ECB Starts Buying German, Italian Government Bonds Under QE Plan

Updated on
ECB Begins Bond Purchases: What Are They Buying?

With the first purchases of government bonds under a broader stimulus plan, the European Central Bank showed willingness to be patient in its efforts to reignite the euro area’s economy.

The ECB and national central banks started buying sovereign debt on Monday under the 19-month plan to inject 1.1 trillion euros ($1.2 trillion) into the economy. While purchases included bonds from at least five countries, the size of individual trades -- at between 15 million euros and 50 million euros -- was small relative to the program’s goals, according to people with knowledge of the transactions.

“The amount bought may be small to start with, but this will be like a pressure cooker,” said Ciaran O’Hagan, head of European rates strategy at Societe Generale SA in Paris. “They have just switched on the heat and we will need some time for the pressure to mount.”

Euro-area bonds extended a 14-month rally fueled by speculation that buying 60 billion euros of debt a month will create a scarcity of government bonds among buyers of the securities. Yields already fell to record lows across the region as the Frankfurt-based bank follows in the quantitative-easing footsteps of the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and Bank of Japan.

Germany’s 10-year yield fell the most in six weeks, dropping eight basis points, or 0.08 percentage point, to 0.31 percent at 5 p.m. London time, approaching the record-low 0.283 percent set on Feb. 26.

‘Spread Compression’

Gains in Italian bonds were smaller, with the yield on similar-maturity debt slipping four basis points to 1.28 percent. That widened the yield gap between the two securities by four basis points to 97 basis points, after it shrank to 90 basis points on Friday, the narrowest spread since 2010.

“We will see more spread compression ahead,” SocGen’s O’Hagan said.

National central banks purchased Belgian, French, German, Italian and Spanish debt, according to people with knowledge of the transactions, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

The ECB said in a Twitter post that it had started purchases along with national central banks, while a spokesman for the Bundesbank said it was active in the market from 9:25 a.m. Frankfurt time. The Bank of Finland also confirmed on Twitter that it was buying.

‘No Squeeze’

The buying of bonds will be made roughly in proportion to the capital that each member central bank has contributed to the ECB, though that guideline doesn’t have to be strictly followed every month. There’s also flexibility on what maturity of bonds will be bought by the central banks to reach their target, and acquisitions of asset-backed securities and agency debt are also included in the plan.

Some holders of government securities have indicated an unwillingness to sell, sparking concern that there will be a scarcity of available debt for the ECB to buy. There’s also a risk that flexibility and limited information on the plan stirs market volatility.

“They know it will not be easy to purchase 60 billion a month including covered bonds and ABS, so they have to deal very cautiously,” said Patrick Jacq, a senior fixed-income strategist at BNP Paribas SA in Paris. “The market remains in positive territory but there is no further acceleration, which means that apparently there is no squeeze on any paper.”

Buying Competition

Competition for purchases may come from banks requiring bonds to meet regulatory rules, pension funds that need to match their liabilities, passive investors who track debt indexes, and other central banks, which buy European securities as part of their balance-sheet management.

The potential scarcity pushed the average yield to maturity on the region’s government debt to 0.538 percent Feb. 26, the least since at least 1995, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes.

About 45 billion euros a month will probably be spent on sovereign debt, a central bank official said Jan. 22. That implies an intention to purchase 14 percent of euro-area government bonds outstanding by September 2016, or 18 percent of securities from Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, the only nations with two or more AAA ratings from the three major credit-assessment companies.

Scarcity Theme

“The QE purchases are having the expected effect and the market is very positive,” said Michael Leister, a senior rates strategist at Commerzbank AG in Frankfurt. “Near-term it’s going to stay quite volatile because there are some sellers who did front-run these purchases and now are keen to sell. But overall we think the dominant theme will be this theme of scarcity.”

With austerity measures and ECB buying, the euro-area sovereign-bond market will shrink by 259 billion euros in 2015, Morgan Stanley strategists, including London-based Neil McLeish, Anthony O’Brien and Serena Tang, forecast in a report in February.

Belgium’s 10-year yield tumbled eight basis points on Monday to 0.55 percent and the rate on similar-maturity French debt dropped nine basis points to 0.61 percent.

The drop in yields has also helped to weaken the euro as it dimmed the allure of holding the currency and made it more attractive to borrow in the euro region in order to invest where yields are higher. Germany’s 10-year bunds yielded about 190 basis points less than similar-maturity U.S. Treasuries, the widest yield discount since 1989, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Only Brazil’s real and Denmark’s krone have fared worse versus the dollar this year than the euro among 17 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg. It was little changed Monday at $1.0849, after weakening about 10 percent against the greenback this year and reaching the lowest level since 2003. It touched the weakest level versus the British pound since 2007 and a record low against the Swiss franc in January.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE