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The Bang! Moment Is Here for the European Debt Crisis

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For the eurozone, there seems to be no end in sight to the pain on the current path. But can changing course actually make things worse? The answer is, of course, yes.

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This article was originally published on June 16 in John Mauldin's weekly e-letter.

Perhaps more than anything else, failure to recognize the precariousness and fickleness of confidence – especially in cases in which large short-term debts need to be rolled over continuously – is the key factor that gives rise to the this-time-is-different syndrome. Highly indebted governments, banks, or corporations can seem to be merrily rolling along for an extended period, when bang – confidence collapses, lenders disappear, and a crisis hits.

Economic theory tells us that it is precisely the fickle nature of confidence, including its dependence on the public's expectation of future events, which makes it so difficult to predict the timing of debt crises. High debt levels lead, in many mathematical economics models, to "multiple equilibria" in which the debt level might be sustained – or might not be. Economists do not have a terribly good idea of what kinds of events shift confidence and of how to concretely assess confidence vulnerability. What one does see, again and again, in the history of financial crises is that when an accident is waiting to happen, it eventually does. When countries become too deeply indebted, they are headed for trouble. When debt-fueled asset price explosions seem too good to be true, they probably are. But the exact timing can be very difficult to guess, and a crisis that seems imminent can sometimes take years to ignite.
– From This Time Is Different, by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff

We know that money is simply flying out of Greek banks. A number of them are clearly insolvent, yet they are meeting demands for withdrawals. Where is the cash coming from? The answer is in the form of yet another acronym from Europe, called the ELA. Is there a limit to this largesse? And politicians are becoming rather snarky (short-tempered, critical, testy, irritable, freaked-out – you fill in the word) with each other.

This is what happens when crisis-weary politicians face yet another Greek tragedy, but this time perhaps it will hit even closer to home. Is there anyone left anywhere who has not grown tired of reading about Greece? I am tired of writing about them, yet if we are to understand the sturm und drang, the storm and stress, of Europe, we must begin there. Because, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Greece most definitely does not stay in Greece.

The ECB Explained

Let's begin with a little primer on the European Central Bank. I had a rather lengthy discussion on this topic with David Kotok over the last few days, as he really does spend too much time delving into great detail about what is arcane trivia to most of us. It is great, though, at times like this to have someone patiently explain the inexplicable. I thank him for the accurate details and analysis in the next few pages and assume all responsibility for errors or problems.

It is quite easy to write about the ECB as if it is the mechanism by which money is printed in Europe, but that is only partially true. The ECB is governed by a board. In reality, the ECB is more like the FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) of the US Federal Reserve. The ECB meets and sets policy, and then that policy is acted upon by the various central banks of the member nations.

Likewise, while it is convenient to think about "the Fed" printing money and buying and selling bonds in its daily operations, in actuality it is the New York branch of the Federal Reserve that does the open-market transactions, carrying out the policies of the FOMC.

So when the ECB decides to authorize one trillion euros to be made available to banks in Europe, such as in the recent LTRO (long-term refinancing operation), it is actually the various national central banks that do the transactions for their in-country banks. Under the LTRO, the ECB sets the policy and the nature of what qualifies as collateral for the loan, what type of "haircut" is set for the collateral, and so on. The ECB takes the risk of any loans it authorizes, rather than the national central banks. For the recent LTRO, the interest rate was set very low, and the recipient banks could then turn around and lend the money to customers or buy government bonds.

Spain was by far the country whose banks took greatest advantage of the cheap money, with Italy coming in second. While the banks of other countries used the money to do other things than buy government debt, the banks of Spain and Italy borrowed at 1% and bought their own government bonds, paying a great deal more, as the chart below shows (courtesy of Alphaville).



Before we move on, let me note that there are calls for the ECB to do another LTRO as a way of injecting more liquidity into the system. While I expect the ECB will indeed find some way to fund banks, the last time around they took collateral (basically, loans to customers) that was rather at the risky end of the spectrum. I wonder how much good collateral is left in countries like Spain? How far out the risk spectrum is the ECB willing to go? That money will flow is clear; I am just not certain of the mechanism. If they do another LTRO-type funding, it may be for a smaller amount. I am certain they would be doing an assessment of just how much demand and good collateral there is, before they would do it.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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