Market to ECB: Do something!

@lamonicabuzz November 29, 2011: 1:26 PM ET
The bond market and many economists view new European Central Bank president Mario Draghi the way Princess Leia did Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is Europe's 'only hope.'

The bond market and many economists view new European Central Bank president Mario Draghi the way Princess Leia did Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is Europe's 'only hope.'

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Imagine Europe is Princess Leia. That means new European Central Bank president Mario Draghi would be Ben Kenobi.

"You must see these bonds safely delivered to the coffers in Brussels. This is our most desperate hour. Help us, Obi-Wan Draghi. You're our only hope."


Despite months of meetings, summits, communiques and an endless wave of rumors, European leaders and the International Monetary Fund have yet to come up with a viable solution to end the continent's debt crisis.

Greece is still at risk of default. Italian bond yields are above 7% and interest rates in Spain are not that far behind. There is speculation that France's credit rating may soon get downgraded by Standard & Poor's. And Belgium had its rating cut by S&P last week.

The market is running out of patience. It wants Draghi to follow the lead of another bearded gentleman named Ben. It wants the ECB to emulate Bernanke and the Federal Reserve.

"The IMF has little left it can do," said Ashraf Laidi, chief executive of Intermarket Strategy Ltd, a London-based research firm. "It ultimately gets back to a printer of money, a central bank, being able to solve this. At what point will the ECB start to allow for more bond purchases?

Laidi worries that the ECB will continue to be reactive, which would mean it may not take drastic action until there is a huge financial shock, such as a downgrade of France.

Yet many argue it's time to be proactive. Yes, the ECB has done the occasional purchase of some Italian and Spanish bonds. And it also lowered interest rates by a quarter point to 1.25% earlier this month.

The ECB meets on December 8 and is widely expected to lower rates again -- probably to 1%. But something even bolder may be needed.

Eurozone fatigue setting in

Instead of rate cuts and buying bonds in dribs and drabs, some believe the ECB needs to do the euro version of the Fed's quantitative easing. It must clearly explain how much debt it plans to buy (and that likely has to be in the hundreds of billions of euros), the specific countries whose bonds it will purchase and give a firm time frame for how long the plan should last.

"The ECB could buy bonds of particular countries, in order to try to hold down borrowing costs for those countries. It could also buy bonds from particular banks in order to prop them up," said Arnold Kling, scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., and a former economist for the Federal Reserve.

But Kling warned that while that may make sense economically, it may not be politically feasible.

The European Union is a union in name only. Germany has been against many European rescue plans because it doesn't want to bail out weaker nations at the expense of its own economy. The ECB may not be able to do QE without the backing of Germany.

"Once the ECB becomes a large creditor of a country, political tensions may rise. Imagine what would happen if the ECB owned a lot of Greek debt, and the Greeks went into default," Kling said.

Others think that the ECB has to look at the cold reality of rising interest rates and not worry about any backlash.

"The root cause of the concern right now is the threat that Italy and Spain will reach a point where they can no longer borrow in the private market," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "The ECB is refusing to deal with that. If they continue to do so, bad things are going to happen."

In fact, Weisbrot goes as far as to suggest that if the ECB doesn't want to buy more European bonds, the Fed should do so in order to prevent the debt contagion from spilling over the Atlantic to U.S. banks.

That may not be likely, as the Fed would risk the wrath of politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States. Many are against the notion of QE3 for U.S. Treasuries. Can you envision the jingoistic uproar if the Fed announced QE for debt not made in America?

Europe eyes new pact as debt crisis rages

Nonetheless, at least one expert thinks the ECB should resist the call of the market and stand pat.

Bob Gelfond, CEO of MQS Asset Management, a global macro hedge fund based in New York, argues that the real solution for the debt crisis is for European nations to reform their pension systems and change labor laws in order to make these countries more competitive in the global economy.

If the ECB starts buying gobs of European debt, it risks sending the message to Italy, Spain, Greece and others that they don't need to change their own fiscal policies.

"Governments are reluctant to do what is necessary and the ECB philosophy is to keep pressure on them. If the ECB buys more Spanish and Italian debt, they can sit back and know the ECB will be there," Gelfond said.

That may be true. But can the ECB really afford to be that stubborn? After all, Draghi may need to act, if for no other reason than self-preservation. It may be a necessary evil to prop up the European bond markets.

"The danger of administering the drug that is liquidity is that you then have to keep the junkie on the stuff," said Andrew Busch, global currency and public policy strategist with BMO Capital Markets in Chicago.

"But if the ECB doesn't do anything, the euro could break up. And there's no need for a European Central Bank if there is no eurozone," he added.

Best of StockTwits: The bankruptcy of American Airlines (AMR, Fortune 500) is getting a lot of attention in the world of 140 characters or less.

AronPinson: In case you have been living on another planet... Bankruptcy is (an essential) part of the airline business model. $AMR

Too true. Southwest (LUV, Fortune 500) must be embarrassed to not be part of the Chapter 11 club.

chicagosean: Imagine how amazingly competitive & innovative $AAPL would be if their employees unionized like $GM, $AMR, etc.... [/sarcasm]

Ouch. The airlines do have labor issues but let's not blame this all on unions. Bad business practices and a dependence on oil doesn't help.

MarketMonk: The airliners are the "canaries in the coal mine". When they are healthy, so will our economy be. $AMR $DAL $UAL

Great point. People traveling for business and pleasure = more robust economy. Plus, I love your Yoda-esque syntax. Perfect way to end a column that began with a "Star Wars" reference.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks. To top of page

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