ECB Six-Week Countdown to Stimulus Action Has Banks Guessing
(Bloomberg) -- The European Central Bank’s exceptionally clear pledge to come up with a new package of monetary stimulus at its next policy meeting has given markets plenty to think about.
President Christine Lagarde was forthright last week in saying her institution will provide all the support needed for a euro-area economy that is again shutting down under the onslaught of the coronavirus.
But she was also insistent that simply doing more of the same is not the plan. To hammer home that message, she referred to the “recalibration” of the ECB’s measures 20 times in her one-hour press conference.
So financial professionals immediately got to work figuring out what that might entail.
Bond Binge 1
Economists and investors are essentially unanimous on one thing: the 1.35 trillion-euro ($1.6 trillion) pandemic emergency purchase program will be expanded.
The powerful bond-buying plan -- agreed at an extraordinary ECB meeting in March, and only half of which has so far been used -- can crush signs of stress in government finances by buying up the debt of struggling nations.
JPMorgan Chase & Co., UBS AG and Barclays Plc all expect an extra 500 billion euros to be added. Morgan Stanley expects a little less, Commerzbank AG a little more. The general view is that the program will be extended by six months to the end of 2021.
The weekly pace of purchases could also be stepped up even before the meeting, according to Evercore ISI.
Bond Binge 2
Some economists see a chance of another bond program being boosted as well -- the asset purchase program that was launched in 2015 to fend off the risk of deflation. After a brief halt in 2019, it was resumed and is running at 20 billion euros a month, plus a “temporary envelope” of 120 billion euros. It’s currently scheduled to run until the end of this year.
ABN Amro Bank NV, Barclays and Pictet & Co. are among those saying the program will likely be extended into 2021 and stepped up -- Pictet says it might be doubled to 40 billion euros a month.
A related, and much thornier, topic is whether the asset purchase program should be granted the type of flexibility used in the pandemic version.
Pictet says it’s also possible the ECB could buy so-called fallen angels -- securities that have seen their credit rating cut to below investment grade because of the crisis -- in its private-debt programs. Junk bonds are currently ineligible.
The ECB is proud of its six-year-old innovation of giving banks cheap long-term loans to spur them to keep credit flowing, so economists widely expect that to be key to the December package.
More funding rounds are seen as likely, as only one is planned in 2021, perhaps with even looser terms. JPMorgan and others think three more operations will be added next year, and the terms adjusted so that it’s easier for banks to get the lowest interest rate of -1%.
JPMorgan says the standards on the collateral deemed acceptable for the loans could be loosened to make it easier for banks to access them.
Such generosity will feed into another tricky debate though -- whether banks should be allowed to resume paying dividends.
One change that looks less likely is the once-standard central bank tool of an interest-rate cut. The policy rate is already at a record-low -0.5% and hasn’t been reduced at all during the pandemic, for fear of crimping bank profitability to the point that they make credit harder to get.
Those concerns have been mitigated by some exemptions from the negative rate -- which works as a charge on bank deposits -- and by the long-term loan program. ABN Amro sees a strong case for exemptions to be increased.
Still, Austrian central-bank Governor Robert Holzmann said on Friday that he doesn’t see a rate reduction as being effective, and economists reckon many of his colleagues will agree. Commerzbank is among the few that sees action, saying the ECB will probably cut by 10 basis points in combination with other measures.
Holzmann was also keen to stress that policy makers will “perhaps have new instruments” -- though he wouldn’t speculate on what they might be. Nor would his colleagues who spoke after Lagarde’s press conference.
One idea that surfaces occasionally, and has so far always been turned down, is to help strengthen banks by buying their debt. Patrick Perret-Green, head of research and strategy at AdMacro Ltd., says “it’s always struck me as strange that they’ll buy corporate paper and accept the credit risk but not that of banks.”
That still looks unlikely though. The ECB is also the supervisor for euro-area banks, and so risks running into a conflict of interest.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.