May 10, 2010
The value of European government debt is not the value of the Euro

The European Central Bank has flunked the first major test of its independence and its commitment to the single goal of low inflation. It announced yesterday, in so many words, that it will print as much money as it takes to keep prices up and yields low on government bonds issued by Eurozone governments. As of 1:30 pm EST today, the euro is down only very slightly today against the US dollar. I'm puzzled as to why speculators haven't raised their expectation of euro inflation and correspondingly punished the euro more than they have. (I'm personally hoping they wake up soon, because I'm planning a trip to Greece at the end of the month and I want a cheap euro to compensate me for the risk of being caught in an Athens riot!)

This morning’s Washington Post:

European finance ministers threw a trillion-dollar protective wall around the euro on Sunday and the European Central Bank said it would begin buying government bonds if necessary as officials on the continent struggled to contain the spread of a government debt crisis that began in Greece. The ECB … would, if necessary, begin buying public and private debt on the secondary market "to ensure depth and liquidity in those market segments which are dysfunctional."

Translation: The European Central Bank said it would begin buying government bonds of Greece, Spain, etc. as necessary to keep their prices from falling and yields from rising. This is a "protective wall" around nominal Eurozone government bond prices. It is the opposite for the value of the euro currency. Calling it a protective wall around the euro is like saying that "artist Roy Lichtenstein threw a protective wall around the value of his limited-edition prints yesterday by announcing that he stands ready to mass-produce them for the benefit of his friends."

This is a solvency crisis, not a liquidity crisis. Eurozone government bond yields have risen not in a scramble for liquidity (base money), but with an upward revision in estimates of default risk. Monetary expansion treats the debt problem only by inflating away the value of the euro.

For a central bank to “ensure liquidity” in the market normally means that it provides enough base money to avoid an excess demand for money at the current constellation of prices and interest rates. When the yield (interest rate) on government bonds rises relative to other interest rates because the bonds’ estimated default risk rises, that is not a signal of an excess demand for money. If the central bank purchases government bonds to keep their yields from rising with default risk, it disturbs monetary equilibrium by creating an excess supply of money at the current price level. It disturbs intertemporal equilibrium by temporarily reducing interest rates below equilibrium through excess liquidity.

"We are going to defend the euro," [Spanish Finance Minister Elena] Salgado told reporters. "We have to give more stability to our currency. . . . We will do whatever is necessary."

Defending the euro is in fact the opposite of what the ECB has announced it will do. Salgado is not telling the truth. Either she know she is lying, or Europe's fiscal authorities really don't understand. If the ECB is now following the lead of the fiscal authorities, neither of the two possibilities bodes well for the euro.

Posted by Lawrence H. White at 01:30 PM in Economics

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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