FRANKFURT — The European Central Bank will begin an enormous new wave of bond purchases meant to counteract the “serious risks” to the eurozone caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The bank will buy up to 750 billion euros, or $820 billion, in government and corporate bonds and other assets, pumping cash into financial markets deeply rattled by the pandemic. The bank said it would buy even more assets if need be, signaling that it is prepared to defend the eurozone with all the weapons at its disposal.
“Extraordinary times require extraordinary action,” Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, said on Twitter early Thursday. “There are no limits to our commitment to the euro.”
The announcement followed an unusual late-night conference call among members of the bank’s Governing Council, which followed signs that bond investors were losing faith in Italy’s ability to repay its enormous government debt. If Italy’s borrowing costs reach unsustainable levels, the future of the eurozone will be at stake.
It is very rare for the Governing Council to make such a momentous decision outside a regular monetary policy meeting. Just a week ago, the central bank announced €120 billion in additional bond-buying as well as programs meant to flood the eurozone with cheap credit.
Investors were unimpressed by that initial attempt. The risk premium that they demanded on Italian government bonds has more than doubled since the beginning of the month. The surge raised fears that Italy, where nearly 3,000 people have died of the coronavirus, could become the epicenter of a new financial crisis because of its €2.4 trillion in government debt.
The Governing Council indicated Wednesday that it was ready to break its own rules as it vacuumed up government and corporate bonds, as well as short-term debt issued by corporations, known as commercial paper.
The bank said it would loosen its credit standards and buy riskier assets than it had in the past, including Greek debt that was previously excluded because of the government’s low credit rating. By increasing demand, the purchases drive down the interest rates that debt issuers need to pay.
“The Governing Council will do everything necessary within its mandate,” the bank said in a statement Wednesday. “The Governing Council is fully prepared to increase the size of its asset-purchase programs and adjust their composition, by as much as necessary and for as long as needed. It will explore all options and all contingencies to support the economy through this shock.”
Ms. Lagarde’s declaration that there are no limits to what the central bank is willing to do was reminiscent of her predecessor Mario Draghi’s vow in 2012, during a severe debt crisis, to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro.
“This is a strong signal from the Europeans that they see the situation in financial markets and are trying to calm things down,” said Torsten Slok, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York. “It really is ‘whatever it takes.’”
Ms. Lagarde has been under fire since she made a remark at a news conference last week that was interpreted as a sign she was less willing than Mr. Draghi was to defend Italy and other eurozone members from financial market turmoil. Although Ms. Lagarde quickly walked back the comment, and other high-ranking officials at the bank have spent the last few days emphasizing their resolve, investors continued to pummel bonds issued by Italy, Greece, Spain and other countries considered to be riskier bets.
The size of the stimulus package announced Wednesday, which the European Central Bank called the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program, or PEPP, seemed intended to discourage investors from betting against the euro.
“We couldn’t hope for more,” Frederik Ducrozet, an economist at Banque Pictet & Cie, wrote in a research note. “Provided the fiscal response continues to build up, this looks like a game-changer for the euro area economy and markets.”
Stocks opened higher in Tokyo after the central bank’s announcement.
The European Central Bank said it would dose the purchases as needed through the end of the year, implying it is ready to intervene to defend individual eurozone countries from excess market pressure.
“The E.C.B. will not tolerate any risks to the smooth transmission of its monetary policy in all jurisdictions of the euro area,” the bank said.
Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting from Washington.