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Satyajit Das: The European Debt Crisis Redux

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By Satyajit Das, derivatives expert and the author of Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives – Revised Edition (2006 and 2010). Jointly posted with Roubini Global Economics

The half-life of solutions to Europe’s debt problem is getting ever shorter.

Recent hopes have relied on the ostensible success of the European Central Bank’s (“ECB”) LTRO – Long Term Refinancing Operation, more appropriately termed the Lourdes Treatment and Resuscitation Option. In December 2011 and February 2012, the ECB offered unlimited financing to European banks at 1% for 3 years, replacing a previous 13-month program. Banks drew over Euro 1 trillion under the facility – €489 billion in the first round and €529.5 billion in the second. Participation amongst European banks was widespread, especially in the second round where around 800 banks used the facility.

The funds borrowed were used to purchase government bonds, retire or repay existing more expensive borrowings and surplus funds were redeposited with the ECB. The first entailed banks borrowing at 1% purchasing higher yielding sovereign debt, such as Spanish and Italian bonds that paid 5-6%. This allowed banks to earn profits from an officially sanctioned carry trade – known as the Sarko trade after the French President.

The LTRO provided finance for both beleaguered sovereigns and banks, which need to raise around €1.9 trillion in 2012. It helped reduce interest rates for countries like Spain and Italy. It also helped banks covertly build-up capital, via the profits earned through the spread between the cost of ECB borrowings and the return available on sovereign bonds.

The LTRO was very clever, effectively monetising debt (printing money) without breaching European Treaties or the ECB’s charter.

The sheer weight of money – at one €500 note per second it would take 63 ½ years count €1 trillion- proved successful. Financial market sentiment was overwhelmingly positive feeding a large rally in global stock markets and other risky assets.

As subsequent events have exposed, there were always reasons to be cautious.

The LTRO facility is for 3 years. It assumes that the conditions will normalise within that period. It is not clear what happens if that is not the case.

Economist Walter Bagehot advised that in a crisis central banks should lend freely but at a penalty rate and secured by good collateral. The ECB does not appear to have quite understood Bagehot’s commandment. The rate is below market rates, amounting to a subsidy to banks. The ECB and Euro-Zone central banks have loosened standards, agreeing to lend against all manner of collateral. In effect, the ECB is now functioning as a financial institution, assuming significant credit and interest rate risks on its loans.

If the European Financial Stability Fund (“EFSF”) was a Collateralised Debt Obligation, the ECB increasingly resembles a highly leveraged bank.

The ECB balance sheet is now around €3 trillion, an increase of about 30 percent just since Mario Draghi took office in November 2012. It is supported by it own capital (scheduled to increase to €10 billion) and the capital of Euro-Zone central banks (€80 billion). This equates to a leverage of around 38 times.

Critically, the LTRO cannot address fundamental issues.

It does not reduce the level of debt in problem countries, merely finances them in the short-run. Europe is relying on its austerity program to reduce debt. As Greece demonstrated and Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy are demonstrating, massive fiscal tightening when combined with private sector reduction in debt merely puts the economy into recession. As public finance deteriorate rather than improve, it results in an increase not decrease in public debt.

Ultimately, it may be necessary to go Greek. Debt restructuring may be needed to achieve the required reduction in the public borrowings for many countries. Interestingly, financial markets price the risk of a Spanish debt restructuring at around 30-35%.

The LTRO does not improve the cost or availability of funding for the relevant countries beyond an immediate short term fix..

Government bond purchases financed by the LTRO artificially decreased the interest rates for countries, such as Spain and Italy. Unless additional rounds of LTRO are offered, interest rates are likely to return to market levels.

The real increase in liquidity available to support sovereign borrowings was lower than €1 trillion. Perhaps only one third of the LTRO loans and maybe as little as €115 billion were directed to this purpose. Banks used the bulk of funds to repay their own borrowings. As debt becomes due for repayment through the year, banks may need to sell sovereign bonds purchased with the funds drawn under the LTRO. Unless market conditions normalise and banks regain access to normal funding quickly, this will place increasing pressure on sovereign funding and its cost.

With European countries facing heavy refinancing programs in 2012 and beyond, the ability to raise funds at reasonable rates remains important. Existing bailout programs assume countries like Portugal and Ireland will be able to resume financing in money markets normally from 2013.

Events complicate the ongoing commercial financing of European banks and sovereigns. The need for collateral to support ECB funding makes other investors de facto subordinated lenders, reducing their willingness to lend or increasing the cost. In the Greek restructuring, European Central Banks and official institutions were exempted by retrospective legislation from loss while other investors suffered 75% writedowns. This has reduced investor willingness to finance countries considered troubled.

European banks already have large exposures to sovereign debt, which has increased since the start of the LTRO. Spanish banks are thought to have purchased around €90 billion, a jump of around 26% to €220 billion. Italian banks are thought to have purchased €50 billion, a jump of 31% to €270 billion.

Similar rise in government bond holding have occurred in Portugal and Ireland. As interest rates on these bonds have increased, buyers now have large unrealised mark-to-market losses on these holdings.

As with the sovereigns, the LTRO does not solve the longer term problems of the solvency or funding of the banks, which now remain heavily dependent on the largesse of the central banks. It is government sponsored Ponzi scheme where weak banks are supporting weak sovereigns who in turn are standing behind the banks – a process which can be best described as two drowning people clinging to each other for mutual support.

The LTRO has not materially increased the supply of credit to individual and businesses. The money is being used by banks to finance themselves as they reduce borrowings by selling off assets to reduce dependence on volatile funding markets. The LTRO does little to promote desperately needed economic growth in the Euro-Zone.

The initial euphoria faded as a number of concerns re-emerged, manifesting themselves in the form of increasing rates on Spanish and Italian debt which now hover around the key level of 6.00% per annum.

Increasingly poor economic growth figures from Europe pointed to a lack of growth and progress on debt reduction.

Attempts to reduce Spain’s deficit has proved problematic. Both Spain and Italy have deferred balancing their budget in the face of a deteriorating economic outlook. It is unclear which markets fear most -Spain and Italy not achieving its targets through savage spending cuts resulting in higher debt or achieving its target putting their economies into an even deeper recession and increasing debt.

The difficulties faced by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti implementing labour reforms have highlighted the resistance to structural change. Increasing protests in many countries point to the political difficulty in implementing the agreed austerity measures.

The problems of the banking system have resurfaced. Spanish bank bad and doubtful debts have increased, as the Iberian property bubble deflates.

Increased reliance by Spanish and Italian banks on financing from central banks has heightened concern. Spanish bank borrowings from the ECB increased to over €300 billion in March from €170 billion in February. Lending to Spanish banks now accounts for nearly 30% of total ECB lending. Italian banks have also been heavy borrowers, a reminder of the linkage between banks and their sovereigns.

Reluctance to increase the inadequate European firewall sufficiently to deal with potential problems means policy options are limited. At around €500 billion in available funds, the bailout fund is short of the €1 trillion sought by the International Monetary Fund and G-20 or €2-3 trillion thought necessary by financial markets. German leaders have repeated their unwillingness to increase the fund to the necessary size, arguing, probably correctly, that no firewall will be adequate.

Poorly judged and ill-timed comments by ECB President Draghi about the absence of need for further LTRO funding and planning for an exit drew attention to the fragility of the position and ongoing risks. The comments were driven by Bundesbank unease at the ECB’s policy. The market reaction forced Mario Draghi to retract comments about an early exit from emergency funding. As rates continued to rise, Benoit Coeure, the French ECB board member, promoted a new round of direct purchases of Spanish bonds to reduce yields.

The failure of the LTRO to decisively solve European problems is unsurprising. Confidential analyses prepared by European Union officials and distributed to ministers meeting at the Copenhagen meeting in March 2012 concluded that the €1 trillion in loans was a “reprieve”, rather than a solution.

Rather than take the time afforded to move on other fronts, European leaders reverted to type. Spanish Finance Minister Luis de Guindos opined that: “We are convinced that Spain will no longer be a problem, especially for the Spanish, but also for the European Union”. It was eerily reminiscent of his predecessor Elena Salgado who almost exactly one year earlier on 11 April 2011 said: “I do not see any risk of contagion. We are totally out of this”. The optimism was echoed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy who was confident that the Euro-Zone had “turned the page”. Italian Prime Minster Mario Monti stated that the “financial aspect” of the crisis had ended.

The European debt crisis is not over. Fundamental problems – debt levels, trade imbalances, problems of the banking sectors, required structural reforms, employment and economic growth – remain.

Beyond the German favoured remedy of asphyxiating austerity to either cure or kill the patient, Europe is rapidly running out of ideas and time to deal with the issues. As the real economy stalls and debt problems continue, the most likely policy actions may come from the ECB – an interest rate cut to near zero and further liquidity support, perhaps even full-scale quantitative easing. Bailout funds may be channelled to recapitalise Spanish banks, as means of helping Spain without resort to a full-blown bailout package.

It is doubtful whether any of these steps will work.

European politicians and citizens want a quick return to a period Spaniards now refer to as cuando pensábamos que éramos ricos which translated into “when we thought we were rich”. Official policies and action are focused on deferring rather than dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, that means the inevitability of meeting the same problem somewhere down the road.

John Maynard Keynes observed in The Economic Consequences of the Peace that each action designed to bring closure to one crisis sows the seeds of greater economic, political and social problems. Europe is living the truth of that statement one day at a time.

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17 comments

  1. Min

    ” In effect, the ECB is now functioning as a financial institution, assuming significant credit and interest rate risks on its loans.”

    Since the Euro is fiat currency as far as the ECB is concerned, I am having trouble making sense of that sentence. Where is the risk for the ECB? It can create as much money as it wants, right?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Being able to create money does not obviate the fact that a central bank can take credit and interest rate losses. As former central banker Willem Buiter has pointed out, if a central bank takes big enough losses, it cannot “print” enough to fill the hole without compromising its monetary stability mandate, which means it would need to be bailed out by…taxpayers!

      And the ECB does feel constrained by its capital base, far more than the Fed does, or so I am told.

      1. joebhed

        There’s “creating money”, a monetary system function of the central government as opposed to the central bank.

        But central governments are no longer capable of “creating money” and providing the permanent means of exchange for the national economy. They leave that to private, debt-creating bankers.

        And there is taking credit and interest rate risk, which “real” central banks should only undertake when the level of the medium of exchange made available through ‘money-creation’ is inadequate to meet temporal liquidity demands.
        Credit and interest rate risk should be solely a private banking function, using their own money.

        In such cases, the risk to the central government(Treasury) and the public central bank would be near to zero.
        Such a system would not only relieve the present global financial crisis and solve for Minsky’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’, it would put the people and their governments back in charge of their national economies.
        Read, reversing wealth accumulation and concentration.

        But, alas, the capitalists own the central governments and the central banks these days, and this is not how we do business.
        The transformational solution is all right here.

        http://kucinich.house.gov/UploadedFiles/NEED_Act_FINAL_112th.pdf

        The Money System Common.

    2. Jim

      The risk is as follows: 40% of Germans own their homes while 82% of Italians do so. Who gets hurt MUCH more by inflation?

      (a) The German renter or

      (b) The Italian homeowner?

      The solution is as follows.

      A United States of Europe, with significant concessions from the South to the North. Such concessions would include German language instruction in all schools and German control of the European military.

      The Dissolution of the Eurozone.

      I would prefer the dissolution, as that would provide higher aggregate economic growth for the European continent.

  2. chitown2020

    It sounds like the World Bank house of cards is falling globally. It was all planned by the Globalists to fraudulently induce Global Totalitarianism. it will be their fixes for all of their fraud that the people MUST be made aware of ….their hidden agenda. Their Vatican/Rothschild gold standard fix and their WORLD TAX fix for all of their mortgage fraud…They will blame the failure of Capitalism. Dont believe them…they caused it. ABOLISH THE FED.

    1. F. Beard

      Let’s abolish usury too – not by outlawing it but by removing all government privilege for it and by freely allowing non-usury based money forms such as common stock.

  3. Mogden

    So where is this alleged austerity, given the intensity of money printing? Sometimes I think I must be from a nearby alternate universe.

    1. Min

      The austerity is in Greece, for one place. The money goes to French banks, among others, funneled through Greece. You see, Greece adopts austerity in order to get the a new loan from the troika to make payments on the existing loans to foreign banks. :)

      1. Literary Critic

        That’s called “rolling over your debt”, which is a fundamental concept in economics.

  4. curlydan

    Maybe this post should have been title, “The European Debt Crisis _Reflux_”. That’s what it feels like.

  5. JEHR

    We Canadians are just learning that the Canadian banks are not the most “robust in the world” and we don’t deserve to be given praise for our banking acuity. Now we are finding out that our secretive Harper government bailed out our banks too. The banks received approximately $114 Billion in monies from both the US Fed and Bank of Canada.

    http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2012/04/Big%20Banks%20Big%20Secret.pdf

    Of course, Harper prefers to call it providing “liquidity” but by whatever name, it was a bailout and we are presently undergoing austerity to pay for it. People are losing their jobs; services are being cut; taxes are being reduced; etc.–the whole neo-con thing.

  6. Fiver

    I’ve argued for quite some time that Europe and Japan were being deliberately sacked by US policy in order to achieve “last man standing” status, i.e., circle the wagons around the US core of the global bankster system – Fed “easing” providing uber-bucks for speculative attacks to set off a chain-reaction of de-leveraging by European banks (and States) who in turn must cough up prize assets at highly discounted prices. Back in January, Morgan Stanley pegged the sums at between 2 and 3 trillion. Here’s a similar assessment I came across at Mish’s shop. You may find the entire piece of interest. I refer to the portion from William Wright. Note the endgame “winners” include JPM, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, even Citi:

    http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.ca/2012/04/giant-sucking-sound-demand-for-credit.html

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