What on earth is the ECB up to?

The ECB has abruptly announced withdrawal of the “waiver” under which it was prepared to accept Greek sovereign bonds as collateral for liquidity. This created a considerable Twitter storm, with lots of angry people saying the ECB’s action was beyond its mandate and far too precipitate: it should at least have waited for the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to meet his German counterpart, and it should not be acting as if the bailout programme was ended when negotiations were still proceeding. I admit, I was one of those people.

And I stand by my views. The ECB is acting far beyond its mandate in seeking to influence negotiations between Eurozone member states regarding the terms and conditions under which member states lend to their distressed partners. It has no business interfering in fiscal policy: if the Greek government decides to run 1.5% fiscal surpluses instead of 4.5%, hike minimum wages and create lots of government jobs, it is none of the ECB’s business. The ECB’s monetary policy failures are legion: it should put its own house in order, rather than interfering with the conduct of fiscal policy. And worse, its persistent interference in fiscal policy is a clear conflict of interest, as the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice noted in relation to the OMT programme. It should not be a member of the Troika at all, and certainly should not use changes in fiscal policy by a democratically-elected sovereign government – even one that has inherited an economy in tatters with a massive debt burden – as justification for limiting liquidity to that country’s banking system. Monetary policy should never be used to serve fiscal or political ends. Not ever.

OK, rant over. I’ve thought about this a bit more now. Something doesn’t quite add up.

Firstly, there is the timing. The Syriza government has now been in power for ten days. Why did the ECB wait until now to pull the plug on the waiver? It might simply be that today was the first planned meeting of the Governing Council. But that doesn’t exactly suggest that this is an urgent problem – so why is the ECB doing this now, given that the bailout extension is not until 28th February and Greece has already asked for time to come up with an alternative plan?

Secondly, there is the timing. (Yes, I mean that). Varoufakis met ECB chief Mario Draghi yesterday and he meets German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble today. In between those two meetings the ECB pulled the waiver. Why? Well, Schäuble is openly hostile to Varoufakis’s ideas of debt relief and an end to austerity, while Draghi has so far kept very quiet (though his deputy Vitor Constancio has been more forthright). Schäuble will no doubt be looking for explicit backing from the ECB. Should this action be taken as the ECB’s governing council signalling whose side it is on?

And thirdly, there is this:

@Brancaleone72 It would be a non-credible threat. (E.g. “We will shut down your ELA.” Answer: “Do ahead!”)
— Yanis Varoufakis (@yanisvaroufakis) June 1, 2014

Note the date. Yes, you read right. Over 6 months ago, Varoufakis predicted that the ECB would attempt to pull funding from the Greek banks.

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