Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and other European leaders appeared to act in defiance of the European Central Bank when they insisted that banks contribute to the latest rescue plan for Greece. But the central bank president, Jean-Claude Trichet, may consider himself the real winner of the week.
It is true the central bank lost its fight to prevent European leaders from precipitating a partial default of Greek debt. After meeting with Ms. Merkel and other leaders in Brussels on Thursday, though, Mr. Trichet appeared to have prevailed on important points. Governments agreed to reclaim the task of preventing collapse of the Greek economy and to take responsibility for fiscal performance of the euro zone, tasks that the central bank did not want.
“Have they backed down?” asked Peter Westaway, chief European economist at Nomura International, about the central bank’s position on a default. “To an extent they have.”
In turn, the central bank will be able to spend less time saving Greece and concentrate on its day job, overseeing monetary policy.
“The E.C.B. is trying to resist anything that makes it look like monetary authorities are taking on a role that governments should be taking on,” Mr. Westaway said.
Mr. Trichet won commitments from governments on another longstanding issue. Political leaders in Brussels agreed to take more concrete steps to reduce their debt and to ensure that the Greek disaster is not repeated elsewhere. Euro zone countries promised to cut their budget deficits to below 3 percent of each country’s annual output by 2013, in line with limits set by treaty, but widely violated.
The European countries also agreed to support Greek banks, a task that has been handled up to now primarily by the central bank. And the leaders will do more to help Greece fix its dysfunctional economy.
“The decision of member states and of the commission to mobilize all resources necessary in order to provide exceptional assistance to help Greece in implementing its reforms is very, very important,” Mr. Trichet said in Brussels on Thursday, according to Reuters.
A high-ranking monetary policy official, who would not be quoted by name, said, “We got what we wanted.”
Since the debt crisis began last year, there has been a strong temptation by Ms. Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and other leaders to leave the heavy lifting to the central bank. Unlike the politicians, Mr. Trichet and his colleagues on the governing council cannot be voted out of office. The central bank also has extensive financial resources and does not need an act of Parliament to deploy them — though it took pains to avoid the appearance that it was printing money.
Even as Mr. Trichet framed his actions in terms of monetary policy, he faced increasing criticism that the central bank had compromised its sacred independence from politics. He was clearly annoyed at political leaders for their lack of decisive action. During a meeting last year, he got into a shouting match with Mr. Sarkozy, according to several people who attended.
The package announced in Brussels late Thursday would shift responsibility for a number of major tasks from the central bank to governments. For example, the European Financial Stability Fund would have the power to buy government bonds on open markets to stabilize prices, allowing the central bank to wind down its own controversial bond-buying program. The decision in May 2010 by the central bank to begin buying Greek, Portuguese and Irish bonds split the bank’s governing council and has left the bank with billions in distressed debt.
“It is no longer necessary for the E.C.B. to do this job, which is a plus for the E.C.B.,” Jörg Krämer, chief economist at Commerzbank, said in Frankfurt.
European leaders will also guarantee the quality of Greek bonds even if some ratings agencies declare the country to be in partial default. Fitch Ratings said Friday that the plan to extract a contribution from bond investors would constitute a restricted default.
The guarantees by the European Union mean that the central bank can continue to accept Greek bonds as collateral for short-term loans, maintaining the flow of the bank’s funds to Greek institutions that are shut out of international money markets.
“In our view this is a very important sign of institutional respect from Europe to the E.C.B.,” analysts at Royal Bank of Scotland wrote in a note Friday.
Analysts cautioned that the rescue plan, outlined in a four-page statement by European leaders Thursday, was short on detail. It is not clear, for example, if the euro zone countries are committing enough money to support the Greek banks, Mr. Krämer of Commerzbank said.
He was also skeptical of promises by leaders to do a better job policing each other’s fiscal discipline. “I have heard this for 15 years,” Mr. Krämer said. “I don’t believe it. The E.U. is a consensus-driven club. You can’t force other countries to do this or that.”
Jens Weidmann, president of the German Bundesbank and a member of the central bank’s governing council, implicitly greeted the greater willingness by leaders to take more responsibility.
“It is decisive for monetary policy during this sovereign debt crisis that no further risk be transferred to the Eurosystem, and that the separation between monetary and financial policy not be further weakened,” Mr. Weidmann said in a statement, referring to the network of European central banks.
But, in a sign that not all members of the governing council are happy with the agreement, Mr. Weidmann criticized what he called a major step toward collective responsibility for the mistakes of individual states.
“This weakens the fundament of a monetary union built on individual fiscal responsibility,” Mr. Weidmann said in a statement. “In the future it will be even more difficult to maintain incentives for solid financial policy.”