European Central Bank cannot rescue Italy without EU bailout, sources say

Italy has seen its borrowing costs surge since its new government unveiled plans to increase its budget deficit

The headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the skyline with its financial district are seen in the early evening in Frankfurt, Germany, September 30, 2018.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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The European Central Bank (ECB) won’t come to Italy’s rescue if its government or bank sector run out of cash unless the country secures a bailout from the European Union (EU), five senior sources familiar with the ECB’s thinking told Reuters.

Italy has seen its borrowing costs surge on financial markets since its new government unveiled plans to increase its budget deficit late last month, defying EU rules and reawakening concerns about its huge pile of public debt.

The sources said Italy could still avoid a debt crisis if its government changed course but should not count on the central bank to tame investors or prop up its banks.

This is because EU rules do not allow the ECB to help a country unless it has already agreed on a rescue “programme” - political jargon for a bailout in exchange for belt-tightening and painful economic reforms, an option the Italian government has firmly rejected.

Any attempt to circumvent those rules would damage the ECB’s credibility beyond repair and undermine acceptance of the monetary union in creditor countries, such as Germany, the sources said.


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“It’s a test-case to show Europe its mechanisms work,” said one of the sources on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings in the Indonesian resort town of Nusa Dua.

If Italy did secure a bailout, the ECB could then buy its bonds on the market via outright monetary transactions, a so far unused policy tool unveiled in 2012 to quash speculation on a euro break-up.

An ECB spokesman declined to comment.

The sources warned that Italian banks, with €375 billion ($435bn) of domestic government debt on their balance sheet, were the possible flashpoint.

This is because they relied on those government bonds as collateral to secure cash at the ECB, including some €250bn worth of long-term loans.

If Italy, like Greece, were to lose its investment-grade rating, the bonds that the banks used would become ineligible for regular ECB lending, as well as for the ECB’s bond-buying stimulus program.

Banks that don’t have alternative collateral of good quality would then need to apply for a lifeline known as Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), supplied by the Bank of Italy.

“There are some banks that are actually in pretty good shape so it wouldn’t be all of them (requesting ELA),” another source said.