Cross-posted from the New Economics Foundation
For some, money is the “root of all evil”, while others have suggested “money is power”. What is definitely true is that our economy simply cannot function without it. At the centre of our monetary system lies central bank money, because it is what banks use to make payments to each other. The collateral framework specifies the rules via which central banks inject money into the banking system, so that banks can make these payments. Furthermore, as modern financial markets are increasingly organised around collateral, central banks’ treatment of collateral – the terms on which they accept bonds or loans posted by banks – sends a powerful signal to private financial markets. Central banks’ collateral rules have significant knock-on effects for monetary and financial conditions in the wider economy.
The collateral framework of the Eurosystem − the European Central Bank (ECB) and the euro area national central banks − is at the heart of the ECB’s monetary policy implementation. Problematically, the rules dictating this central component to the ECB’s monetary policy operations are not fit for purpose.
In its current form, the collateral framework is not only at odds with democratically defined goals of the Paris Agreement and the EU’s Green Deal, but it also actively underpins financial market failures and reinforces the carbon lock-in. It further contradicts the ECB’s own principles of strong risk standards needed for the sound implementation of monetary policy, whilst undermining the high prudential standards to which it attempts to hold private financial institutions to account.
Key findings and recommendations
We focus on the collateral rules for corporate bonds and show that the Eurosystem collateral framework has a carbon bias – it favours fossil fuel companies and other carbon-intensive companies disproportionately to their contribution to EU employment and the direct production of goods and services. Overall, carbon-intensive companies issue 59% of the corporate bonds that the ECB accepts as collateral, while their overall contribution to EU employment and Gross Value Added (GVA) is less than 24% and 29%, respectively. The ECB’s collateral framework implicitly encourages fossil fuel companies to increasingly tap bond markets − for example, we show that four large (mostly gas) fossil fuel companies rely on bonds subsidised by the ECB collateral framework for more than half of overall financing.
Eligibility is not the only way through which the ECB supports carbon-intensive sectors − lower haircuts play an important role too. The average haircut in non-carbon intensive sectors (13.93%) is demonstrably higher than carbon-intensive sectors, including fossil fuel companies (13.33%), energy-intensive companies (11.03%), non-renewable utilities (13.36%) and companies that engage in carbon-intensive transportation (10.27%). The 10 fossil fuel companies with the lowest company-level haircuts, benefit from a haircut of between nearly 1% — 4%. These low haircuts effectively signal to financial markets that these ‘dirty’ assets carry very low risk, creating favourable financing conditions for them.
To help structurally re-align the ECB monetary policy implementation (and the wider financial sector) with the goals of the EU Green Deal and a socially just green transition, we propose three policy scenarios that would allow the ECB to green its collateral framework. We consider the climate footprint of each bond, and illustrate how our scenarios would reduce the weighted average carbon intensity (WACI) of the Eurosystem collateral framework from around 243 tCO2e/$m as follows:
- The climate-aligned haircuts (more conservative) scenario maintains the existing list of eligible bonds, but adjusts the haircuts on collateral – that specify how much banks can borrow from the ECB against that collateral − according to the bonds’ climate footprint, using a ‘shades of dirty and green’ approach. This approach is specifically designed to generate incentives and market signals for firms to issue green bonds and improve their climate performance, for example by reducing their emissions. This first scenario would see the WACI fall to 235 tCO2e/$m.
- The lower-carbon, climate-aligned haircuts scenario excludes dirty bonds issued by fossil fuel companies and adds climate-friendly bonds that meet the ECB’s eligibility criteria. It also applies climate-aligned haircuts to the adjusted collateral list. This scenario would see the WACI fall to 196 tCO2e/$m.
- The low-carbon, climate-aligned haircuts scenario no longer allows banks to post dirty bonds issued by either fossil fuel companies or other carbon-intensive companies as collateral. Rather, it replaces them with other bonds that are not carbon-intensive which satisfy the eligibility criteria fully or partly. This third scenario would see the WACI fall to 71 tCO2e/$m.
Our scenarios provide two important insights. First, even an aggressive calibration of haircuts to reflect the relative greenness/dirtiness of collateral will not reduce significantly the carbon intensity of the ECB’s collateral list. Second, for the ECB to seriously tackle the carbon bias hardwired into its collateral rules, it needs to adjust the collateral list alongside a climate-aligned haircut framework. The ECB has to rewrite eligibility criteria and replace dirty bonds with greener bonds, including those issued by carbon-intensive companies. Critically, even our more climate-friendly scenario does not eliminate carbon-intensive companies from the list of eligible issuers, but restricts the eligibility of their debt in the ECB’s collateral list to green bonds. This encourages companies to accelerate the transition to low-carbon activities.
These scenarios preserve banks’ access to central bank money − the maximum funding that banks can obtain from the ECB and the national central banks using corporate bonds as collateral remains roughly the same. However, by design, they significantly alter the types of bonds banks need to hold to access central bank funding. This incentivises banks (and the wider financial sector) to invest in greener rather than ‘dirtier’ corporate bonds, which in turn incentivises non-financial companies to align their practices with the Paris Agreement.
As we continue to grapple with the greatest health, social and economic shock of our lifetime, there is no better time to change the rules so that we come out of this crisis better than when we went in. A well-designed financial system is not a silver bullet to fix all our economy’s flaws, but it is one of the most important things to get right if we are to genuinely build back better. In the absence of reform, the current rules to the collateral framework risks ‘locking-in’ and exacerbating large swathes of the financial sector’s prevailing weaknesses.