|Image Title 1:||Logo of the European Central Bank|
|Image Title 2:||European Central Bank headquarters|
|Headquarters:||Frankfurt am Main, Hesse, Germany|
|Established:||1 June 1998|
The European Central Bank (ECB) is the institution of the European Union (EU) that administers the monetary policy of the 17 EU Eurozone member states. It is thus one of the world's most important central banks. The bank was established by the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1998, and is headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany. The current President of the ECB is Mario Draghi, former governor of the Bank of Italy.
The primary objective of the European Central Bank is to maintain price stability within the Eurozone, which is the same as keeping inflation low. The Governing Council defined price stability as inflation (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices) of around 2%. Unlike, for example, the United States Federal Reserve Bank, the ECB has only one primary objective with other objectives subordinate to it.
The key tasks of the ECB are to define and implement the monetary policy for the Eurozone, to conduct foreign exchange operations, to take care of the foreign reserves of the European System of Central Banks and promote smooth operation of the financial market infrastructure under the Target payments system and the technical platform (currently being developed) for settlement of securities in Europe (TARGET2 Securities).Furthermore, it has the exclusive right to authorise the issuance of euro banknotes. Member states could issue euro coins, but the amount must be authorised by the ECB beforehand (upon the introduction of the euro, the ECB also had exclusive right to issue coins).
On 9 May 2010, the 27 member states of the European Union agreed to incorporate the European Financial Stability Facility. The EFSF’s mandate is to safeguard financial stability in Europe by providing financial assistance to Eurozone Member States.
The bank must also co-operate within the EU and internationally with third bodies and entities. Finally it contributes to maintaining a stable financial system and monitoring the banking sector. The latter can be seen, for example, in the bank's intervention during the 2007 credit crisis when it loaned billions of euros to banks to stabilise the financial system.
Although the ECB is governed by European law directly and thus not by corporate law applying to private law companies, its set-up resembles that of a corporation in the sense that the ECB has shareholders and stock capital. Its capital is five billion euro which is held by the national central banks of the member states as shareholders. The initial capital allocation key was determined in 1998 on the basis of the states' population and GDP, but the key is adjustable. Shares in the ECB are not transferable and cannot be used as collateral.
Throughout 2011 various member states of the European Union showed themselves to be increasingly unable to meet financial commitments. At its heart, the crisis of the European currency unit or ECU is similar to almost any other financial crisis, including the crisis of 2008. Key concepts to understanding the crisis include collateral, assets, and liabilities.
The bank is based in Frankfurt, the largest financial centre in the Eurozone (although not the largest in the European Union). Its location in the city is fixed by the Amsterdam Treaty along with other major institutions. In the city, the bank currently occupies Frankfurt's Eurotower until its purpose-built headquarters are built.
The owners and shareholders of the European Central Bank are the central banks of the 27 member states of the EU.
The European Central Bank is the de facto successor of the European Monetary Institute (EMI). The EMI was established at the start of the second stage of the EU's Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) to handle the transitional issues of states adopting the euro and prepare for the creation of the ECB and European System of Central Banks (ESCB). The EMI itself took over from the earlier European Monetary Co-operation Fund (EMCF).
The ECB formally replaced the EMI on 1 June 1998 by virtue of the Treaty on European Union (TEU, Treaty of Maastricht), however it did not exercise its full powers until the introduction of the euro on 1 January 1999, signalling the third stage of EMU. The bank was the final institution needed for EMU, as outlined by the EMU reports of Pierre Werner and President Jacques Delors. It was established on 1 June 1998.
The first President of the Bank was Wim Duisenberg, the former president of the Dutch central bank and the European Monetary Institute. While Duisenberg had been the head of the EMI (taking over from Alexandre Lamfalussy of Belgium) just before the ECB came into existence, the French government wanted Jean-Claude Trichet, former head of the French central bank, to be the ECB's first president.
The French argued that since the ECB was to be located in Germany, its President should be French. This was opposed by the German, Dutch and Belgian governments who saw Duisenberg as a guarantor of a strong euro. Tensions were abated by a gentleman's agreement in which Duisenberg would stand down before the end of his mandate, to be replaced by Trichet, which occurred in November 2003. There had also been tension over the ECB's Executive Board, with the United Kingdom demanding a seat even though it had not joined the Single Currency. Under pressure from France, three seats were assigned to the largest members, France, Germany, and Italy; Spain also demanded and obtained a seat. Despite such a system of appointment the board asserted its independence early on in resisting calls for interest rates and future candidates to it.
When the ECB was created, it covered a Eurozone of eleven members. Since then, Greece joined in January 2001, Slovenia in January 2007, Cyprus and Malta in January 2008, Slovakia in January 2009, and Estonia in January 2011, enlarging the bank's scope and the membership of its Governing Council.
On 1 December 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, ECB according to the article 13 of TEU, gained official status of an EU institution.
When German appointee to the Governing Council and Executive board, Jürgen Stark, resigned in protest of the ECB's bond buying programme, Financial Times Deutschland called it "the end of the ECB as we know it" referring to its perceived "hawkish" stance on inflation and its historical Bundesbank influence.
The primary objective of the European Central Bank is to maintain price stability within the Eurozone, which is the same as keeping inflation low. The Governing Council in October 1998 defined price stability as inflation of around 2%, “ayear-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%” and added that price stability ”was to be maintained over the medium term”. (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices) Unlike for example the United States Federal Reserve Bank, the ECB has only one primary objective with other objectives subordinate to it.The Governing Council confirmed this definition in May 2003 following a thorough evaluation of the ECB’s monetary policy strategy. On that occasion, the Governing Council clarified that “in the pursuit of price stability, it aims to maintain inflation rates below but close to 2% over the medium term”. All lending to credit institutions must be collateralised as required by Article 18 of the Statute of the ESCB.
The key tasks of the ECB are to define and implement the monetary policy for the Eurozone, to conduct foreign exchange operations, to take care of the foreign reserves of the European System of Central Banks and promote smooth operation of the financial market infrastructure under the Target payments system and being currently developed technical platform for settlement of securities in Europe (TARGET2 Securities).Furthermore, it has the exclusive right to authorise the issuance of euro banknotes. Member states can issue euro coins but the amount must be authorised by the ECB beforehand (upon the introduction of the euro, the ECB also had exclusive right to issue coins).
In U.S. style central banking, liquidity is furnished to the economy primarily through the purchase of Treasury bonds by the Federal Reserve Bank. The Eurosystem uses a different method. There are about 1500 eligible banks which may bid for short term repo contracts of two weeks to three months duration.
The banks in effect borrow cash and must pay it back; the short durations allow interest rates to be adjusted continually. When the repo notes come due the participating banks bid again. An increase in the quantity of notes offered at auction allows an increase in liquidity in the economy. A decrease has the contrary effect. The contracts are carried on the asset side of the European Central Bank's balance sheet and the resulting deposits in member banks are carried as a liability. In lay terms, the liability of the central bank is money, and an increase in deposits in member banks, carried as a liability by the central bank, means that more money has been put into the economy.
To qualify for participation in the auctions, banks must be able to offer proof of appropriate collateral in the form of loans to other entities. These can be the public debt of member states, but a fairly wide range of private banking securities are also accepted. The fairly stringent membership requirements for the European Union, especially with regard to sovereign debt as a percentage of each member state's gross domestic product, are designed to insure that assets offered to the bank as collateral are, at least in theory, all equally good, and all equally protected from the risk of inflation.
The economic and financial crisis that began in 2008 has revealed some relative weaknesses in the sovereign debt of such member countries as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. These securities are not limited to the countries of issue, but held in many cases by banks in other member states. To the extent that the banks authorized to borrow from the ECB have compromised collateral, their ability to borrow from the ECB—and thus the liquidity of the economic system—is impaired.
This threat has drawn the ECB into rescue operations. But weak sovereign debt is not the only source of weakness in the ECB's operations, as the collapse of the market in U.S. dollar denominated collateralized debt obligations has also led to large scale interventions in cooperation with the Federal Reserve.
Rescue operations involving sovereign debt have included temporarily moving bad or weak assets off the balance sheets of the weak member banks into the balance sheets of the European Central Bank. Such action is viewed as monetization and can be seen as an inflationary threat, whereby the strong member countries of the ECB shoulder the burden of monetary expansion (and potential inflation) in order to save the weak member countries. Most central banks prefer to move weak assets off their balance sheets with some kind of agreement as to how the debt will continue to be serviced. This preference has typically led the ECB to argue that the weaker member countries must:
On 9 May 2010, the 27 member states of the European Union agreed to incorporate the European Financial Stability Facility. The EFSF’s mandate is to safeguard financial stability in Europe by providing financial assistance to Eurozone Member States.
The European Financial Stability Facility is authorised to use the following instruments linked to appropriate conditionality:
The EFSF is backed by guarantee commitments from the Eurozone Member States for a total of €780 billion and has a lending capacity of €440 billion. It has been assigned the best possible credit rating (AAA by Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, Aaa by Moody’s)
The European Central Bank had stepped up the buying of member nations debt. In response to the crisis of 2010, some proposals have surfaced for a collective European bond issue that would allow the central bank to purchase a European version of U.S. Treasury Bills.  To make European sovereign debt assets more similar to a U.S. Treasury, a collective guarantee of the member states' solvency would be necessary. But the German government has resisted this proposal, and other analyses indicate that "the sickness of the Euro" is due to the linkage between sovereign debt and failing national banking systems. If the European central bank were to deal directly with failing banking systems sovereign debt would not look as leveraged relative to national income in the financially weaker member states.
On 17 December 2010, the ECB announced that it was going to double its capitalization. (The ECB's most recent balance sheet before the announcement listed capital and reserves at €2.03 trillion.) The sixteen central banks of the member states would transfer assets to the ledger of the ECB. In banking, assets (loans) are used to offset liabilities (deposits and currency). If some of the sovereign debt held as an asset by the ECB becomes non-performing, the asset is "bad" and the deposits, in this case, currency, are not appropriately backed.
This inequality means that liabilities exceed assets and therefore the bank is in trouble. One response is to use the bank's capital to offset the losses. The use of capital to offset a loss transfers the loss to the bank's shareholders: the member banks. The increased capitalization of the ECB against potential sovereign debt default means that the sixteen member banks are also exposed to potential losses.
In 2011, the European member states may need to raise as much as US$2 trillion in debt. Some of this will be new debt and some will be previous debt that is "rolled over" as older loans reach maturity. In either case, the ability to raise this money depends on the confidence of investors in the European financial system. The ability of the European Union to guarantee its members' sovereign debt obligations have direct implications for the core assets of the banking system that support the Euro.
The bank must also co-operate within the EU and internationally with third bodies and entities. Finally it contributes to maintaining a stable financial system and monitoring the banking sector. The latter can be seen, for example, in the bank's intervention during the 2007 credit crisis when it loaned billions of euros to banks to stabilise the financial system. In December 2007, the ECB decided in conjunction with the Federal Reserve under a program called Term auction facility to improve dollar liquidity in the eurozone and to stabilise the money market.
Furthermore, not only must the bank not seek influence, but EU institutions and national governments are bound by the treaties to respect the ECB's independence. For example, the minimum term of office for a national central bank governor is five years and members of the executive board have a non-renewable eight-year term. To offer some accountability, the ECB is bound to publish reports on its activities and has to address its annual report to the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Council. The European Parliament also gets to question and then issue its opinion on candidates to the executive board.
The bank's independence has notably come under intense criticism since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French President. Sarkozy has sought to make the ECB more susceptible to political influence, to extend its mandate to focus on growth and job creation (at cost of inflation), and has frequently criticized the bank's policies on interest rates. As result of pressure from France and Greece, independence of ECB has been limited.
Although the ECB is governed by European law directly and thus not by corporate law applying to private law companies, its set-up resembles that of a corporation in the sense that the ECB has shareholders and stock capital. Its capital is five billion euros which is held by the national central banks of the member states as shareholders. The initial capital allocation key was determined in 1998 on the basis of the states' population and GDP, but the key is adjustable. Shares in the ECB are not transferable and cannot be used as collateral.
All National Central Banks (NCBs) that own a share of the ECB capital stock as of 1 January 2011 are listed below. Non-Euro area NCBs are required to pay up only a very small percentage of their subscribed capital, which accounts for the different magnitudes of Euro area and Non-Euro area total paid-up capital.
|NCB||Capital Key (%)||Paid-up Capital (€)|
|Nationale Bank van België / Banque Nationale de Belgique||2.4256||180,157,051.35|
|Central Bank of Ireland||1.1107||82,495,232.91|
|Τράπεζα της Ελλάδος (Bank of Greece)||1.9649||145,939,392.39|
|Banco de España||8.3040||616,764,575.51|
|Banque de France||14.2212||1,056,253,899.48|
|Kεντρική Τράπεζα Κύπρου / Kıbrıs Merkez Bankası|
(Central Bank of Cyprus)
|Banque centrale du Luxembourg||0.1747||12,975,526.42|
|Bank Ċentrali ta' Malta||0.0632||4,694,065.65|
|De Nederlandsche Bank||3.9882||296,216,339.12|
|Banco de Portugal||1.7504||130,007,792.98|
|Národná banka Slovenska||0.6934||51,501,030.43|
|Suomen Pankki - Finlands Bank||1.2539||93,131,153.81|
|Българска народна банка (Bulgarian National Bank)||0.8686||3,505,013.50|
|Česká národní banka||1.4472||5,839,806.06|
|Magyar Nemzeti Bank||1.3856||5,591,234.99|
|Narodowy Bank Polski||4.8954||19,754,136.66|
|Banca Naţională a României||2.4645||9,944,860.44|
|Bank of England||14.5172||58,580,453.65|
The Governing Council comprises the members of the Executive Board of the ECB and the governors of the NCBs of the euro area countries.
The Executive Board is responsible for the implementation of monetary policy defined by the Governing Council and the day-to-day running of the bank. In this it can issue decisions to national central banks and may also exercise powers delegated to it by the Governing Council. It is composed of the President of the Bank (currently Mario Draghi), a vice president (currently Vitor Constâncio) and four other members. They are all appointed for non-renewable terms of eight years. They are appointed "from among persons of recognised standing and professional experience in monetary or banking matters by common accord of the governments of the Member States at the level of Heads of State or Government, on a recommendation from the Council, after it has consulted the European Parliament and the Governing Council of the ECB". The Executive Board normally meets every Tuesday.
The General Council is a body dealing with transitional issues of euro adoption, for example fixing the exchange rates of currencies being replaced by the euro (continuing the tasks of the former EMI). It will continue to exist until all EU member states adopt the euro, at which point it will be dissolved. It is composed of the President and Vice President together with the governors of all of the EU's national central banks. 
See main article: European sovereign debt crisis.
From late 2009, fears of a sovereign debt crisis developed among fiscally conservative investors concerning some European states, with the situation becoming particularly tense in early 2010. This included euro zone members Greece, Ireland and Portugal and also some EU countries outside the area. Iceland, the country which experienced the largest crisis in 2008 when its entire international banking system collapsed has emerged less affected by the sovereign debt crisis as the government was unable to bail the banks out.
In the EU, especially in countries where sovereign debts have increased sharply due to bank bailouts, a crisis of confidence has emerged with the widening of bond yield spreads and risk insurance on credit default swaps between these countries and other EU members, most importantly Germany.  To be included in the eurozone, the countries had to fulfill certain convergence criteria, but the meaningfulness of such criteria were diminished by the fact they have not been applied to different countries with the same strictness.
The principal monetary policy tool of the European central bank is collateralized borrowing or repo agreements. These tools are also used by the United States Federal Reserve Bank, but the Fed does more direct purchasing of financial assets than its European counterpart. The collateral used by the ECB is typically high quality public and private sector debt.
The criteria for determining "high quality" for public debt have been preconditions for membership in the European Union: total debt must not be too large in relation to Gross Domestic Product, for example, and deficits in any given year must not become too large. Though these criteria are fairly simple, a number of accounting techniques may hide the underlying reality of fiscal solvency—or the lack of same.
In central banking, the privileged status of the central bank is that it can make as much money as it deems needed. In the United States Federal Reserve Bank, the Federal Reserve buys assets: typically, bonds issued by the Federal government. There is no limit on the bonds that it can buy and one of the tools at its disposal in a financial crisis is take such extraordinary measures as the purchase of large amounts of assets such as commercial paper. The purpose of such operations is to ensure that adequate liquidity is available for functioning of the financial system.
Think-tanks such as the World Pensions Council have also argued that European legislators have pushed somewhat dogmatically for the adoption of the Basel II recommendations, adopted in 2005, transposed in European Union law through the Capital Requirements Directive (CRD), effective since 2008. In essence, they forced European banks, and, more importantly, the European Central Bank itself e.g. when gauging the solvency of financial institutions, to rely more than ever on standardized assessments of credit risk marketed by two non-European private agencies- Moody’s and S&P.
There are a variety of possible responses to the problem of bad debts in a banking system. One is to induce debtors to make a greater effort to make good on their debt. With public debt this usually means getting governments to maintain debt payments while cutting back on other forms of expenditure. Such policies often involve cutting back on popular social programs.
Stringent policies with regard to social expenditures and employment in the state sector have led to riots and political protests in Greece. Another response is to shift losses from the central bank to private investors who are asked to "share the pain" of partial defaults that take the form of rescheduling debt payments.
However, if the debt rescheduling causes losses on loans held by European banks, it weakens the private banking system, which then puts pressure on the central bank to come to the aid of those banks. Private sector bond holders are an integral part of the public and private banking system. Another possible response is for wealthy member countries to guarantee or purchase the debt of countries that have defaulted or are likely to default. This alternative requires that the tax revenues and credit of the wealthy member countries be used to refinance the previous borrowing of the weaker member countries, and is politically controversial.
Reluctance in Germany to take on the burden of financing or guaranteeing the debts of weaker countries has led to public reports that some elites in Germany would prefer to see Greece, Portugal, and even Italy leave the Euro zone "temporarily." Until recently, Greek Euro zone exit was rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German government's current position is, to keep Greece within the euro zone, but not at any cost. If the worst comes to the worst, priority will be given to the euro's stability.
The ECB could, and through the late summer of 2011 did, purchase bonds issued by the weaker states even though it assumes, in doing so, the risk of a deteriorating balance sheet. ECB buying focused primarily on Spanish and Italian debt. Certain techniques can minimize the impact. Purchases of Italian bonds by the central bank, for example, were intended to dampen international speculation and strengthen portfolios in the private sector and also the central bank.
The assumption is that speculative activity will decrease over time and the value of the assets increase. Such a move is similar to what the U.S. federal reserve did in buying subprime mortgages in the crisis of 2008, except in the European crisis, the purchases are of member state debt. The risk of such a move is that it could diminish the value of the currency.
On the other hand, certain financial techniques can reduce the impact of such purchases on the currency. One is sterilization, wherein highly valued assets are sold at the same time that the weaker assets are purchased, which keeps the money supply neutral. Another technique is simply to accept the bad assets as long-term collateral (as opposed to short-term repo swaps) to be held until their market value stabilizes. This would imply, as a quid pro quo, adjustments in taxation and expenditure in the economies of the weaker states to improve the perceived value of the assets.
When the ECB buys bonds from other creditors such as European banks, the ECB does not disclose the transaction prices. Creditors profit of bargains with bonds sold at prices that exceed market's quotes.
Though the ECB's main refinancing operations (MRO) are from repo auctions with a (bi)weekly maturity and monthly maturation, the ECB now conducts Long Term Refinancing Operations (LTROs), maturing after three months, six months, 12 months and 36 months.
In 2003, the longest tender offered was three months. Refinancing via LTROs amounted to 45 bln Euro which is about 20% of overall liquidity provided by the ECB.
The ECB's first supplementary longer-term refinancing operation (LTRO) with a six-month maturity was announced March 2008. The first tender was settled April 3, and was more than four times oversubscribed. The €25 billion auction drew bids amounting to €103.1 billion, from 177 banks. Another six-month tender was allotted on July 9, again to the amount of €25 billion.
The first 12 month LTRO in June 2009 had close to 1100 bidders.
On 21 December 2011 the bank instituted a programme of making low-interest loans with a term of 3 years (36 months) and 1% interest to European banks accepting loans from the portfolio of the banks as collateral. Loans totalling €489.2 billion ($640 billion) were announced. The loans were not offered to European states, but government securities issued by European states would be acceptable collateral as would mortgage securities and other commercial paper that can be demonstrated to be secure. The programme was announced on 8 December 2011 but observers were surprised by the volume of the loans made when it was implemented.   Under its LTRO it loaned to 523 banks for an exceptionally long period of three years at a rate of just one percent. The by far biggest amount of was tapped by banks in Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain. This way the ECB tried to make sure that banks have enough cash to pay off of their own maturing debts in the first three months of 2012, and at the same time keep operating and loaning to businesses so that a credit crunch does not choke off economic growth. It also hoped that banks would use some of the money to buy government bonds, effectively easing the debt crisis.
On 29 February 2012, the ECB held a second 36 month auction, LTRO2, providing eurozone banks with further €529.5 billion in low-interest loans. This second long term refinancing operation auction saw 800 banks take part. This can be compared with the 523 banks that took part in the first auction on 21 December 2011. Net new borrowing under the February auction was around €313 billion – out of a total of €256bn existing ECB lending €215bn was rolled into LTRO2.
On 22 September 2000, the ECB, together with the monetary authorities of the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada, initiated concerted intervention in the foreign exchange markets; the ECB intervened again in early November 2000.
See main article: European Central Bank Headquarters.
The bank is based in Frankfurt, the largest financial centre in the Eurozone. Its location in the city is fixed by the Amsterdam Treaty along with other major institutions. In the city, the bank currently occupies Frankfurt's Eurotower until its purpose-built headquarters are built.
In 1999 an international architectural competition was launched by the bank to design a new building. It was won by a Vienna-based architectural office named Coop Himmelbau. The building will be approximately 180m (590feet) tall (the present building is 148m (486feet) high.) and will be accompanied with other secondary buildings on a landscaped site on the site of the former wholesale market in the eastern part of Frankfurt am Main. The main construction began in October 2008, with completion scheduled during 2014.  It is expected that the building will become an architectural symbol for Europe and is designed to accommodate double the number of staff who operate in the Eurotower.