In its Judgment of 7 October 2015 in Accorinti and Others v ECB, T-79/13, EU:T:2015:756 (not available in English, but a press release is), the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) dismissed a claim for compensation against the European Central Bank (ECB) as a result of the 53.5% haircut that private investors in Greek sovereign debt suffered in 2012.
Indeed, the GC ruled that the loss suffered in 2012 by the private holders of Greek debt instruments in
connection with the restructuring of the public debt of the Greek State is not
attributable to the ECB, but to the economic risks ordinarily inherent in financial
sector activities. The claimants had submitted three main grounds for illegality of the ECB's participation in the restructuring of Greek debt:
- breach of the legitimate expectations allegedly created by the general declarations of the subsequent ECB Presidents Mr Trichet and Mr Draghi and, in particular, the open and repeated opposition of the ECB to a restructuring of the Greek
public debt and a Greek selective default, which eventually happened;
- breach of the principle of equal treatment as a result of the selective nature of the haircut, which affected private investors but not the ECB that also held Greek public debt at the time; and
- improper exercise of competences linked to the objective of safeguarding price
stability and the objective relating to the sound management of monetary policy as per Article 127 TFEU.
In claimants' view, such illegalities (or any of them) would suffice to engage the non-contractual liability of the ECB under Article 340 TFEU. The GC dismissed the action in full. The arguments of the GC are interesting, particularly because they create a clear-cut restriction on this sort of arguments to seek liability derived from macroeconomic policy intervention. Specifically, as the press release indicates,
'the GC holds that the private investors cannot rely on the
principle of the protection of legitimate expectations or on the principle of legal certainty in
a field such as that of monetary policy, the objective of which involves constant adjustment to
reflect changes in economic circumstances. The private investors were
deemed to have knowledge of the highly unstable economic circumstances which determined the
fluctuation in the value of the Greek securities. They could therefore not exclude the risk of a
restructuring of the Greek public debt, given the differences of view prevailing in that regard within
the Eurosystem and in the other institutions involved (Commission, IMF and ECB).
The Court then states, that the press releases and the public statements of some ECB staff
members were of a general nature and came from an institution which did not have the power to
decide on a possible restructuring of the public debt of a Member State. In addition, those press
releases and statements did not include specific and unconditional assurances from authorised
and reliable sources, capable, for that reason, of giving rise to legitimate expectations' (emphasis added)
Moreover, there is an obiter dictum that I find particularly interesting in paragraph 82, where the GC stresses that the investors acted in a way that displays a clear risk-taking strategy (if not pure speculation), which reduces their ability to rely on arguments ultimately based on good faith, such as legitimate expectations.
Regarding the second line of argument, in a quite measured and detailed analysis of the applicability of the principle of equality to the private investors and the ECB (which, in my view, could have been dispensed with in much less space than paras 85-103 in view of its prima facie ludicrousness), and as the press release also summarises, the GC
'considers that the general principle of equal treatment cannot apply, since the
private savers or creditors and the ECB (as well as NCBs [national central banks] of the Eurosystem) were not in a
comparable situation: confronted with the Greek financial crisis and the exceptional circumstances
attached to it, the ECB was exclusively guided by public interest objectives, such as, in
particular, the objective of safeguarding price stability and the objective relating to the sound
management of monetary policy. By contrast, the private investors or savers acted in pursuit of a
purely private interest, namely obtaining a maximum return on their investments' (emphasis added).
There is another obiter dictum (?) bit of the Judgment that I find particularly interesting in paragraphs 99-103, where the GC discusses a sub-argument linked to equality of treatment, whereby the claimants had submitted that a general pari passu clause [ie an obligation to receive the same treatment as other creditor holding the same type of securities] would have prevented the ECB from avoiding the effects of the haircut suffered by private investors. In that regard, the GC rejects the existence of a general pari passu clause under EU law (para 99) and, even in stronger terms, determines that
if a rule that would impose the pari passu implied an obligation to treat all creditors equally without having regard to the various situations in which they find themselves and, in particular, on the one hand, private investors and, on the other hand, the central banks of the Eurosystem acting in the exercise of the duties conferred upon them by Article 127 TFEU and Article 18 of the [ECB] Statute, the recognition of such a rule in the legal order of the Union might be contrary to the principle of equal treatment (para 100, own translation from Spanish and emphasis added).
Finally, the GC also rejects the arguments based on the improper exercise of monetary policy competences, largely because they were founded on the same reasons that it had already rejected under the previous heads of claims.
Overall, the Accorinti and Others v ECB Judgment is interesting because it recasts the relevant case law of the CJEU in terms of EU Institutions' liability and applies it in a way that consolidates the hands-off approach that the CJEU seems to have definitely adopted to issues of macroeconomic policy and monetary stability of the Euro (along the lines of Pringle, C-370/12, EU:C:2012:756).
It also sends out a very clear message that the Court remains committed to avoid creating a legal framework where EU Institutions are the object of spurious litigation. This is very clear from para 69 of the Judgment, where the GC stressed that
regarding the regulatory activities of the institutions, in which the adoption by the ECB of acts of general application ... can be included, the Court held that the restrictive construction of the responsibility of the Union in the exercise of its regulatory activity is explained, firstly, by the fact that the exercise of the legislative function, even when there is a mechanism of judicial review of the legality of the acts, should not be hindered by the prospect of actions for damages every time the general interest of the Union requires the adoption of policy measures that may adversely affect the interests of individuals and, [secondly], by the fact that, in a legislative context characterized by the existence of broad discretion that is essential for the implementation of a policy of the Union, the latter shall not incur liability unless the institution concerned has exceeded, manifestly and seriously, the [limits for the] exercise of its powers (see, to that effect, the judgment of 9 September 2008, FIAMM and other / Council and Commission, C-120/06 P and C-121/06 P, Rec, EU: C: 2008: 476, paragraph 174) (para 69, own translation from Spanish and emphasis added).
In my view, the Judgment and the line of case law it consolidates has the advantage of establishing a clear red line that should exclude future litigation. It should thus be welcome.