Hitting back at German court challenge, ECB defends bond buys

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - European Central Bank policymakers, fending off a German court challenge to their money-printing scheme, insist that bond buys help prop up the economy and their benefits outweigh the side effects, minutes of their June 4 meeting showed on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: The headquarter of the European Central Bank (ECB) is photographed during sunset, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Frankfurt, Germany, April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled last month that the ECB overstepped its mandate with over 2 trillion euros ($2.24 trillion) of government bond purchases. The court ordered the Bundesbank to quit the scheme unless the ECB can prove it is needed within three months.

In an indirect response to the ruling, ECB rate-setters said at their latest meeting that a volume of evidence had been amassed to prove that bond buys are a necessity at the moment, crediting them with keeping borrowing costs down while the European Union recovered from its recent debt crisis.

“There was broad agreement among members that while different weights might be attached to the benefits and side effects of asset purchases, the negative side effects had so far been clearly outweighed by the positive effects of asset purchases on the economy in the pursuit of price stability,” the ECB said in its minutes of the meeting seen by Reuters.

The ECB agreed on Wednesday to give documents to German authorities to prove the proportionality of its bond purchases but the ECB will not directly engage in the process, leaving the Bundesbank to spearhead the process.

In parallel, the ECB has been drawing up contingency plans to carry out its multi-trillion-euro bond-buying programme without the Bundesbank and launch an unprecedented legal action against the German central bank.

Still, ECB policymakers acknowledged the risks and side effects of low rates, including the drain on savings and drag on bank earnings. They also noted that high government debt could pressure the ECB to keep rates low since higher borrowing costs could quickly raise debt sustainability concerns.

Related Coverage

But these risks could be mitigated by self-imposed limits on the bond purchases, such as national quotas determined by how much capital each country paid into ECB coffers, the rate-setters argued at their June 4 meeting.

“Using the ECB’s capital key as the benchmark was one of the safeguards helping to maintain incentives for sound fiscal policies,” the ECB said in its minutes.

Facing the biggest European economic contraction in generations, policymakers at the June 4 meeting extended emergency bond purchases until mid-2021 and increased them by 600 billion euros to 1.35 trillion euros to help member state governments finance their crisis response.

While there was broad agreement on the package, the minutes showed some disagreement over both the timing and the size of the increase.

Reuters reported after the meeting that policymakers had debated increases of between 500 billion and 750 billion euros.

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Francesco Canepa and Mark Heinrich