Bundesbank steps up pressure on Draghi

Financial Time–  Germany’s Bundesbank has stepped up pressure on Mario Draghi, European Central Bank president, to plan the withdrawal of exceptional help for eurozone banks, warning of potentially dangerous side-effects for the region’s financial system.

Jens Weidmann, Bundesbank president, said that ECB governing council members agreed risks taken by the bank must be subject to continuous review. “That does not mean all crisis measures must be immediately withdrawn, but that we as central bankers have an idea how we will organise and implement an ‘exit strategy’,” he said on Tuesday at a press conference in Frankfurt.

His comments highlighted German concern at potentially damaging spill-over effects from the more than €1tn in three-year loans the ECB has provided to eurozone banks in recent months. Mr Draghi has signalled that the three-year liquidity offers are unlikely to be repeated – but the ECB continues to meet in full banks’ demands for loans lasting up to three months.

Mr Weidmann warned the ECB’s cheap liquidity could lead banks to adopt unsustainable business models and governments slowing down the pace of fiscal and structural reforms.

The Bundesbank reported its profits had fallen from €2.2bn in 2010 to just €643m last year after substantially increasing reserves set aside to cover risks associated with the ECB’s crisis-fighting measures.

Mr Weidmann said the increase by €4.1bn to €7.7bn in general risk provisions was not meant “to send a political signal” but reflected cautious accounting policies, citing the significant expansion of the ECB’s government bond buying in 2011.

Tensions between Mr Weidmann and Mr Draghi escalated earlier this month when a Bundesbank letter voicing its concerns was leaked to the German press – forcing the ECB president to warn council members against fighting in public.

Mr Weidmann said the timing of an exit strategy would depend on the economic and financial environment, but sensible a risk management would see the ECB taking steps against the weakest banks that had become dependent on its liquidity or to boost the quality of assets used as collateral to obtain central bank funds.

His hard-line could create fresh tensions within the ECB, where other policymakers remain worried about the fragility of the eurozone’s financial system and economic recovery. Benoît Cœuré, an ECB executive board member, struck a softer tone earlier this week when he told a Japanese newspaper: “It is too early to decide on exit strategy…We have to prepare for future exit, but I would say that time is not ripe now.”

But Mr Weidmann said he was not isolated within the 23-strong ECB council, where his concerns were shared by others, and that his personal relationship with Mr Draghi was “very good”. The Bundesbank had a special role in the debate, he said, because of the size of Germany’s economy and “because it comes from a particular tradition and stands for particular values”.

Central bankers around the world were being pushed to the limits of their mandates, Mr Weidmann warned. He expressed concern about the increased parliamentary scrutiny faced by his counterparts in Japan and the UK. Sir Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, was “feeling the consequences of what happens when a parliament has the impression that a central bank has accumulated tasks that require democratic legitimacy or democratic control.”

In contrast to much of the eurozone, Germany’s economy was “in remarkable good shape,” Mr Weidmann said, pointing to steady falls in unemployment but also sharp rises in German house prices. He warned that ECB interest rates were set for the eurozone as a whole and that national regulators might have to take action to prevent overheating in some market segments.

The Bundesbank president said inflation this year would be higher than expected – but blamed oil prices and higher charges imposed by governments.

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