Saturday, January 8, 2011





Misión Interrumpida


“As of August 2010, the level of ECB funding was as follows:

Euro (billions)
% of Deposits
% of Gross Domestic Product

Following the Irish crisis in the second half of 2010, the funding demands on the ECB have increased. Ireland’s borrowing from the ECB has reached Euro 136 billion (86% of Gross Deposit Product ("GDP")), around a quarter of Euro-zone member drawings on the facility.

The ECB has expressed concern about Europe’s "addicted financial groups". But with banks affected by their sovereign’s debt problems and maturing debt not being rolled over, the ECB has little option but to continue the arrangement.

The approach of the EU/ ECB assumed that the problem was temporary liquidity not solvency. The solution was to ensure that the troubled countries could continue to finance. The restoration of confidence would enable a rapid return to market financing and the status quo.

Nothing exemplified this better than the ill-conceived and poorly designed EFSF. Amongst the multiplicity of problems were the limited guarantees from Euro-zone countries and a reliance on CDO rating methodology. The preliminary analysis of the EFSF by the credit rating agencies confirmed the view that the facility was not designed for use. Close inspection also revealed that the facility was only capable of being drawn for an amount as low as Euro 250 billion, well short of the advertised Euro 750 billion. It was a pure confidence trick.

DE LA PARTE SEGUNDA (5-01-2011):



The EU and IMF are hoping that the bailouts of Greece and Ireland will restore market confidence. In combination with stronger growth, greater fiscal discipline and domestic structural reforms, they hope that the fear of default or restructuring will recede. Eventually, the troubled countries will regain access to markets. The emergency facilities and support mechanisms will be gradually unwound. While not impossible, the chances of this script playing out are minimal.

A more likely scenario is that the support measures do not work and increasingly Portugal and Spain, initially, find themselves under siege. As market access closes, they too will need bailouts straining existing arrangements, necessitating new measures. If Portugal (debt around Euro 180 billion) was to require assistance, then it will reduce the available funds in the existing EU’s bail-out mechanism. Spain (with debt of over Euro 950 billion) is simply too big to bail out using the present facilities.

Under such a scenario, available options include greater economic integration of the EU, expansion of existing arrangements or a decision to allow indebted countries to fail.

Greater economic integration would entail adoption of a common fiscal policy, encompassing strict controls on fiscal policy including tax and spending. It could also include the issue of Euro zone bonds ("E-Bonds") to finance member countries. Championed by Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister and chairman of the Euro Zone finance ministers’ meetings, the E-Bond would lower borrowing costs for peripheral economies and facilitate access to markets.

Fiscal union would prevent default of over-indebted borrowers without necessarily addressing the fundamental problems of individual economies. The likelihood of greater fiscal union in the near term is limited, as it is unlikely that nations will surrender the required economic powers and autonomy.

The E-Bond proposal, for up to 50% of a State’s funding requirement, is unworkable given large differences in credit quality and interest rates between Euro Zone members of around 10%. The E-Bond credit support structure would resurrect the ill-fated EFSF on a larger scale.

In any case, Germany takes the view that national governments should bear responsibility for their own decisions. Germany also opposes E-Bonds, as they would increase its borrowing costs. France’s early enthusiasm for E-Bonds seems to have diminished.

The cost of full fiscal union is prohibitive, entailing between Euro 340 billion and Euro 800 billion, depending on the degree of fiscal imbalances. Much of this cost would have to be borne by Germany and other richer economies.

If Portugal and Spain experience problems, then in absence of a full fiscal union, the only available actions are further EU support or default.

There have been proposals to expand the EFSF/ ESM as needed. While Germany currently has opposed any expansion, it remains an option. Perversely, increasing the funding available to support troubled countries may signal that problems were imminent, with a resulting loss of confidence necessitating a bailout.

The ECB can increase support for the relevant countries, in the form of purchases of bonds or financing Euro Zone banks to purchase them. Interestingly, the ECB will increase its capital base, from Euro 5.76 billion to Euro 10.76 billion by end 2012, the first such increase in its 12-year history. The increase in capital allows greater support from the ECB, whilst providing reserves against potential losses.

In an extreme scenario, the ECB could simply print money, following the US Fed’s lead, to support its members, known technically as "unsterlised purchases". Such action may not be permissible under its existing rules, requiring amendments to EU treaties. It would severely damage the ECB’s already tenuous credibility and be resisted by Germany and other conservative EU countries.

"Extend and pretend" measures would allow orderly default or debt restructuring by some countries over time. It minimises losses, controlling the timing and form of restructuring. It would also minimise disruption to financial markets and solvency issues for investors and banks with large exposures.

If the EU does not agree to fiscal union or continuing support, then pressure on Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium may reach a tipping point, making default or restructuring the likely end game. Presumably, existing programs, such as those for Greece and Ireland, would be suspended. Governments would announce debt moratoriums, defaulting on at least some debts and forcing write downs. This would be followed by a domino effect of defaulting countries within Europe.

The defaults would affect the balance sheets of banks, potentially forcing governments, especially in Germany, France and UK to inject capital and liquidity into their banks to ensure solvency. The richer nations would still have to pay, but for the recapitalisation of their banks rather than foreign countries.


Large volumes of maturing debt mean that the test is likely to come sooner than later. The heavily indebted European sovereign states face $2.85 trillion of maturing debt in the period to 2013. Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain have bond maturities of $502 billion in 2011. The financing needs of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain over the last quarter of 2010 and 2011 are Euro 320 billion, rising to Euro 712 billion if Italy is included. In addition, private sector borrower in these countries face maturities of $988 billion of corporate bonds and $200 billion of syndicated bank loans over the same period. Likelihood of low economic growth, failure to meet IMF plan targets, further banking sector problems and credit downgrades exacerbate the risk.

If Europe muddles it way through the refinancing crisis, then the expiry of existing support facilities in 2013 and the changed regime of the ESM poses new risks and may continue the instability.

DE LA PARTE TERCERA (6-01-2011):



China, which contributed around 80% of total global growth in 2010, has expressed growing concern about the problems in Europe. Trade between China and the EU, its largest export market, totals around $470 billion annually, contributing a trade surplus of Euro 122 billion for China in the first nine months of 2010. Any slowdown in Europe would affect Chinese growth. China is also a major holder of Euro sovereign bonds, standing to lose significantly if problems continue. China has indicated preparedness to use some of its $2.7 trillion of foreign exchange reserves to buy bonds of countries such as Greece and Portugal.

A slowdown in China would affect commodity markets, both volumes and prices, and commodity exporters such as Australia, China and South Africa. Minutes of a 7 December 2010 from the central bank of Australia, one of the world’s best performing economies, indicated increasing concerns about developments in Europe.

A continuation of the European debt problems, especially restructuring or default of sovereign debt, would severely disrupt financial markets. Losses would create concerns about the solvency of banks, in particular European banks. In a repeat of the events of September 2008 (when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection and AIG almost collapsed) and April/ May 2010 (prior to the bailout of Greece), money markets could seize up, as trust about the ability of parties to perform contracts evaporated. In turn, this volatility would feed through into the real economy, undermining the weak recovery.

Unless resolved, the European debt problems will affect currency markets and through that channel the global economy. Any breakdown in the Euro, such as the withdrawal of defaulting countries or change in the mechanism, would result in a sharp fall in the new currencies. In turn, this would, in the first instance, result in large losses to holders of debt of those countries from the devaluation.

Depending on the new arrangements, the US dollar would appreciate abbreviating the nascent American recovery. This may compound existing global imbalances and trigger further American action to weaken the dollar. Further rounds of quantitative easing are possible, setting off inflation and de-stabilising, large scale capital flows into emerging markets. In turn, the risk of protectionism, full-scale currency and trade wars would increase. A breakup of the Euro would adversely affect Germany, which has been growing strongly. A return to the Deutschemark or, more realistically, an Euro without the peripheral countries may result in a sharp appreciation of the currency, reducing German export competitiveness.

As the Australian central bank noted in its December 2010 minutes: "… the deterioration in the situation in Europe over the past month had increased the downside risks to the global economy. How this would ultimately play out, and the implications … were difficult to predict. It was possible that conditions could settle down, as they had after the episode of financial instability in May. Alternatively, an escalation of the current problems was not out of the question. If this prompted a fresh retreat from risk-taking in global financial markets, it would probably have more impact … than any trade effect."


Events since the announcement of the bailout package in early 2010 have been reminiscent of 2008. Then, the optimism following bailouts of Bear Stearns and other troubled American banks produced premature. The promise of China to purchase Portuguese bonds is similar to the ill-fated investments of Asian and Middle-Eastern sovereign wealth funds in US and European banks.

Eventually with each successive rescue and the reemergence of problems, the capacity and will for further support diminished. The EU rescue of Greece and Ireland are also reminiscent of US attempts to rescue its banking system, with more and more money being thrown at the problem. The strategy was defective, preventing the creative destruction required to restore the system to health. The actions may have doomed the economy into a protracted period of low growth, laying the foundations for future problems.

At the time of the Greek bailout, the real question was: "If Euro 750 billion isn’t enough, what is?" Increasingly, markets fear that there may not be enough money, to solve the problem painlessly.

In 11 May 1931, the failure of a European bank – Austria’s Credit-Anstalt – was a pivotal event in the ensuing global financial crisis and the Great Depression. The failure set off a chain reaction and crisis in the European banking system. Some 80 years later, European sovereigns may be about to set off a similar sequence of events with unknown consequences. As Mark Twain observed history does not repeat, but it may rhyme.”

© 2011 Satyajit Das

Satyajit Das is the author of "Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives".

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