One-note Geithner’s leverage song

September 21, 2011

James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Tim Geithner went a very long way on Friday to accomplish very little, flying to Poland to pitch to the assembled euro zone finance ministers the same tactics that have worked so poorly in the U.S.

Faced with another debt problem, Geithner once again proposed more debt as the solution, suggesting that Europe should leverage its EFSF bailout fund so it can have enough firepower to buy up the debts of weak euro zone nations. This mislabels a debt problem as a price problem, and is an almost exact analogue to the U.S.’s own tactics in addressing its own financial system problem — creating leveraged funds to buy up toxic debt and thereby massage the balance sheets of banks.

This is the deflationary equivalent of reacting to runaway inflation by deciding to lop a zero off the end of prices; things will appear better but the underlying issue is not resolved. This is borne out in the U.S., where private fortunes continue to be made in banking, but where the system is unable to play its role in capital intermediation. Many lenders are still wary, rightly, of funding U.S. banks and are unconvinced that the toxic debt problem is gone for good.

The Europeans don’t appear to be buyers either. “We are not discussing the expansion or increase of the EFSF with a nonmember of the euro area,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the chairman of the Eurogroup.

He also ruled out any further fiscal stimulus, something Washington has also called for. “Fiscal consolidation remains a top priority for the euro area,” he said.

Austria’s Finance Minister Maria Fekter went further, describing how Geithner urged the group to commit more money to the rescue, but flat out rejected the idea of funding the bailout with a financial transaction tax.

“I found it peculiar that even though the Americans have significantly worse fundamental data than the euro zone, that they tell us what we should do and when we make a suggestion … that they say ‘no’ straight away.”

Remember, Geithner isn’t proposing borrowing more money so that the deeply destructive cuts the euro zone is requiring in Greece and elsewhere can be eased. It is not money for teachers, it is money to support bond prices, which in effect is money to support the capital positions of the banks which would be left broken if the true market price prevailed.

SOVEREIGN CREDIT RISK ROULETTE

The problem with this is that ultimately supporting the banks may swamp the sovereign’s credit rating. A massive increase in the size of the EFSF would surely call into question France’s AAA rating. While Europe has a problem over who is going to pay, with Germans unwilling to underwrite what they see as Mediterranean profligacy, it also has a profound problem with which lenders to make whole.

A look at a study from the Bank for International Settlements into the interaction of sovereign credit risk and bank funding really shows the limits of Geithner’s leverage-happy approach.

Released as part of its quarterly review, the central bank’s central bank described sovereign credit risk as posing “a significant and urgent challenge to banks.”

Bank are massive holders of sovereign debt; indeed bank regulation hard-wires holdings into their business model. That leaves banks open to losses on sovereign loans held on their balance sheets, and in turn those loans are worth less as collateral for loans from the market or from central banks. On top of that, as the state is the ultimate insurer of its banking system, downgrades to the sovereign are effectively downgrades to its banks, raising their funding costs.

In other words, buying up sovereign debt at inflated prices without properly restructuring the debt will result in an ongoing European bank funding crisis, with ever more leverage needed until the day comes that the sovereign is no longer credit worthy. The bank funding and sovereign credit dynamic is one that must ultimately be broken by sovereigns repairing the stability of their finances.

Banks can mitigate these risks by holding fewer government bonds, and by funding themselves more conservatively, but those steps will tend to make them less willing and able to provide credit to the economies they are supposed to support. That is probably the way banks need to be run, but operating a bank conservatively in an economy in which debts have already been properly written down will result in good solid growth. Doing it in a make-believe economy with make-believe asset prices will result in years of stagnation.

That is what the U.S. is seeing. Europe should choose a different path.

At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.

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