Tags: EU | Europe | Financial | Crisis

European Central Bank Buys $20.6 Billion in Bonds

Monday, 22 Aug 2011 10:07 AM

The European Central Bank spent 14.3 billion euros ($20.6 billion) last week buying government bonds to keep the region's government debt crisis at bay until the eurozone's newly-strengthened bailout fund can step into the role.

The amount of bond purchases disclosed on Monday was short of the previous week's figure of 22 billion euros but close to market expectations.

Buying Italian and Spanish bonds on financial markets has driven down borrowing rates that were threatening those two countries with financial ruin. European officials want the eurozone's bailout fund to take over the purchases, but national parliaments will not give their approval for that until this fall.

That has left the central bank with the main burden of fighting off market turmoil. Last week's purchases ran the bank's total spent in supporting shaky eurozone government bonds to euro110.5 billion since the program was launched in May, 2010.

Eurozone leaders agreed on July 21 to expand the powers of their euro440 billion bailout fund to let it purchase government bonds on the secondary market — that is, from other bond investors, not directly loaning money to the governments. They also gave it the power to loan money quickly to countries in trouble and to help recapitalize banks. Those powers can be used to support financially troubled governments and prevent bond market turmoil while governments use the respite to clean up their finances.

However, the changes have not yet gone through national parliaments. During the delay, market fears about potential defaults spread increasingly to Italy and Spain, which are too large to be bailed out.

The ECB decided to re-start bond purchases at an emergency meeting Aug. 7 and began them the next day, driving bond yields down to under 5 percent for both countries.

Those yields reflect the costs the countries would face if they turned to the bond market for new borrowing. Their yields had previously been over 6 percent, heading toward the level that forced the eurozone to rescue Greece, Portugal and Ireland, which together are only 6 percent of the 17-country eurozone.

The central bank was left as the eurozone's backstop against the crisis after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said they opposed eurobonds, collectively-issued debt seen by some as the answer to the crisis. Skeptics say the current EU treaty forbids them and that they would encourage overborrowing by less disciplined countries riding for free on the creditworthiness of the more careful ones.

On Sunday Merkel repeated her opposition.

The ECB has said it expects to hand off the bond purchases to the eurozone rescue fund when it is granted the powers. However, that has not entirely calmed markets either. The fund's funding limit is set by eurozone governments and what they are willing to contribute in guarantees, while the central bank's purchase powers are in theory unlimited thanks to its powers to create new money -- a practice it has so far avoided.

On Monday, the bank said it would soak up an amount roughly equal to the bond purchases by taking short-term deposits from banks in order to avoid increasing the supply of money in the economy, which can cause inflation.

Germany and others have said that the bailout fund does not need more lending power beyond the 440 billion euros.

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