22 January 2016 (updated on 9 March 2018)
In normal economic times the ECB steers broader financial conditions and, ultimately, macroeconomic developments and inflation by setting the short-term key interest rates. But, as a result of the global financial crisis, key interest rates have come close to their effective lower bound – the point at which lowering them further would have little to no effect. Therefore, the ECB turned to non-standard measures to address the risks of a period of low inflation lasting for too long, and to bring inflation back to levels below, but close to, 2% over the medium term, which is the Governing Council’s definition of price stability. Asset purchases are one of the non-standard measures the ECB is using to achieve this.
Under the expanded asset purchase programme (APP), the ECB buys a range of assets including government bonds, securities issued by European supranational institutions, corporate bonds, asset-backed securities and covered bonds at a pace of €30 billion per month. (The monthly purchase volume has been recalibrated over the course of the programme.) Such asset purchases influence broader financial conditions and, eventually, economic growth and inflation, through three main channels:
When the ECB buys private sector assets, such as asset-backed securities and covered bonds, which are linked to loans that banks grant to households and firms in the real economy, the increased demand for these assets drives up their prices. This encourages banks to make more loans, which they can then use to create and sell more asset-backed securities or covered bonds. The increased supply of loans tends to lower bank lending rates for companies and households, improving broader financing conditions.
The ECB purchases private and public sector assets from investors such as pension funds, banks and households. These investors may choose to take the funds they receive in exchange for assets sold to the ECB and invest them in other assets. By increasing demand for assets more broadly, this mechanism of portfolio rebalancing pushes prices up and yields down, even for assets that are not directly targeted by the APP. This results in reduced costs (the effective market interest rate) for companies seeking to obtain financing on the capital markets. At the same time, the compression of yields on securities encourages banks to lend to companies or households. The increased supply of bank lending to the real economy tends to lower the costs of borrowing for households and firms. If, on the other hand, investors use the extra funds to buy higher-yielding assets outside the euro area, this may also lead to a lower euro exchange rate, which tends to put upward pressure on inflation.
Both the direct pass-through and the portfolio rebalancing channel improve broader financial conditions faced by companies and households in the euro area. By lowering funding costs, asset purchases can stimulate investment and consumption. More dynamic demand from both firms and consumers will eventually contribute to returning inflation to below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.
Finally, asset purchases signal to the market that the central bank will keep key interest rates low for an extended period of time. This signalling effect reduces volatility and uncertainty in the market regarding future interest rate developments. This is important because it guides various investment decisions. Interest rates charged on long-term loans, for example, will remain lower as banks anticipate a protracted period of low interest rates.
The ECB’s asset purchases underscore its commitment to fulfil its mandate by using these channels to actively address the risks of a period of low inflation that lasts for too long. This serves to reassure investors that inflation will be around levels that are below, but close to, 2% over the medium term – a precondition for sustained growth in an environment of price stability.
Update: This explainer was updated on 1 April 2016, on 1 April 2017 and on 9 March 2018 to reflect the Governing Council’s decisions to change the monthly purchase volume of the asset purchase programme.