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The ECB’s Bridge Too Far

PRINCETON – The German Constitutional Court’s recent decision to refer the complaint against the European Central Bank’s so-called “outright monetary transactions” to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) leaves the scheme’s fate uncertain. What is clear is that the economics behind OMT is flawed – and so is the politics.

The OMT program arose in August 2012, when months of relentlessly rising risk premiums on Spanish and Italian sovereign bonds were threatening the eurozone’s survival and endangering the world economy. To restore confidence and buy time for governments to reduce borrowing, ECB President Mario Draghi pledged to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the eurozone – and that meant potentially unlimited purchases of distressed eurozone members’ government bonds.

Draghi’s declaration worked, prompting a sharp decline in risk premiums across the eurozone’s troubled economies. But Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, a member of the ECB’s Governing Council, immediately challenged OMT, asserting that the program exceeded the ECB’s mandate and violated Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty, which bars monetary financing of distressed sovereigns. Before OMT was ever activated, Weidmann took his case to the German Constitutional Court.

OMT supporters were aghast at Weidmann’s attempt to overturn the arrangement. After all, the mere announcement of the program had provided relief to struggling governments and may well have saved the monetary union, at least temporarily. Draghi audaciously described OMT as “probably the most successful monetary-policy measure undertaken in recent time.”