Why ECB lending won’t solve the euro crisis

By Felix Salmon
December 17, 2011
Simone Foxman, "the euro crisis could be over"; she obviously doesn't think much of Fitch's analysis, which concludes that "a 'comprehensive solution' to the eurozone crisis is technically and politically beyond reach".

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“By this time next week,” says Simone Foxman, “the euro crisis could be over”; she obviously doesn’t think much of Fitch’s analysis, which concludes that “a ‘comprehensive solution’ to the eurozone crisis is technically and politically beyond reach”.

I’m with Fitch on this one. But it’s worth looking at the bull case for the eurozone, as spelled out by the likes of Foxman and Tyler Cowen. At heart, it’s pretty simple:

  1. The way to solve the euro crisis, at least for the next couple of years, is for the ECB to act as a lender of last resort.
  2. The ECB is, quietly, doing just that — specifically by lending money for as long as three years against a much wider range of collateral than it accepted in the past.
  3. Even though that money is going to banks rather than sovereigns, the banks will borrow as much as they can, at interest rates of about 1%, and invest the proceeds in Spanish and Italian debt yielding more like 6%, in a massive carry trade.
  4. Which means that the ECB is, effectively, printing hundreds of billions of euros and lending it to distressed European sovereigns after all.

This, at least, is how Nicolas Sarkozy has been spinning things:

“Italian banks will be able to borrow [from the ECB] at 1 per cent, while the Italian state is borrowing at 6-7 per cent. It doesn’t take a finance specialist to see that the Italian state will be able to ask Italian banks to finance part of the government debt at a much lower rate.”

But look at the headline of the article that quote appears in: “EU banks slash sovereign holdings”. Here’s a taster:

Europe’s banks have slashed their holdings of sovereign debt issued by the peripheral nations of the eurozone, selling €65bn of it in just nine months…

BNP Paribas cut its holdings by the most, shedding nearly €7bn of the sovereign debt of Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain and leaving it with €28.7bn as at end-September. Deutsche Bank’s €6bn reduction was by far the biggest in percentage terms (66 per cent) and left the bank with just €3.2bn of GIIPS exposure.

My feeling is that, at the margin, banks are going to continue to reduce their holdings of PIIGS debt, rather than decide to follow in the footsteps of MF Global. But don’t take my word for it:

Senior bankers say they will cut further, despite pressure to use newly available, longer-term ECB loans to buy government debt as part of an officially-sanctioned carry trade.

“When investors are constantly asking what you have on your books and the board is asking you to reduce your exposure, it doesn’t really matter about the economics of the trade,” said the treasurer of one of Europe’s biggest banks. “Am I going to buy Italian bonds? No.”

That view echoes comments from UniCredit chief executive Federico Ghizzoni, who this week told reporters at a banking conference that using ECB money to buy government debt “wouldn’t be logical”. The bank had traditionally been one of the biggest buyers of Italian government bonds, with almost €50bn on its books.

Cowen says that “public choice mechanisms will operate so that desperate governments commandeer their banks to make this move, whether the banks ideally would wish to or not” — and normally I’d be inclined to agree with him. Sovereign borrowing always crowds out other forms of bank lending, when a national government decides it really needs the money.

But in this case, it’s not going to happen. Why? For one thing, the main tool that governments can use has already been deployed: if banks load up on sovereign debt, it carries a lower risk weighting under Basel rules and therefore makes their risk-adjusted capital ratios look more attractive. But that’s been the case for decades now, and it can’t be beefed up at all. Meanwhile, bank regulators and investors are looking at a lot of other ratios too, like total leverage. And as we saw with MF Global, they’re hyper-aware of European sovereign exposures these days. Any bank wanting to be considered healthy will stay well away from Spanish and Italian debt.

On top of that, the financing needs of Spain and Italy are much bigger than their respective national banks can fill — especially in the context of those banks trying to deleverage, and seeing their deposit bases move steadily to safer European countries. While national governments are reasonably good at twisting the arms of their own domestic banks and forcing those banks to lend to their sovereigns, they’re much less good at twisting the arms of foreign banks and getting them to do the same thing. Is there any way at all for the Italian government to persuade French banks to lend to it? No.

And more generally, the national debt of big European sovereigns like Italy and Spain is so enormous that it has to be held broadly, in bonded form, by individuals and institutions. Banks alone won’t suffice. Greece is small enough that most of its debt can be held by banks. Italy, not so much.

There’s an argument that it doesn’t really matter whether the banks buy Italian and Spanish debt or not: the main thing that matters is that the ECB is printing money, which is entering the system via the banking system, and which will ultimately find its way into sovereign coffers one way or another, especially since there’s precious little demand for commercial bank loans these days. But I don’t buy it: there’s a virtually infinite number of potential investment opportunities around the world, and there’s no good reason to believe that the ECB’s cash is going to wind up funding Italy’s deficit rather than, say, getting invested in Facebook stock.

If Europe’s banks use ECB cash to deleverage and buy back their own high-yielding debt securities, the investors getting that money are not going to automatically buy sovereign bonds with the proceeds. Especially since those investors don’t care at all about Basel risk weightings.

So much as I’d love Sarko’s dream to come true, I don’t think it’s going to happen. The eurozone’s sovereign crisis is here to stay.

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