Friday, April 9, 2010

Communication limbo from Frankfurt

Of course, there was no news on interest rates. The ECB decided to keep interest rates unchanged at today’s meeting. The more interesting part of the ECB meeting was on the collateral framework and the ECB’s communication on Greece.

The ECB’s assessment of the economy and the inflation outlook remained virtually unchanged. Recent indicators have confirmed the ongoing, though shaky, recovery. The ECB still expects the Eurozone economy to grow at a moderate pace in 2010. The only very slight change in the ECB’s assessment came on inflation. Price developments are now expected to remain “moderate” in stead of “subdued” at the last meeting. Despite this little stylistic change, it does not take away the fact that deflation rather than inflation will remain the biggest concern of the ECB in months ahead.

As expected, the ECB announced some changes to its collateral framework. The current crisis threshold for marketable and non-marketable assets at investment-grade level will be continued beyond the end of 2010, except for asset-backed securities. In addition, the ECB will introduce a new graded haircut scheme in January 2011 and will no longer accept debt instruments denominated in other currencies. Haircuts will be gradually increasing and at least 5%. This new system will only be applied to assets rates in the BBB+ to BBB- range and it will replace the current haircut of 5%. More details will only be revealed in July. However, sovereign bonds will apparently not fall under this new haircut scheme. For government bonds falling under the A- threshold, the old 5% haircut would continue. After all the excitement, the actual changes to the collateral framework seem to be less bold than they could have been. Whether this is a missed chance, remains to be seen.

Most time of the press conference was dedicated to Greece. Prior to the Eurozone’s decision on Greece on 25 March, the ECB had been opposing an IMF involvement, sometimes even very outspokenly. Today, Trichet had a few weak moments and did not really succeed in convincingly explaining the ECB’s u-turn. The ECB’s official position now is that it welcomes the statement on Greece. According to Trichet, Eurozone governments had to take up their responsibility and so they did. The presented joint safety net together with the IMF was a workable statement. Interestingly, there still seems to be some differences of opinion regarding the interest rates at which eventual Eurozone loans should be given to the Greek government. Differences of opinion at least with the German government. Trichet agreed with the principle that loans should be given without subsidies and considered market rates at least the interest rates with which other Eurozone countries can get funding in the market. It is doubtful whether Ms. Merkel has the same understanding of market rates.

The ECB’s walk on Greek eggshells has definitely been nothing to write home about. Crystal-clear communication looks different. However, Trichet did everything not to add fuel to the fire. He even remarked that a Greek default “was not an issue”. Anyway, once the dust has settled, the real substantial issues should emerge again. As regards Greece, it will be the Eurozone governments which have to decide and not the ECB.

All in all, denial or not, Greece is keeping the ECB in wait-and-see mode at least until the end of the year. Fiscal tightening and structural adjustment will make deflation not inflation the major worry of the year.

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