ECB: Outright monetary trepidation

In his monthly press conference on Thursday, European Central Bank boss Mario Draghi didn't go back on anything he said at the last one. I'm afraid that's about as exciting as it got.

He left most of the gaps in his September statement intact. And he refused to engage in any speculation about Spain - a disappointment for the many investors and analysts who can think of little else.

Mr Draghi cultivated an air of ambiguity on how and when, exactly, the central bank might start to buy the sovereign bonds of other troubled economies. And where he did add details, they did not sound very encouraging to those who are keen for the ECB to stop talking and start buying.

Notably, he said that to qualify for support from the ECB, a country would not just have to request a bailout, but have signed a memorandum of understanding. That usually takes at least a month.

He also said that countries such as Ireland would need to regain "full market access" before the ECB would consider buying their bonds in the secondary market to help push up the price, and so push down the implied cost of borrowing for the government.

To critics, this highlights a tension that has been at lurking at the heart of the new bond-buying programme since it was first announced: that the ECB seems to be offering "unlimited" support only to countries that don't really need it.

The countries who can comply with Mr Draghi's conditions - who are able to finance themselves in the market and are sticking to their deficit reduction programmes - are not the ones that investors are most worried about.

The ECB president's use of the word "unlimited" understandably thrilled the financial markets, and gave a warm feeling to many embattled governments on the periphery.

Putting the word "conditional" next to it provided a different kind of reassurance to those inside the ECB - and inside Germany - who saw outright monetary transactions, or OMTs, as a dangerous sop to governments.

Some have argued that the two terms will be contradictory in practice, because countries in trouble may not have the capacity, or the time, to meet all the conditions. Mr Draghi's careful appearance on Thursday will have done little to change their mind.

Stephanie Flanders Article written by Stephanie Flanders Stephanie Flanders Former economics editor

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