European Central Bank Taking Steps To Help Economy Against Destruction By Corona

The European Central Bank will increase emergency bond-buying in the coming months to ramp up support for an economy that President Christine Lagarde sees shrinking as much as 15% this year, according to a Bloomberg survey of economists.

One in four respondents expect the ECB could boost the size of its pandemic purchase program as early as Thursday, when the Governing Council holds a scheduled policy meeting. Most see it happen by September.

The timing — as well as the size of the top-up — is likely to be influenced by how much more governments are willing to spend. European leaders signed off on a 540 billion-euro ($580 billion) plan tackling the immediate fallout from the coronavirus, while failing to agree on a longer-term rebuilding program.

Economists predict the 750 billion-euro emergency plan will be increased by another 500 billion euros, taking this year’s total purchases across all programs above 1.5 trillion euros.

“The ECB has somehow got to keep the euro flag flying,” said Alastair Winter, economic adviser at Global Alliance Partners. It’s a “message of no panic while actually panicking.”

Expectations for more monetary stimulus underscore the pivotal role the ECB has been playing in trying to contain the continent’s worst economic crisis since before World War II. Euro-area governments have been slow and reluctant in agreeing to a joint response, with countries including Germany and the Netherlands bickering about sharing the debt burden of the economically weaker South.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say

“If Italian government yields continue to rise, the ECB is unlikely to sit back and do nothing […] In an extreme case, the entire 750 billion euros of the PEPP could be used for Italy […] The following step may be to increase the size of the program. For example, if it were doubled, any doubt of Italy facing a buyer’s size strike would be removed.”

— David Powell, senior euro-area economist. Read the ECB INSIGHT

ECB policy makers from all corners of the region have pledged to increase stimulus if needed. In an unscheduled meeting on Wednesday, they agreed to temporarily accept some junk-rated debt as collateral to make sure lenders continue to have access to the central bank’s generous liquidity lines.

That decision came before a possible credit rating cut for Italy on Friday. The ECB has in recent weeks skewed bond purchases in favor of the euro area’s third-largest economy as yields continued to climb.

Survey participants don’t expect the ECB to take interest rates further below zero. The deposit rate is already at a record-low -0.5%, and policy makers have expressed concern that another reduction would hamper credit supply.

Economists predict banks will borrow some 750 billion euros in the remaining four long-term lending operations — money meant to be used for loans to companies and households.

Bloomberg’s survey was conducted before Thursday’s European Union summit, where leaders couldn’t agree on whether the recovery should be financed by grants or loans, and asked the commission to come up with a compromise proposal by May 6.

Lagarde had told them they risk doing too little, too late to mitigate the fallout of the virus. The ECB’s baseline estimate sees the euro-area economy shrinking 9%, she said, even though output could slump significantly more under an extreme scenario.

It was in the hands of governments to decide whether the ECB would arrive at next week’s meeting with “bigger or smaller problems,” said Attilio Bertini, head of research at Banca Piccolo C Valtellinese Spa.

With official economic projections by the ECB not due for another six weeks and a significant amount of fiscal and monetary support in place, the Governing Council may still choose to simply take stock at their April 30 session, said Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING in Frankfurt.

“The emergency work is done,” he said. “It will now take until the June meeting to get a better picture of the economy, the depth of the crisis and the potential need for more monetary stimulus.”