Policy brief

Who's afraid of sovereign bonds?

The December large-scale provision of liquidity to banks by the ECB contributed to reducing spreads on Southern European sovereign bonds, but did it c

Publishing date
06 February 2012

The crisis has underlined the strong interdependence between the euro-area banking and sovereign crises. To understand the role domestic banks have played in holding sovereign debt, a breakdown of government debt by holding sectors is required.

The data shows that at the start of the crisis, most continental euro-area countries were characterised by the large size of their banks’ portfolios of domestic government bonds, which were markedly larger than in the UK or the US. Consequently, concern about sovereign solvency was bound to have major consequences for banks.

The structural vulnerability of euro-area countries has increased, reinforcing the sovereign/ banking crisis vicious cycle. All countries for which concerns about state solvency arose in recent years have seen a reversal in the previously steady increase of the share of government debt held by non residents. Germany, by contrast, has seen an increase in the share held by non residents.

In the short term, these observations raise a question about the effectiveness of ECB provision of liquidity to banks as a means to alleviate the sovereign crisis. At a point when government bonds are considered risky assets, euro-area banks are faced with both balance sheet and reputational risks compared to their non-euro area counterparts, and may prove reluctant to increase this exposure further.

In the longer term, the question is if and how euro-area regulators should set incentives to reduce banks’ heavy exposure to sovereigns. This issue should be given more attention in European policy discussions on how to strengthen the euro area.

About the authors

  • Jean Pisani-Ferry

    Jean Pisani-Ferry holds the Tommaso Padoa Schioppa chair of the European University Institute. He is a Senior Fellow at Bruegel, the European think tank, and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute (Washington DC). He is also a professor of economics with Sciences Po (Paris).

    He sits on the supervisory board of the French Caisse des Dépôts and serves as non-executive chair of I4CE, the French institute for climate economics.

    Pisani-Ferry served from 2013 to 2016 as Commissioner-General of France Stratégie, the ideas lab of the French government. In 2017, he contributed to Emmanuel Macron’s presidential bid as the Director of programme and ideas of his campaign. He was from 2005 to 2013 the Founding Director of Bruegel, the Brussels-based economic think tank that he had contributed to create. Beforehand, he was Executive President of the French PM’s Council of Economic Analysis (2001-2002), Senior Economic Adviser to the French Minister of Finance (1997-2000), and Director of CEPII, the French institute for international economics (1992-1997).

    Pisani-Ferry has taught at University Paris-Dauphine, École Polytechnique, École Centrale and the Free University of Brussels. His publications include numerous books and articles on economic policy and European policy issues. He has also been an active contributor to public debates with regular columns in Le Monde and for Project Syndicate.

  • Silvia Merler

    Silvia Merler, an Italian citizen, is the Head of ESG and Policy Research at Algebris Investments.

    She joined Bruegel as Affiliate Fellow at Bruegel in August 2013. Her main research interests include international macro and financial economics, central banking and EU institutions and policy making.

    Before joining Bruegel, she worked as Economic Analyst in DG Economic and Financial Affairs of the European Commission (ECFIN). There she focused on macro-financial stability as well as financial assistance and stability mechanisms, in particular on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), providing supportive analysis for the policy negotiations.

    Between May 2011 and August 2012, she worked as Research Assistant to Jean Pisani-Ferry, then-director of Bruegel. During 2009 and 2010, while a student, she collaborated to research projects of Bocconi University and the Italian ENI Enrico Mattei Foundation (FEEM). During this period she was involved in the MICRODYN project, working on a cross-country and cross-sectors analysis of productivity developments with firm level data, and on the POLINARES project (“Policy for Natural Resources”).

    Born in 1986, she holds a MSc in Economics and Social Sciences at Bocconi University in Milan and graduated in 2011 with a thesis on Current Account Imbalances within the Euro Area. She obtained a BA in Economics and Social Sciences from the same university in 2008, with a thesis on Ukraine and Moldova in the European Neighbourhood Policy.

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