This is a version of an opinion piece originally published in the Irish Examiner Sat 14 April 2012. See http://www.irishexaminer.com/business/euro-crisis-still-very-much-alive-and-pressing-190499.html.
It hasn’t gone away you know? The Euro crisis? Its back, waxing and waning. Italy struggles to raise money at the short end even with significantly increased rates, and there is event talk now of france being in trouble. To recap: last year the ECB finally began to take action to deal with the acute problems in the sovereign bond market and the banking market, now increasingly and worryingly scrambled together. Through two successive waves of cheap (1% pa) money a massive trillion euro was pumped into the banks. in what was called LTRO – Long-term rollover. Although significantly less in net terms this injection of liquidity (in November and march) was sufficient to significantly cool the sovereign bond markets. It was also a mechanism, as I have noted previously, to allow the banks to begin to fill some holes in their own balance sheets.
Modern economics absolutely needs banks. They are the pumps that drive money and credit around the rest of the system. In Ireland these pumps are broken and we see daily the effects of same. What the ECB has done is quite proper, but in mathematical terms it is necessary but not sufficient. Other factors in the ECB and elsewhere to my mind make this policy less likely to succeed than might be hoped.
First, this approach depends on the banks ultimately passing on their money to productive sectors of the economy. The way in which central bank actions filter into the real economy is one that has been much studied. The bank channel has been the focus of much scrutiny in recent years. The BIS concluded that individual bank capital positions were crucial to their ability to lend on. The also concluded that the key issue was structuring the capital base to allow this to happen. European banks and in particular Spanish banks are not yet fixed. We see in Ireland that the next wave of losses from mortgages is now beginning to consume political and economic capital.
Second, it is in any case treating the symptom not the cause of the problem. European sovereign states display high borrowing costs because of too much debt. The cost of debt is a function of supply and demand; at present there is a lot of cheap liquidity sloshing around which allows banks to purchase this high yielding debt and make a profit. But this exacerbates the issue if states consider that the lowering of bond yields indicates that they can take reform slow. European states are on a tightrope: too much austerity and the economy crashes – this is Greece, where real poverty and want are now rampant, and still the debts are unsustainable. Too little and the markets fear a Greek or worse write-down, this is Portugal or Spain. The circles of austerity-growth-market confidence are unsquarable in my view. We cannot solve too much debt with more debt.
Third there is evidence that the ECB is beginning to adopt a core-periphery approach. In his press conference after the last ECB board meeting Dragi made a number of comments that suggest to me that the ECB board was preparing a Plan B. He restated that where central ECB liquidity operations were not available for banks then domestic central bank liquidity was available. He also reiterated that this was however at the risk (read certainty) of exposure of the domestic sovereign. We have seen this here: despite the best spin that the government has put on it and notwithstanding that there is another game in town with the final settlement of the banks, the brutal reality is that at the end of march this state DID pay 3.1b to the Central Bank of Ireland to pay down ELA which it had advanced to prop up the rotting corpse of Anglo. When the ECB speak of ELA being advanced at local risk this is what they mean. Prop up your banks if you wish but it’s on your own head. Oh, and don’t let them fail. This is a recipe for a Europe populated by Anglo Irish Bank zombie clones. On household (read mortgage) debt overhangs being somehow adjusted (read, written down), The IMF suggests, and the ECB kinda agrees that it should be talked about, but of course the ECB also want us to continue to repay for the ghastly corpse of Anglo (but if he can find some money lads, after that, why not write down a bit of debt)…More recently Jörg Asmussen of the ECB told audiences in Ireland that, in essence, we were on our own with the banking debts.
Fourth, there is a growing theological strain in discourse that debt is not just wrong; it in some ways indicates a moral laxity. Backbench government TDs are increasingly adopting a ‘tullamore housewife’ approach, that government should not spend more than they earn. This of course ignores completely the reality that a state is not a household, and displays a dangerous ignorance of modern macroeconomic reality. At the same time we are being asked to vote on a fiscal compact which will not only in effect ban borrowing but given our debt levels will require us to run cyclical surpluses. That will, inevitably, lead to more austerity.
There are irreconcilable forces beginning to emerge in the European and national debate. At the heart of these lies the ECBs insistence that under no circumstances must banks fail coupled with its abhorrence of any hint of inflation. This is of course counter to the emergent European commission perspective on bank resolution and to the historic reality that debts do get restructured either via inflation or default. Europe will have to choose. There is too much debt. Either it gets written off via inflation, anathema to the Bundesbank , now incarnate as the European Central Bank, or it gets written off in a more or less organised fashion via a Greek style arrangement. The alternative is that the strains on the euro grow, and something breaks. Even now Citibank estimate a 50-50 chance greece will have to exit. Like a seat of flywheels, when one part of the euro breaks off it is highly probable that that a majority of the other parts will fly off also. The German politicians who have then demanded impossible things of the periphery will find the export chickens coming home to roost rather rapidly as their exporters face 30% plus deutche mark appreciation. Then we will see that competitiveness is relative, not absolute.