Italy’s Capital Flight

When it comes to refinancing Italy, bond purchases are just the tip of the iceberg: in August alone, Italy’s central bank drew €40 billion in credit from the ECB system, and it probably drew roughly another €50 billion in September. This is not the end of the world – not even for the ECB – but the eurozone has entered dangerous territory.

MUNICH – In August, the European balance-of-payments crisis moved beyond the Eurozone’s periphery and began buffeting Italy. Interest spreads for Italian government bonds began to rise, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s administration was alarmed enough to implement an austerity program, and the European Central Bank helped with extra liquidity.

The ECB directed the central banks of all Eurozone members to buy huge quantities of Italian government bonds during the crisis. While the national central banks have not revealed how much they bought, the aggregate stock of all government bonds purchased rose from €74 billion ($102 billion) on August 4, to €165 billion this month. Most of this increase was probably used to purchase Italian government bonds.

The German Bundesbank, which was forced to buy most of the bonds, strongly opposed the program, but was unable to stop it. In response, ECB Chief Economist Jürgen Stark resigned. He followed Bundesbank President Axel Weber, who had resigned in February because of the earlier bond repurchases. Meanwhile, the new Bundesbank president, Jens Weidmann, openly objects to the program, while German President Christian Wulff has publicly accused the ECB of circumventing the Maastricht Treaty.

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