People wearing face masks travel by metro in Brussels, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Belgium has ordered further lockdown measures starting Wednesday, following in the steps of European neighbours Italy, Spain and France. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Europe's central bank launches new program to calm markets

March 18, 2020 - 7:25 pm

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The European Central Bank is launching a new, expanded program to buy financial assets in a bid to calm markets roiled by the virus outbreak and counter what is expected to be a recession in the 19 countries that use the euro currency.

The purchases are aimed at keeping borrowing costs down and making sure the bank's low benchmark rates keep getting through to the economy.

The bank said Wednesday that the purchases could total up to 750 billion euros ($820 billion) by the end of this year and will include government and private-sector bonds as well as commercial paper.

The move comes as market borrowing costs for heavily indebted Italy rose and as the eurozone faces a drastic economic slowdown with many businesses closed. The purchases can drive down those market interest rates and reduce fears that indebted countries could get into financial trouble.

The interest yield on 10-year Italian government bonds had spiked on Wednesday as stocks plunged and pessimism grew about how deep the downturn from the outbreak might be.

Higher bond yields bring back ugly memories of the eurozone debt crisis in 2010-2012 when market turmoil and rising government borrowing costs threatened to break up the euro currency union. That crisis was calmed by a similar ECB promise to purchase bonds of countries suffering from excessive borrowing costs after Mario Draghi, the bank's president at the time, said the institution would “do whatever it takes” to preserve the euro.

The new ECB purchase program has a key difference, in that it does not require a country to ask for it or agree to a program of spending restrictions. It comes on top of ECB stimulus efforts including a negative rate on deposits it takes from commercial banks of minus 0.5%, 20 billion euros per month in existing bond purchases, and up to 2.3 trillion euros in negative interest credit offered to banks, in effect paying them to borrow so long as they keep credit flowing to companies.

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