Blog Post

QE and central bank solvency

What’s at stake: The European Central Bank will most likely reveal on Thursday its plans for a program of sovereign bond buying, as it steps up its efforts to stave the eurozone off deflation. In a previous review, we addressed the question of whether the expansion of the money base should be temporary or permanent to have a meaningful impact on inflation. In this review, we provide background on the exacerbated concern of what would happen to the Eurosystem’s capital resources if a country defaults and, in particular, whether this would generate a fiscal transfer between members.

By: Date: January 20, 2015 European Macroeconomics & GovernanceFinance & Financial Regulation Tags & Topics

What’s at stake: The European Central Bank will most likely reveal on Thursday its plans for a program of sovereign bond buying, as it steps up its efforts to stave the eurozone off deflation. In a previous review, we addressed the question of whether the expansion of the money base should be temporary or permanent to have a meaningful impact on inflation. In this review, we provide background on the exacerbated concern of what would happen to the Eurosystem’s capital resources if a country defaults and, in particular, whether this would generate a fiscal transfer between members.

Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that the most important argument used by opponents of a government bond buying programme by the ECB is that such a program mixes monetary and fiscal policy. The argument goes as follows. When in the context of QE the ECB buys government bonds from fiscally weak countries it takes a credit risk. Some of these countries may default on their debt. This then will lead to losses for the ECB, which, in turn, means that the taxpayers of the fiscally sound member countries of the Eurozone will be forced to foot the bill. Thus, when the ECB buys government bonds, it creates a risk that future taxpayers will be liable to bear losses. Put differently, the ECB is, in fact, conducting fiscal policies in that it organizes fiscal transfers between member states. The ECB has no mandate to do so.

Hans Werner Sinn writes that buying low quality paper would increase the burden on taxpayers should default occur, since taxpayers will have to make up for the drop in the distribution of ECB profits to the respective treasury departments.

The basics of central bank accounting

Karl Whelan writes that commentaries along the lines of “the ECB is taking huge risks with its balance sheet”, “the ECB risks becoming insolvent, endangering the future of the euro” or that “Eurozone states may have to recapitalize the ECB at huge cost to taxpayers” are based on a widespread failure to understand that central banks are fundamentally different from commercial banks. Central banks do not need to have assets greater than liabilities and cannot “go bust” due to losses on asset purchases. That said, most of the international policy community seems happy to perpetuate this myth.

Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that contrary to private companies, the liabilities of the central bank do not constitute a claim on the assets of the central bank. The latter was the case during gold standard when the central bank promised to convert its liabilities into gold at a fixed price. Similarly in a fixed exchange-rate system, the central banks promise to convert their liabilities into foreign exchange at a fixed price. The ECB and other modern central banks that are on a floating exchange-rate system make no such promise. As a result, the value of the central bank’s assets has no bearing for its solvency. The only promise made by the central bank in a floating exchange-rate regime is that the money will be convertible into a basket of goods and services at a (more or less) fixed price. In other words the central bank makes a promise of price stability.

Karl Whelan writes that if a central bank purchases assets that then decline in value, it could end up having negative capital.  When a commercial bank has negative capital, it is termed insolvent and either re-capitalized or shut down.  The “insolvent” terminology is sometimes applied to a central bank in this situation but central banks are unique organizations and this phrase isn’t particularly appropriate. Wolfgang Munchau writes that a NCB facing default could just go with negative capital. It might also claim some of the ECB’s future profits as part of its own capital. It is, after all, a shareholder in the ECB. It might also use some of its gold reserves to prop up its capital. What will happen will therefore depend on the size of the default, the size of the shareholding in the ECB and the size of any reserves.

QE and fiscal transfers

Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that in a monetary union with no fiscal union a bond-buying programme leads to fiscal transfers among countries – but not the one common in the public perception. One often hears in the creditor countries that these would be the losers if one of the governments whose bonds are on the balance sheet of the ECB were to default. This is an erroneous conclusion.

Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that an ECB bond-buying programme leads to a yearly transfer from the country whose bonds are bought to the countries whose bond are not bought. Take that the example of the ECB buying €1 billion of Spanish bonds with a 4% coupon. The fiscal implications are now as follows. The ECB receives €40 million interest annually from the Spanish Treasury. The ECB returns this €40 million every year to the EZ national central banks. The distribution is pro rata with national equity shares in the ECB. The national central banks transfer this to their national treasuries. For example, the ECB will transfer back 11.9% of the €40 million to the Banco de España. The rest goes to the other member central banks. The largest receiver is the German Bundesbank; with its equity share of 27.1%, it would get €10.8 million.

Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that the ECB could implement a bond-buying programme that avoids fiscal transfers by buying national government bonds in the same proportions to the equity shares of the participating NCBs if interest rates were uniform across countries. But this would not eliminate all transfers because the interest rates on the outstanding government bonds are not the same. In fact the countries with the highest interest rates would in this weighted bond-buying programme be net payers of interest to the countries with the lowest interest rates. Thus even a bond-buying programme weighted by the equity shares would involve fiscal transfers from the weaker (debtor) countries to the stronger (creditor) countries.

Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that in the case of default on the €1 billion of Spanish government bonds, the Spanish government would stop paying €40 million to the ECB. The ECB would stop transferring this interest revenue back to the member central banks pro rata. The German taxpayer, for example, would no longer receive the yearly windfall of €10.8 million. In no way can one conclude that German taxpayers, or any EZ taxpayer, would pay the bill of the Spanish default – except in the narrow sense that they would no longer be able to count on the yearly interest revenues.

Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji write that eliminating this type of transfers can be achieved by following a somewhat different interest distribution rule. Instead of pooling the interest payments the ECB receives and then distributing them according to the equity shares, one could also use a rule of ‘juste retour’. This would mean that the ECB redistributes the exact amounts of interest payments it has received from each member government back to the same government. If this rule is applied, there would be no net interest transfer before or after the default. Complete neutrality is restored and taxpayers are shielded from movements of the value of the bonds on the ECB’s balance sheet.

Paul de Grauwe writes that suppose that for reasons of reputation the member states decide to recapitalize the ECB. Will that not inevitably involve taxpayers in Germany, France, etc? The answer is no. This will just be a bookkeeping operation without involving taxpayers. When national governments decide to recapitalize the ECB to make up for the loss of €1 billion, they transfer bonds to the ECB worth 1 billion, allowing the ECB to increase its equity by €1billion. These transfers occur using the same capital shares. Thus the ECB holds government bonds worth €1 billion. As a result, each government pays interest to the ECB in the same proportion to its capital share. But at the end of the year the ECB transfers these interest revenues back to the same governments using the same capital shares.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Pia Hüttl

Macroeconomics in the crossfire (again)

What’s at stake: After a first go at macroeconomics and its flaws a year ago, Paul Romer kicked off the debate again with a recent essay on how macroeconomics has gone backwards. The way that this debate, along with the debate of the role of economics in general, feeds into today's election woes, has also attracted attention in the blogosphere.

By: Pia Hüttl Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 5, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The Italian referendum

What’s at stake: on 4 December, Italy will hold a referendum on a proposed constitutional reform approved by Parliament in April. The reform, which was designed in tandem with a new electoral law, aims to overcome Italy’s “perfect bicameralism” by changing the structure and role of the Italian Senate. It also changes the distribution of competences between the state and regions. After the shocks of Brexit and the US election, polls are now drifting towards a defeat of the government’s position in Italy.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 28, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Trumpocalypse now: first reactions

What’s at stake: this question should probably be re-formulated as “what’s NOT at stake?” On Tuesday 8 November, the US elected Donald Trump as its next President. Several aspects of Trump’s political and economic agenda appear extreme (we have previously focused on his stance on trade). After the initial shock, we review economists’ opinions on what has happened and what may happen. We will be coming back to this topic regularly.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 21, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Brexit and the law

What’s at stake: last week, the UK High Court ruled that the triggering of Article 50 - and therefore the Brexit process - should involve the UK Parliament. The Government will appeal the decision but this has created a new wave of uncertainty about the timing of Brexit, and on what this involvement can mean in practice. We review the different opinions.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 14, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Monetary policy at the time of elections

What’s at stake: At this week’s meeting, the Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged. While this was largely expected, the economic blogosphere has been discussing whether and to what extent this is linked to the election, and what can be expected for the future.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 7, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Should we rethink fiscal policy?

What’s at stake: there has been quite some discussion recently on whether we should rethink the framework of fiscal policy in order to make it more appropriate and effective in a world where demand seems to be chronically anemic, inflation is low and the interest rates are likely to stay close to zero (if not negative) for a long time. According to some of the authors, in the Eurozone these concerns are particularly pressing.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 24, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Brexit, the pound and the UK current account

What’s at stake: UK PM Theresa May announced the intention to trigger article 50 by March 2017, the Pound Sterling crashed, and a dispute among Tesco and Unilever has resulted in Marmite shortage. Brexit means Brexit, and it continues to be highly discussed. It would be impossible to summarise all the economic blogosphere on Brexit. Our aim is to periodically update our readers on selected important aspects of what promises to be a long-lived topic of discussion. This time we are looking at economists’ view on the Pound crash and the UK current account.

By: Silvia Merler Date: October 17, 2016
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The Deutsche Bank Frenzy and what it says about European banks

What’s at stake: The IMF recently published its Fall Global Financial Stability Report, which points to a decrease in short-term risk but building of medium-term ones. At the same time, European market has been nervous last week on the news that Deutsche Bank (Germany’s biggest bank) has been demanded USD14bn by the US Department of Justice to settle allegations that the bank mis-sold mortgage-backed securities before the financial crisis. While reports point to a possible USD5.4bn settlement, this turmoil raises a question of whether the European financial system is still weak, eight years since the crisis. We try to summarize the reactions in the blogosphere.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance Date: October 10, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Trumping Trade

What’s at stake: Trade is a central topic in the US presidential campaign, with both candidates expressing some degree of criticism about past trade policy. But while Hillary Clinton’s position could be described as a cautious scepticism, Donald Trump’s trade plans are more openly protectionist. His proposals include high tariffs on imports, renegotiating trade agreements and possibly US withdrawal from the WTO. After the first presidential debate, we review economists’ reactions and their assessment of Trumps trade policies.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 3, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

Big in Japan

What’s at stake: This week saw two important Central Banks’ meetings, whose outcomes could hardly be more different. While the U.S. Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged, the Bank of Japan introduced a big shift in its easing framework. BOJ committed itself to overshoot its inflation target of 2 percent, and introduced a targeting of the yield on ten-year Japanese government debt, initially at about zero percent. We review the economic blogosphere reaction to this latest monetary policy action.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 26, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The US infrastructure investment debate

What’s at stake: Infrastructure investment has been and will continue to be a prominent campaign theme in the run up to the US elections. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have promised significant public investment in infrastructure. For some time, the discussion has revolved around the opportunities and costs of increased government infrastructure spending.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 19, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

The Apple of Discord

What’s at stake: On August 30th, following the results of an in-depth state aid investigation started in 2014, the European Commission concluded that Ireland granted undue tax benefits of up to €13 billion to Apple. The decision is based on state aid grounds: the Commission argues that two tax rulings issued by Ireland effectively granted Apple preferential treatment, which amounted to state aid. The Commission ordered Ireland to recover up to €13 billion (plus interest) from Apple, but the decision is controversial and opinion differ as to the effects it will have. We summarize reactions.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: September 12, 2016
Load more posts