Lots of people have been focusing on the recent ECB rate rise, but the ECB’s role in this crisis has really been determined by its other – more opaque and less publicised – role: as lender of last resort. This has got the ECB into a near untenable position. It faces huge exposure to peripheral eurozone countries, it aims to maintain price stability, but has also acted to stabilise the whole eurozone economy, and it has underwritten a bloated and inefficient banking sector with unlimited cheap money.
The ECB has lent massively to the struggling European banking sector. Although this may have been viable and necessary to halt the systemic risk from the financial crisis it is now out of control. It has propped up banks that should have gone bust and created banks addicted to ECB funding. A mechanism for reining in lending and winding down banks should have been in place from the start. The ECB essentially dug itself a hole without bringing a ladder to get itself out again.
Let’s not forget, these actions also helped fuel the sovereign debt crisis by creating perverse incentives. These banks could take on cheap ECB loans and then invest in high yielding but relatively safe assets (peripheral sovereign bonds at the time), in order to turn quick profit and increase capital. This fuelled the level of government debt and when it became clear just how bad the sovereigns' finances were, markets panicked and the debt crisis hit (but with more debt and more banks involved/exposed than before).
The ECB tried to fix this problem by throwing more liquidity at it (through its bond buying programme). This just increased its exposure to risky economies, distorted bond markets and rightly raised questions over its independence and impartiality (not to mention being potentially inflationary).
Lastly, the ECB has overseen the build up of huge imbalances in the eurosystem of central banks. Some, like Ireland or Greece, borrow huge amounts but contribute little. The loans to these countries are underwritten by other central banks in the system, making them even more exposed to a peripheral default.
The ECB has played a huge role in the cycling of debt around the eurozone, and put itself in a very exposed and compromising position. Its interest rate policy is massively important but the darker side of ECB policy has debatably played a more important (and negative) role in this crisis.
To be fair to the ECB this was not all of its own making, since it was forced into this situation by eurozone leaders inaction, which is further illustration of the politicisation of a once proudly independent central bank.