Sovereign debt is a different beast

So it seems the ECB is going to go out and buy government bonds.  I don’t quite agree with this description of what is happening to be honest:

“They are not cranking up the printing presses,” said James Nixon, co-chief European economist at Societe Generale SA in London. “This is a much more targeted, surgical approach. They buy the duff stuff that no one in the market will touch.”

The point is to buy stuff that would otherwise be good, but is only struggling because of the crisis – not to actually buy duff stuff.  The intervention is supposed to prevent a run on good assets – not to keep bad assets in business.  Of course, in practicality they will have to buy some duff stuff, but saying that this is the goal is an exaggeration.

Still, this isn’t my main point.  My main point is that sovereign debt is a different beast to private debt.  If the ECB starts buying up government bonds, and there is no plan to get government budgets under control in the medium term, then the result is high levels of inflation – and probably the collapse of the Euro Zone.  The second point doesn’t concern me – the first point does.

With private debt we had a response when effective interest rates exploded upwards.  Will we get the same response from domestic governments in Europe?  I don’t know.

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