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Can Draghi Be Believed?

LONDON – Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, has repeatedly claimed that the ECB will do everything necessary to save the euro. Nothing has been formally agreed yet, but the ECB is expected to announce a new government bond-buying program following next week’s meeting of its Governing Council. Will it work?

To have a significant impact on Italian and Spanish borrowing costs, the latest effort must be big enough to dispel the convertibility risk that underlies the extreme polarization of government bond yields across the eurozone: investors are loathe to hold Spanish and Italian debt, because they fear that both countries might be forced to leave the currency union. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that the ECB will do enough to persuade investors that membership is unequivocally forever, not least because Germany’s Bundesbank opposes any open-ended commitment to capping borrowing costs.

Spain, Italy, and the eurozone periphery face unprecedentedly high real borrowing costs, which are preventing a recovery in investment and hence economic growth. Without a return to growth, they cannot quell investors’ doubts about their fiscal sustainability and their banks’ solvency.

The Italian and Spanish governments argue that their high borrowing costs largely reflect convertibility risks, and that the ECB should do as much as necessary to address them. But eurozone members that currently benefit from exceptionally low borrowing costs – Germany, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, and, to a lesser extent, France – maintain that Italian and Spanish borrowing costs largely reflect these countries’ failure to reform their economies and strengthen their public finances.