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The ECB’s Lethal Inhibition

BERKELEY – Last December, with Europe’s financial system on the brink of disaster, the European Central Bank stunned the markets with an unprecedented intervention, offering banks across the eurozone essentially unlimited liquidity against any and all collateral for an exceptional period of three years.

The ECB’s surprise liquidity operation put the continent’s crisis on hold. But now, just fourth months later, matters are again coming to a head. The big southern European countries, Spain and Italy, battered by austerity, are spiraling into recession. The deterioration of economic conditions is casting doubt on their governments’ budgetary arithmetic, undermining political support for structural reform, and reopening seemingly closed questions about the stability of banking systems.