More than just a few “fallen angels.”.
As part of its QE operations, the ECB continues to pour billions of freshly created euros each month into corporate bonds – and sometimes when it buys bonds via “private placements” directly into some of Europe’s biggest corporations and the European subsidiaries of non-European transnationals. Its total corporate bond purchases recently passed the €100 billion threshold. And it’s growing at a rate of roughly €7 billion a month. And it’s in the process of becoming the biggest “bad bank.”
When the ECB first embarked on its corporate bond-buying scheme in March 2016, it stated that it would buy only investment-grade rated debt. But shortly after that, concerns were raised about what might happen if a name it owned was downgraded to below investment grade. A few months later a representative of the bank put such fears to rest by announcing that it “is not required to sell its holdings in the event of a downgrade” to junk, raising the prospect of it holding so-called “fallen angels.”
Now, sixteen months into the program, it turns out that the ECB has bought into 981 different corporate bond issuances, of which 34 are currently rated BB+, so non-investment grade, or junk. And 208 of the issuances are non-rated (NR). So in total, a quarter of the bond issuances it purchased are either junk or not rated (red bars):
The ECB initially said it would only buy bonds that are “rated” — and rated investment grade. Thus having a quarter of the bonds on its books either junk or not rated represents a major violation of that promise.
The ECB is clearly loading up on risk and possibly bad credit that Draghi’s successor is going to have to eat at some point further down the road.
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