Over the past week, we’ve heard all sorts of propositions that the European Central Bank (ECB) “must” begin printing money to bail out Italy and other countries, because “there is no other option.” There are three basic difficulties with this idea. The first is that ECB buying might help to address immediate liquidity issues of distressed European countries, but it would not address long-term solvency issues, and would in fact make them worse. The second is that the ECB, under existing European treaties, has no such authority, and the prohibitions against it are very explicit. Changing that would be far more difficult than many market participants seem to believe, because it would require an explicit and unanimous change in the EU Treaties that AAA rated countries such as Germany and Finland vehemently oppose. The third difficulty is that even if the ECB was to buy the debt of distressed European countries with printed money, the inflationary effects would likely be far more swift than anything we’ve seen in the United States. This would not “save” the euro, but would simply destroy it by other means.
Investors are not likely to be treated with a “surprise” announcement that the ECB is going to expand its purchases of distressed European debt. Any significant ECB intervention would likely follow a formal revision of EU treaties that trades greater ECB flexibility in return for more centralized fiscal control.
Let’s cover these points individually.