FRANKFURT (Reuters) - European Central Bank President Mario Draghi pressed euro zone governments on Friday to kick-start the bloc’s EFSF rescue fund, showing exasperation at their slow progress and resisting pressure for the ECB to do more.
Other senior ECB policymakers joined Draghi in pushing the governments to act, saying the central bank should not be asked to go beyond its mandate of delivering price stability.
The concerted push from the ECB followed an escalation in pressure on the bank this week to play a greater role in tackling the crisis, which has engulfed Italy and threatens to tear apart the single currency project involving 17 countries.
A Reuters poll on Friday gave an even chance the ECB would start printing money to prevent a further escalation.
Draghi pointed out that European Union leaders had decided more than a year and a half ago to launch the EFSF, then to make the full EFSF guarantee volume available, and four weeks ago to leverage the resources of the fund.
“Where is the implementation of these long-standing decisions?” Draghi asked in a speech to the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt.
“We should not be waiting any longer,” he added in the text of his speech, although he did not actually say that line.
Governments want to strengthen the rescue fund to fight the crisis and have set a December deadline to bolster its firepower, but these efforts have been undermined by delays, surging borrowing costs and scant investor interest.
With politicians squabbling over how to address the intensifying crisis, some capitals have pressed the ECB to play a greater role than the relatively tame interventions in sovereign bond markets it has made so far.
France and Germany, Europe’s two central powers, clashed earlier this week over whether the ECB should intervene more forcefully to halt the crisis after its modest bond purchases failed to calm markets.
Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos joined in the debate on Friday, telling a news conference: “The ECB, like every central bank, must help the euro zone overcome the crisis, in every possible way.” He did not elaborate.
The prospect of quantitative easing -- effectively creating money to buy bonds outright in the secondary market, and already undertaken by the U.S. and British central banks -- is also being talked about.
Despite its resistance to the idea, the Reuters poll of 50 bond strategists in Europe and the United States gave an even probability the ECB will soon bow to pressure and adopt a policy of quantitative easing.
That would mark a controversial break from its existing policy, whereby the ECB offsets its government bond purchases by draining liquidity from the system in separate operations.
Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, a powerful voice on the ECB’s 23-member Governing Council, sought to put the onus on governments to tackle the crisis, rather than the ECB.
Weidmann echoed Draghi’s call for governments to implement crisis-fighting measures and said they should keep their hands off the independent central bank.
“The lack of success in containing the crisis does not justify overstretching the mandate of the central bank and making it responsible for solving the crisis,” Weidmann, who also heads the German Bundesbank, told the Frankfurt congress.
He stressed that “a clear commitment to our mandate is an indispensable element of a prosperous future for the euro”.
Weidmann reiterated his oft-repeated call for governments hit by the crisis to respond by reforming their economies.
“The necessary measures are obvious and uncontested. The only thing that we are short of seems to be their implementation. And as I have just argued, the current approach to crisis management has not helped to remedy this,” he said.
“Against this backdrop, it might be consoling to take a look at the German experience because it illustrates how reforms eventually pay off.”
The so-called “Hartz IV” welfare rules introduced by former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2005 are credited with having helped reform Europe’s largest economy and raise its competitiveness.
The ECB is using its bond-purchase program to intervene in sovereign debt markets to a limited degree but this has failed to ease all the pressure on Italy’s borrowing costs and some countries in the bloc want the ECB to do more.
The ECB was buying Italian government bonds in early trading on Friday, traders said. Italian benchmark 10-year government bond yields have been trading around 7 percent in recent days -- the level that forced Ireland and Portugal to seek bailouts.
In Spain, another ECB policymaker, Executive Board Member Jose Manuel Gonzalez-Paramo, said euro zone governments must assume responsibility for their sovereign debt problems and the ECB cannot go past its mandate with regards to helping governments via its bond purchases.
“The sovereign debt crisis is primarily the responsibility of the governments. One can ask the ECB to act, but only within its mandate,” he said in the Spanish capital.
In Frankfurt, Thomas Mirow, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and a former deputy German finance minister, said the ECB had some role to play in tackling the debt crisis but should not take all the strain.
“ECB action is required but it cannot do the whole job on its own,” Mirow said during a panel discussion at the same event as Draghi.
But another influential German at the Frankfurt congress, “wise man” Peter Bofinger, wondered why there was so much fuss about the idea of the ECB engaging in quantitative easing.
“The Fed has bought 800 billion treasuries in the last twelve months, so what’s the problem?,” asked Bofinger, one of the group of economists that advise the German government.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Gould and Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt, and by Harry Papachristou in Athens; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Catherine Evans