But by buying public sector and corporate bonds in grand style, the bank creates more demand and allows governments and companies to issue debt with lower interest rates than would otherwise be the case. The program’s ultimate aim is to lower the cost of credit, stimulate growth and raise annual inflation closer to the official target of nearly 2 percent.
If central bank bond buying is helping companies in places like Pistoia to invest and expand, “it is definitely a positive,” Benoît Coeuré, a member of the European Central Bank’s executive board, said in an interview.
The purchases of corporate bonds have covered a broad range of industries across the 19 nations of the eurozone. They include debt issued by the brewers Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken, by the pharmaceutical makers Novartis and Roche, by the fashion eyewear maker Luxottica, and by consumer products companies including Nestlé, Unilever and a Belgian unit of Coca-Cola.
But an examination by The New York Times of the purchases, which the central bank identifies only by bond serial numbers, reveals one clear theme: infrastructure.
That is especially true in Italy.
In addition to the railroad company, the central bank has bought debt issued by Autostrade per l’Italia, which builds and manages Italian roads, as well as by utilities and energy companies. One is Hera, a waste and water management company in Bologna, which is using part of the money it raised to build a plant that will convert organic waste into natural gas.
Effectively, the European Central Bank is financing an enormous public works program in Italy.
The results are easy to see in Pistoia. Though a half-hour trip from Florence, it attracts a trickle of visitors by comparison and cannot depend on tourism for jobs. The city’s only other major industry is acres of potted pines, palms and other plants lined up in neat rows, ready for export to gardens and nurseries around Europe and Asia.
Despite sunny weather, Pistoia’s pedestrian zone was practically empty on Monday. Edda Iozzini was still in a good mood. “Money is in circulation again,” the 66-year-old, who owns a newsstand, said between drags of a cigarette. “We’re very happy in Pistoia.”
Whether that feeling remains once the stimulus punch bowl is removed is an open question. After a slump that lasted a decade, growth in the eurozone has surpassed the United States’, and unemployment is falling. For all intents and purposes, the credit crunch is over, analysts say.
But there remain trouble spots — notably Italy. The country’s banks are still working off an enormous backlog of problem loans, and credit remains tight.