Prof. Mario Draghi Ph.D.: Strenghening financial solidity, combating fragmentation with OMTs

Financial fragmentation has had a negative impact on the monetary policy in the Eurozone where it is most needed. It has led to various loan conditions for companies and private households which display the same solvency, but in different countries. The president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, on the most important instrument against these fragmentations – the so-called Outright Monetary Transactions. (Excerpt from his speech held at the International Monetary Conference 2013 on June 3, 2013 in Shanghai.)

The crisis has shown the need to adjust our monetary policy toolkit to a new reality. A very important new tool have been the two 3-year LTROs (long-term refinancing operations) that helped avoid a massive euro area wide credit crunch in early 2012. But the most salient fea­ture of this new reality is financial frag­men­tation across euro area countries.

Mario Draghi (3.v.l.) beim Wirtschaftsrat Deutschland 2013 in Berlin. © HC Plambeck

Mario Draghi (3.v.l.) beim Wirtschaftsrat Deutschland 2013 in Berlin.
© HC Plambeck

In response, the ECB has adopted Out­right Monetary Transactions (OMTs). This policy initiative was necessary to counteract the threats to price stability; it has been effective in mitigating fragmentation and especially in fulfilling our mandate of maintaining price stability.The OMTs allow for targeted intervention in euro area sovereign debt markets – provided the country concerned commits itself to strict and effective conditionality under an EU/IMF economic adjustment programme.

At almost one year from its announcement, the benefits of OMT are visible to every­body: spreads in sove­­reign debt markets have fallen substantially. Since the OMT an­­nounce­­ment, spreads on longterm bonds for Spain, Italy and Ireland have fallen by around 250 to 300 basis points and for Por­tugal by almost 600 basis points.

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Spreads in corporate debt markets have fallen by about 150 to 200 basis points for important market segments, and made it easier for firms to raise funds in the market. This has been the case for highly rated large corporations as well as for other corporations. Banks have been able to re-access the market, for both funding and for raising capital, and the strong divergence in funding costs across constituencies has receded somewhat. Depo­sits have flown back: banks in stressed coun­­tries have seen the de­­po­­sits by the euro area money-holding sector in­­creasing by about 200 billion euros since August 2012.

Another sign of normalisation, and a very important one for German savers, pension funds and insurance companies, has been the increase in German govern­ment bond yields, previously suppressed by panic-driven safe-haven flows, which have edged up by around 25 basis points.

And the best summary indicator for frag­mentation and related payment flows in the euro area, the level of Tar­get ba­­lances, has shown a decline by 285 billion euros, or 25 per cent, since the peak last year. Target balances now roughly stand at levels prevailing be­­fore the launch of the two three-year LTROs in late 2011.

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The establishment of OMTs has therefore been beneficial to everybody: sovereigns, corporations, banks as well as individuals, and it has benefitted both periphery and core countries. There­­fore, I would like to reflect in more detail on this mea­s­­ure. What is its purpose?

OMTs are aimed at eliminating redenom­­ination risk from the markets – the unwarranted anticipation of euro area breakup. Redenomination risk under­­mined our ability to preserve price stability and contravened the singleness of mone­tary policy.

The possibility that financial claims may be redeemed in a different unit of ac­­count than the one in which they were denominated at issuance – that is, the euro – was the prime source of panic that fractured transmission of monetary policy a year ago.

OMTs priced that risk out of market val­­ues and act as a deterrent against a re­­surgence of fundamentally unjustified redenomination fears. But their role is cast within a robust framework in which the ECB can fulfill its primary task of en­­suring stable prices in steady financial conditions. And the fiscal authorities can take care of their solvency con­­ditions and concentrate on structural adjustment.

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One concern that has been raised with regard to OMTs is that they may discourage reform at the national level.

Quite the opposite is true. OMTs can be applied only if governments accept pol­icy conditionality that leads to reforms. At the same time, it is the requirement of effective conditionality embedded in OMTs that discourages governments and par­­liaments from requesting a program­me unless strictly necessary.

They can either reform without OMTs and retain economic sovereignty or they can reform with OMTs but give up some of their economic sovereignty. Either way, they have to persevere in their re­­form efforts.
So it is quite misleading to compare OMTs to historical episodes in which governments relied on central bank sup­­port to replace fiscal consolidation.

Another concern made against OMTs was that conditionality weakens the in­­depen­dence of monetary policy. The reality is that OMTs are not tied to political de­­cisions since the Governing Coun­­­cil retains its full discretion, even after a country has engaged in a programme. In addition, that same conditionality ensures that the governments remain solvent, which in turn protects the freedom of action of mone­­tary po­­l­icy.

A third argument made against OMTs suggests that they would reintroduce excessive compression of euro area bond yield spreads, as observed prior to the crisis. This too is inaccurate.

OMTs are designed to keep govern­ment bond yields just below “panic” levels, as previously defined, not to bring them down to levels that would somehow help government solvency.

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As we have seen, the mere existence of OMTs keeps government bond yields from rising excessively: the market ex­­pects that if yields rose too much, govern­ments would apply for the programme and ECB purchases would bring yields back down. OMTs have therefore had a self-fulfilling downward effect on yields, just as before, in absence of OMTs, there was a self-fulfilling upward effect with a potentially catastrophic risk for the euro area.

But this downward effect does not mean that spreads are forced to converge. In fact, ECB intervention under OMTs would not address those parts of sover­­eign bond yield spreads that are fundamentally justified.

The implication of a high backstop rate is that governments continue to have the incentives to raise their primary balance towards stabilising levels and to engage in structural reform. These are the only two options for them to lower their funding costs well below the backstop level implied by the OMTs.

For governments and parliaments, the ultimate driver of their actions remains employment. It is important to recall that always and especially in the pres­­ent situation, the need for governments and parliaments to reform does not stem so much from the bond market but from the dramatic conditions in the labour market. Unfortunately, millions of unemployed are a much greater driver to reform than the interest rate to be paid on sove­­reign debt. And unfortunately, OMTs have almost no effect on the sour­ces of employment creation. Indeed, while OMTs have elim­­inated one dimension of fi­­nan­cial fragmentation (the risk of euro breakup), they only have a muted and indirect ef­­fect on the other source of fragmentation – the adverse feedback loop between sovereigns and banks.

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A final criticism of OMTs is portraying them as a means of transferring risks from peripheral to core euro area countries via the ECB balance sheet. Quite the opposite has happened: the elim­­ination of catastrophic outcomes strong­­ly benefits core countries.

To see this, recall that the tail risks that OMTs seek to address distort financial prices and quantities in both the core and the periphery. Tail risks generate a glut of liquidity in core banking systems, as monetary assets are relocated by panicking investors from fragile countries to safe havens.

With OMTs, pressure to reform remains on peripheral countries, while re-estab­­lishing confidence in the euro area reduces the flows of money from the periphery to the core countries like Germany.

So what do the data say? I mentioned al­­­ready the large decline in overall Target balances, and it is important to add here that this improvement has materialised also for Germany: the Target claim of Ger­­many has fallen from a peak of 760 bil­­lion euros in the middle of last year to about 590 billion euros last month. This is a de­­crease of 170 billion euros or 22 per cent.

This important improvement largely re­­flects the removal of unwarranted fears of a systemic collapse of monetary union that was previously priced-in by markets. Today, the euro area is therefore a more stable and resilient place to invest in than it was a year ago.

And not a single euro of government bonds has been purchased under the OMT programme.

The text of the speech is available at
www.ecb.europa.eu

 

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The author holds a Ph.D. in economics. He has been the President of the Euro­pean Central Bank ECB. Draghi has taught at the universities of Trient, Pa­­dua, Venice and Florence. Finally, after several other positions, he was the Pres­­ident of the Banca d’Italia.