EFSF/ESM 2ndary Market Bond Purchases Wouldn’t Bring Much Relief

A number of ideas have been mooted over the past two weeks for steps towards a banking and fiscal union in the eurozone. Of all of these options to be discussed today at the EU summit in Brussels, it seems that the idea of having the EFSF/ESM purchase bonds in the secondary market to suppress peripheral bond yields has the most momentum behind it. Mario Monti seems determined to force agreement on such bond purchases, threatening to keep EU leaders at the summit up until markets open on Monday unless this measure is agreed. EFSF/ESM bond purchases in the secondary market is by no means a new idea; the EFSF/ESM were meant to take over intervention in the secondary markets from the ECB’s Securities Markets Programme (SMP). However, I seriously question both the efficacy and the efficiency of EFSF/ESM secondary market bond purchases for two main reasons.

First, the idea so far is to use the EFSF’s Co-Investment Funds (CIFs) for the bond purchases. However, the CIFs are reliant on private-sector funding to augment the EFSF. The only private sector institutions likely to participate in secondary market sovereign debt purchases are banks that have been heavily leaned on by their governments. This therefore only serves to tighten the sovereign/banking loop in the eurozone.

The second problem with using the EFSF/ESM to purchase sovereign debt in the secondary markets is that it will likely benefit the creditors more than the debtors. In this sense this proposal is very similar to a debt buyback scheme.  After the EUR100bn bank bailout for Spain, the EFSF/ESM will have EUR400bn remaining for secondary market bond purchases. Investors are going to recognize that there is a big buyer in the market with a limited arsenal and may use the opportunity to sell and reduce their exposure to the periphery. However, EFSF/ESM bond purchases will almost certainly drive bond prices up. This will not only render the operation extremely expensive and inefficient, but it could incentivize banks to hold onto their peripheral sovereign debt; if bond prices are rising, then the value that banks can borrow against that collateral will improve. This would not hold true if there were a credible threat of imminent sovereign default (see Eduardo Levy-Yeyati‘s piece for an explanation), but the EFSF/ESM programme would be designed in theory specifically to reduce such a threat for Spain and Italy in particular.

If the idea of EFSF/ESM bond purchases in the secondary markets is among the items agreed over the next two days in Brussels, then there may be a brief market rally. However, this measure will serve as yet another delaying tactic, and does not address any of the underlying causes of this crisis. Investors will recognize this quickly, and any market rally inspired by EFSF/ESM bond purchases would in my view represent an opportunity to sell.

For additional views on EFSF/ESM secondary market bond purchases, see RGE’s two pieces on this:

For analysis on the other ideas on the table at the June 28-29th EU summit and how effective they are likely to be, see “Eurozone Summit Preview: Don’t Expect Any Bold Moves

This post originally appeared at Economist Meg and is posted with permission.