Where will the ECB’s billions go?

By Felix Salmon
December 22, 2011
results of the ECB's debt auction, and Floyd Norris, for one, is wildly enthusiastic about them.

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The market has had a full day now to digest the results of the ECB’s debt auction, and Floyd Norris, for one, is wildly enthusiastic about them. The ECB’s strategy, he writes, “may be enough to stem the European crisis for at least a few years, and go a long way to recapitalizing banks in the process”.

Norris’s bullishness is based on what you might call the Sarkozy trade — the idea that a huge amount of the ECB’s new lending will end up being invested in Eurozone government debt. He calls it “an obvious, virtually risk-free, option” for the banks who borrowed ECB funds:

It would be nice if some of it were lent to the private sector to spur growth and investment. But the logic of putting it in two- or three-year government notes is obvious.

Well, it’s not that obvious. Here’s the math: if you take all the new ECB money which entered the market yesterday and subtract out all the maturing ECB debt which needed to be rolled over, you end up with some €210 billion in new funds — a number which is startlingly close to the €230 billion of European bank debt which is coming due just in the first quarter of 2012.

And for the time being, the ECB is the only entity in the world willing to lend European banks €230 billion. Which means that the prudent course of action, for Europe’s banks, is to use this ECB money to pay down their own debts. Doing so would address a big funding risk, and would also help derisk their balance sheets in the eyes of the world and of Basel.

The big question, then, is how long the ECB is going to be doing this kind of thing. If this operation is a signal to the market that the ECB will be the lender of last resort to European banks for at least the next couple of years, then the banks don’t need to worry so much about their own financing needs and can lock up the funds in two- or three-year government bonds as Norris and Sarkozy anticipate. On the other hand, if this is more like Federal Reserve quantitative easing — something designed to be temporary rather than quasi-permanent — then banks will be looking to help themselves before they help others.

Gavyn Davies, for one, is clear on this point: “we should call a spade a spade,” he writes. “This is quantitative easing on a significant scale.” And he has the chart to prove it:

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I suspect that the ECB is not going to be happy seeing this line rise indefinitely. The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet is bloated enough, after two rounds of QE, and it now stands at $2.85 trillion. The ECB is just getting started on this round — the next disbursal of 3-year debt comes in February — and already its balance sheet is well over $3 trillion and rising.

Greg Ip has been talking to the ECB, and has come back from a trip to Europe with a blog post saying that its lending is “eternal and infinite”. Which carries its own risks:

The longer Europe muddles through, the more banks’ demands on the ECB will grow. Even if the ECB can, legally, become the sole source of funding for peripheral euro-zone banks, is that sustainable politically? At some point won’t the leaders realise that lacking all private-sector confidence, their banks can no longer finance a growing economy? At that point, they will conclude the euro is not sustainable and prepare to exit, and the ECB’s limits will have been reached.

So there’s clearly a limit somewhere. If I were running a European bank, I’d fill up on ECB lending now, when it’s plentiful, because you never know for sure when that limit might be reached. That’s what happened yesterday. But I’d definitely think twice before turning around and lending it all back out again to Italy or Spain. Yes, that trade is a profitable one. But the one thing that European banks need more than anything else right now is liquidity. Profits come second.

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