling should be regarded as an emergency measure. In the medium term it could encourage politicians to abandon fiscal discipline. In Italy, for example, Silvio Berlusconi will be waiting for his successor Mario Monti to trip up. Therefore, the breathing space gained by imposing it should be used to establish appropriate fiscal rules and to devise a growth strategy that would enable the eurozone to grow out of its excessive indebtedness.
Peter Bofinger is professor of economics at Würzburg university. George Soros is chairman of Soros Fund Management
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