Big news today is old news of yesterday:
We can now expect the European Court of Justice to give green light to the ECB's Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program as being 'compatible with EU law'. This is based on the interim ruling made today by the ECJ's Advocate General Pedro Cruz Villalon. In the tradition befitting European institution, Villalon said OMT is legal "in principle" under the EU treaty as long as it meets certain criteria.
The restriction is that the ECB refrains from "direct involvement" in fiscal/government financing (which can be satisfied by ECB buying sovereign debt via secondary markets alone). The problem here is that currently secondary markets are already pricing in huge premium on sovereign bonds, with many (including some 'peripheral' countries') bonds trading at negative rates. So ECB will be de facto buying an overpriced paper. The key question, therefore, is who carries two risks:
1) Market risk relating to market pricing (if bonds prices slip over time); and
2) Default risk relating to sovereign decisions (if bonds carry haircuts in the future).
More on these risks later today.
Key point missed by many commentators is that approving OMT does not equate to approving QE. Another key point is that ECB QE is restricted not only by the objections to any purchases of sovereign bonds, but also by the objections to the potential modalities of purchases, such as total quantum, the distribution of purchases across the member states and the nature of risk sharing. The latter problems were not addressed by the ECJ.
All in, there is little new in the ECJ ruling. ECJ traditionally rubber-stamps EU-centric measures. Hence, given the EU support for QE, the decision is hardly a watershed.
Background to ECJ decision:
The key issue to be decided by the ECJ is whether the ECB has, in principle, a right to purchase sovereign bonds outside the immediate monetary policy considerations (e.g. supply of liquidity to the banking sector).
Back in July 2014, Germany’s Constitutional Court criticised the OMT, saying it probably overstepped the boundaries of monetary policy allowed to ECB. However, the German Constitutional Court ruling effectively gave ECJ full consideration of the OMT legality. OMT traces back to July 2012, when ECB President, Mario Draghi, vowed to do “whatever it takes” within the ECB's mandate to save the euro.
The ECJ heard arguments from both sides of the OMT divide in October 2014.
What to expect next:
Technically, German court can revisit the issue after the ECJ ruling, but most likely, a favourable ruling from the ECJ will allow ECB to push forward with some direct QE measures, such as buying government bonds in the markets. The key question, therefore, is whether the quantity of purchases will be sufficient to stimulate the euro area economy or will it fall short of the required. Rumours have it, the ECB is likely to buy up to EUR500 billion worth of sovereign bonds on top of EUR1 trillion programmes to purchase private assets. One sure bet is that the move will be a huge support scheme for bondholders and banks, who will witness significant appreciation in the value of their bond holdings. ECB purchases will do nothing to ease the burden of already excessive government debt levels. And, depending on modalities, the ECB purchases of bonds can have little impact on aggregate demand in the euro area economy.
We can, nonetheless, expect some sort of a bold QE-related announcement at the next ECB meeting.
Key point is that even if ECJ approves OMT legality, we will need to see the details of the QE programme to make any judgement as to its potential effectiveness. The fudge of ECB policy 'innovations' lives on.