Opinion

James Saft

Europe up a creek with no central bank

Oct 7, 2011 21:32 UTC

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

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Europe is demonstrating that a sovereign nation without a true central bank is just an uninsured bank, liable to be tipped over by the markets.

While the ECB is a central bank in almost all respects, what it isn’t is a lender of last resort for individual euro zone nations, a role that is expressly ruled out by the European Treaty.
A lender of last resort is what stops a bank run on a solvent institution from bringing it down due to a lack of liquidity. In the case of a nation, a lender of last resort, usually the central bank, can simply print money to satisfy debts in its own currency. And though we’ve all become terribly cynical about the concept of liquidity crises in the past couple of years, not least because so many people in authority have used it as a place to hide when the real issue was solvency (Greece, Lehman Brothers), the fact is that markets take on their own momentum.
Just as no-one viewed euro zone debt as anything other than a safe haven for the currency area’s first decade, now investors are busy driving up the price of even German default insurance.
This is the terrible logic of markets when they view sovereign borrowers as credit risks; it is almost inevitable that they push, and in pushing weaken the un-backstopped borrower and ultimately bring it down. This is a process which needs a circuit breaker, and Europe has no adequate circuit breaker, unlike Britain or the U.S.
“Rather than viewing government bonds as risk-free, safe-haven assets, financial markets now view and trade euro area sovereigns mainly as credit risks. This has very profound consequences for the stability of financial markets,” economist Elga Bartsch of Morgan Stanley wrote in a note to clients.
“For it seems to me that some markets have lost their ability to find a new, stable equilibrium. This is because, instead of moving in sync with the business cycle, government bond yields now move against the cycle, ie, rising in a downturn. This seriously undermines the ability of the government sector to stabilise the economy and the financial sector.”
Bartsch looked at all sovereign borrowers since the mid-1990′s whose spreads above Treasuries rose to at least 10 percentage points, an indicator of distress. In only 20 percent of the cases did a debt restructuring, or default, ensure. Some were rescued by the IMF but many righted themselves.
Thus Europe is at the mercy of markets, left without a central bank or outside force which can break the cycle and impose order. The ECB has purchased government bonds as a back door means of providing support, but this is awkward, will ultimately test the limits of the bank’s capital and, as being against the spirit of EU law, is deeply divisive. The EFSF fund is not well suited for playing this role either.

FOOL ME ONCE

You could object that, of course, all sovereign borrowers are ultimately credit risks. Even if one is repaid in the sovereign’s currency, that currency can be debased by inflation or the money printing press. True, but markets do not seem to impose the same penalty on inflation risk that they do on default risk.
There are two main take-aways from this. The first, of course, is that if you don’t have a proper central bank you ought to keep your debt profile slim so as not to attract too much attention to your vulnerability. This worked for Germany, whose Bundesbank was similarly forbidden by charter from printing money to buy government debt. Not borrowing too much is good advice but not terribly helpful in the current circumstances.
The second is that Europe needs a democratic way in which to agree to monetize or otherwise write down its debts. Failing that, the risk is that the domino-style run on government credit becomes self-fulfilling, as we’ve seen is the risk with ever larger sovereign borrowers like Italy being weighed by the markets and found wanting. This ultimately will break the euro, probably at about the point when Germany realizes it is picking up France’s dinner check.
This is not an argument in favour of suppressing markets by banning short selling or other measures, as is so often the impulse in Europe. Those arguments are raised by people, be they politicians or investment bank CEOs, who want to be insulated from the consequences of their own decisions. It is instead about clarity about who pays.
Europe suffers from unclear lines of accountability. There are easy fixes for that, but imposing them quickly will be difficult. That is certainly how markets are trading, and the result may be a self-fulfilling fracturing of the euro.

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.

One-note Geithner’s leverage song

Sep 21, 2011 21:12 UTC

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.

Banks 1, nation states nil

Apr 12, 2011 11:19 UTC

The battle between the banks and nation states is shaping up as something that lies between a phony war and a rout.

The bald facts are that three years after the crisis in which banking almost brought down the global economy, the biggest banks are bigger, more global and more entrenched in their positions courtesy of a now all-but-explicit government guarantee.

All three factors make large banks harder for individual nations to control, even the U.S., and even if the U.S. manifested the desire to pull out of its heads-you-win-tails-we-lose bargain.

Good-bye credit crunch, Hello slog

Jan 25, 2011 14:04 UTC

If you have forgotten the credit crunch it appears you have company: U.S. banks are lending again.

Bank earnings reports and data from the Federal Reserve confirm that, at long last, banks are beginning to step up lending, a much-needed ingredient for a stronger and more sustainable recovery.

The good news is that lending is growing to commercial and industrial companies — exactly where you want to see growth if the U.S. is going to address its unsustainable dependence on domestic consumption. That’s good so far as it goes, but with a fragile euro and an undervalued yuan the upside is decidedly limited.

from The Great Debate:

Geithner’s hair of the dog plan for banks

J Saft
Feb 18, 2009 10:03 UTC

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

U.S. plans for a public-private fund to buy up toxic assets are likely to amount to a fig leaf with which to hide subsidies to failing banks.

It is also, inevitably, an entirely new subsidy to outside investors, who by definition will only participate if they get better terms than now available in what we formerly thought of as the free market.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner last week announced the plan, which will provide between $500 billion and $1 trillion of financing to private sector funds which will use the money to lever up their own capital and make offers for complex and doubtful securities now clogging balance sheets. Further details are to follow.

from Davos Notebook:

Overheard in Davos

Jan 30, 2009 08:11 UTC

One of the best things about Davos is the conversations you overhear. It's like no place else.

Sitting minding my own business, typing away I became aware of a central banker from a medium sized emerging market sitting nearby. He was joined by a gentleman from a bank in his home country. After a few muffled preliminaries the central banks said:

"So, how much trouble are you in?"

The banker responded in what sounded like soothing tones but I couldn't make out exactly what he was saying. The only other line that came through clearly was that after a long speech the banker said to the central banker, with an air of exasperation.:

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