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A Bridge, but Leading Where?

Ponzi at the European Central Bank.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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According to the logic of a seminal paper published last year by Belgian economist Paul De Grauwe, the very structure of the eurozone (monetary union without fiscal union) was an invitation to financial panic. Fears that money would drain out of the zone’s weaker countries would be self-fulfilling. One consequence is that the possibility of bank runs cascading through the system has been among the most dangerous of the many threats swirling around the eurozone. By supplying that extra liquidity, by promising a second helping, and by implicitly suggesting that in a pinch there could be even more, the ECB is trying to deliver the message that there will always be cash in the banks’ tills. No need to panic, or even think about panicking, after all.

Theoretically (and for now in practice) that should make it easier​—​and cheaper​—​for those eurozone countries not yet in intensive care to borrow on the international markets. There’s something else that may be helping too. One of the devices used to reassure skeptical Germans that the new European Central Bank would be more Bundesbank than Weimar was a broad ban on direct purchases by the ECB of government bonds from the eurozone’s members. There’s no equivalent rule, however, that stops commercial banks from using the LTRO loot they have just received from the ECB to purchase the bonds that the central bank cannot. Indeed the banks appear to have been incentivized to do just that. Using cheap ECB funds to buy high-yielding eurozone government bonds looks, at first glance (if not necessarily the second), like a nicely profitable carry trade.

Pause for a moment, though, to think through this money-laundering: Banks that have been weakened by their exposure to dodgy European sovereign debt were being encouraged to use loans (secured by similar debt, and worse) from an already highly leveraged central bank (underwritten by increasingly restive taxpayers) that was itself heavily exposed to identical crumbling borrowers, to buy even more of the same poison. Ponzi himself would have blanched. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, thought it was a great idea. “Each state,” he said, “can turn to its banks” to buy its bonds. Because thanks to the LTRO, the banks “will have liquidity at their disposal.”

It remains uncertain how many banks followed the French president’s advice. Quite a few, in all probability: Nevertheless a good portion of the LTRO proceeds have been placed right back on deposit with the ECB. The banks are still building fortifications in preparation for the day of reckoning they obviously fear may be on the way. That they are has something to be said for it (healthy cash reserves represent a handy preemptive strike against panic), but it is also a sign of a system that no longer believes in itself. The wider slowdown in lending that comes with it carries, as Europe has seen, its own terrible cost.

The next few months will show how effective the LTROs are at calming these fears. Somewhat, I’d guess, but sorting out the eurozone’s predicament will take more than the European Central Bank’s billions. The fundamental flaw of the euro was, and is, that this one-size currency does not fit all. All the liquidity in the world will not change that. Europe’s monetary union was assembled on the basis of political fiat rather than economic reality, and the economics and politics have both turned sour. And not just sour: They have combined into a murderous cocktail. Understandably enough, the looted taxpayers of the north want to see budgetary discipline imposed on the dysfunctional south. German chancellor Angela Merkel has been leading the posse pushing for just that. But too much austerity too soon is draining the ability of the PIIGS to generate the growth that is the only way out of their burning sty. More dangerously still, it is reaching the limits of the politically possible. Shuttered businesses, soaring unemployment, and the prospect of years of stagnation to come are not the stuff of social stability. If insults like the recent draft German proposals that would have ground into dust the last shards of Greece’s economic sovereignty (and much of what remains of its self-respect) are then added to the mix, an explosion is unlikely to be far behind.

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