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ECB unveils landmark stimulus

Chris CottrellJanuary 22, 2015

The European Central Bank has said it will spend upwards of 1 trillion euros on a bond-buying spree to shore up the eurozone economy. It cited the specter of deflation and slack in the euro area as reasons for the move.

Mario Draghi
Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The European Central Bank on Thursday unveiled an aggressive plan to stimulate the flagging eurozone economy that would involve printing 60 billion euros ($69.7 billion) a month from March this year until September 2016 to finance large-scale purchasing of public and private assets.

The ECB's quantitative easing program marks the most far-reaching attempt yet by the ECB to prop up the 19-member common currency bloc. In all, the bank intends to spend 1.14 trillion euros over 19 months to spur inflation and encourage lending in the real economy.

The new scheme will build on another stimulus program announced by the ECB last December, under which the bank declared it would buy privately owned asset-backed securities and covered bonds. One caveat this time around is that countries already under a bailout program - such as Greece - will have to fulfill additional criteria to be included.

Germany's blue-chip DAX stock index jumped to a new high on the news, hitting 10,399.67 points, while bond yields in Italy and Spain fell to historic lows. The euro fell to $1.15.

The reasoning behind QE

Lamenting the eurozone's dip into deflation last month, when consumer prices fell by 0.2 percent, the central bank's president, Mario Draghi, explained that the decision to put more than 1 trillion freshly minted euros into circulation also had to do with unfavorable expectations for the future.

"The euro area recovery is likely to continue to be dampened by high unemployment, sizeable unutilized capacity and the necessary balance sheet adjustments in the public and private sectors," Draghi said at a press conference following a meeting of the ECB's 25-member Governing Council.

"Inflation dynamics have continued to be weaker than expected," he added, noting that most inflation indicators were either at or close to historical lows. "At the same time, economic slack in the euro area remains sizeable and money and credit developments continue to be subdued."

Last month's fall in consumer prices was a worrisome development for policymakers in Frankfurt who aim to keep inflation at just under 2 percent. Economists had also expressed fears that a reversal of the situation could not be achieved without the ECB stepping in in a big way.

Not a unanimous vote

But the prospect of buying indebted governments' bonds was a bitter one for some. Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, and top-level officials in Berlin have contended that the program let weaker nations off the hook because they could raise money without implementing reforms that are politically taboo.

"It should not obscure the fact that the real growth impulses must come from conditions set by the politicians," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Jens Weidmann, the head of the Bundesbank, holds a seat on the ECB's Governing Council. On Thursday, Draghi noted that the vote in favor of launching quantitative easing was not unanimous, although he did not specify who the dissenters were.

Germany's DIHK federation of chambers of commerce criticized the ECB for shooting the last arrow in its quiver without an actual need for it, while at the same time increasing the risk of speculation bubbles from forming in the markets.

"The ECB became a prisoner of its own proclamations," the federation told the Reuters news agency.