The ECB's Balance Sheet at a Glance
What follows is the reason that last week was completely quiet here at Alpha.Sources. Essentially, I was working away on a detailed look at the ECB's balance and the related question of whether we can call, what it is that ECB the is doing quantiative easing or not? Needless to say, I think that this question is an important one in a general context since if I am right and if the crisis has indeed now moved to the center and periphery of Europe, in stead of the US, then a close look at the ECB's policies is not only merited, but quite important.
With the distinct risk of turning this into a cheesy copy of the Oscars show I should thank Edward Hugh for his patient and thorough back-editing of the piece for English language as well as the actual arguments themselves. All mistakes and mishaps naturally fall entirely on my shoulders and criticism should be directed accordingly. I reproduce the executive summary below and the full report is online here where you can view it in Google Docs or download it as a PDF. The analysis includes data up until week 35 (and July for the monthly data). If you want a copy of the spread sheet, please let me know.
Is the ECB deploying a variant of Quantitative Easing in any fashion, way, shape or form?
If you are talking about Quantitative Easing senso strictu then my answer has to be a simple and straightforward no. However, if we stop being quite so by the letter of the book, and broaden our definition slightly, then I would strongly suggest that the battery of credit enhancing measures put in place by the ECB when taken together with
the steady increase in securities accepted onto the balance sheet as collateral, do make it evident that the ECB - whether wittingly or unwittingly - has moved into some form of what we could at least call "quasi" Quantitative Easing.
Is the ECB indirectly monetizing the debt issuance of Eurozone governments?
If my initial answer to this question - before actually going through the books - would have been an outright yes, I now feel the need to tread much more carefully on this point, since I have most definitely not been able to conjure up that proverbial smoking gun. In fact, it has proved very difficult to establish any kind of direct link between the amount of funding drawn from the ECB refinancing operations and the purchase of government bonds by the MFIs at the national level.
This is not to say, however, that circumstantial evidence is not available that this process is taking place to some extent, and in some countries. I do believe, for example, that the massive purchase by Spanish MFIs of government bonds in that country does offer prima facie evidence that some such connection may well exist, and thus all I can say at this point is that further research is called for, and especially a much more detailed and discriminating data-mining dig-down.
What are the prospects and possibilities for a viable exit strategy for the ECB from its non-standard monetary policy measures?
The measures collectively known as Enhanced Credit Support are by their very nature flexible. However, if there is anything we have learnt from the operation of monetary policy in Japan over the last twenty years it is that premature exit from the sort of substantial support the ECB is offering only makes matters worse, and in addition
this kind of massive liquidity easing is a lot easier to get into than it is to get out of.
A true economic recovery will inevitably be somewhat selective, and it is at this point that the ECB's problems will really start, since the recovery will begin in some countries and not in others. To take the extreme case: it will be awfully hard to maintain massive monetary easing for a Spanish economy which remains stuck in an "L" shaped non-recovery if in France headline GDP growth were to start to tick back again towards - say - 2%. Then the real dilemmas which face the ECB will begin in earnest. As such, it is going to be much more difficult for the ECB to instigate that dearly beloved exit strategy than many currently like to believe.