/World’s oldest central bank hits legal roadblock in crisis fight

World’s oldest central bank hits legal roadblock in crisis fight

By Love Liman and Rafaela Lindeberg

Sweden’s central bank may need to have some of its age-old laws changed if it’s to act on a pledge to do “whatever it takes” to save the economy.

The Riksbank’s 352-year history gives it the distinction of being the world’s oldest central bank. But the legislation governing it has yet to catch up with the kind of policy it needs to deliver to address the crisis triggered by Covid-19.

Specifically, the Riksbank doesn’t have the legal right to buy bonds issued by companies, even though it’s made clear it’s ready to do so as part of a recent package of emergency measures.

“The intention of the current Riksbank Act doesn’t allow the bank to make outright purchases of corporate bonds or other private securities on the primary or secondary markets,” said Niklas Schullerqvist, secretary to the parliamentary committee charged with overhauling the bank’s policy framework.

So far the Stockholm-based central bank has bought 5.6 billion kronor ($ 568 million) of corporate commercial paper as part of an emergency quantitative-easing plan. But it’s refrained from buying corporate bonds — an important source of financing in the biggest Nordic economy — despite repeated assurances it will so.

Schullerqvist says the Riksbank needs to consider European Union legislation on state aid as corporate bond purchases “may be considered supporting some specific parts of the economy.”

Riksbank spokesman Tomas Lundberg said the bank’s legal team is looking into the matter, but wouldn’t comment further because “it’s an ongoing process.”

Shape of Sweden’s Bond Market
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Riksbank Governor Stefan Ingves said purchases of investment-grade bonds are “certainly on our agenda.” He also said “there are some legal issues when it comes to buying into the primary market.”

Sweden’s primary bond market is a vital source of funding for the country’s businesses. And with record-low borrowing costs and a growing investor base flush with cash, the market’s growth has increasingly shaped Sweden’s economy.

But the market has been turned on its head since the Covid-19 crisis hit. Investors panicked and tried to redeem their cash, prompting 35 fixed-income funds to shut their doors. Even so, clients withdrew record quantities of cash and a spike in yields locked out all but a handful of top rated borrowers.

In April, Sweden’s syndicated public bond market only saw corporate issuance from investment-grade companies such as Volvo Group, Industrivarden AB and Scania CV AB, as well as state-owned entities including Jernhusen AB, Akademiska Hus AB and Sveaskog AB.

The crisis that’s hit Sweden’s corporate bond market has drawn pleas from the investor community for the Riksbank to intervene before it’s too late.

The Riksbank “should support new money rather than being very active in the secondary market,” said Daniel Sachs, chief executive at credit manager Proventus Capital Management AB.

Magnus Nilsson, founding partner of Nordic Cross Asset Management, says that a “first step” toward making it easier for struggling businesses to access funding “would be for the Riksbank to get involved in the primary market for investment grade bonds.”

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