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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Is the ECB becoming a bad bank?

Its common knowledge that the ECB has been providing massive amounts of liquidity to eurozone governments both directly (through the purchase of government bonds) and indirectly (by taking on large amount of government debt as collateral for lending to banks). The extent of this – and therefore also the implications – are less clear, mostly thanks to the ECB’s reluctance to publish any data on its holdings of collateral or government debt.

FT Alphaville highlights a note from JP Morgan, which suggests that the indirect exposure of the ECB to the Greek state is massive - and then we mean massive. JPM estimates that Greek banks have posted almost €140bn in state related collateral with the ECB (€85bn of state guaranteed bank paper, €45bn of Greek government bonds owned by Greek banks and €8bn of zero-coupon bonds which the Greek government had lent to Greek banks in 2008). Combining this with the direct holdings of government debt (thought to be around €60bn, as we noted in our paper on Greece) you get total exposure of the ECB to the Greek state of around €200bn.

That is a phenomenal amount.

Though these amounts are slightly speculative at the moment, there are some interesting and possibly disturbing implications here, particularly for those of us who believe that Greece will need to restructure its debt at some point soon (not that we’re alone, this group includes nearly all investors and apparently the IMF). This exposure to the Greek state is in the direct firing line if a restructuring occurs. First, there are likely to be large write downs on the direct holdings of Greek government bonds (at least 35% to have any significant impact on the debt burden) and secondly, the state backed paper could become close to worthless. Potential losses are still hard to quantify but would easily be upwards of €40bn.

Comparing this loss to the capital and reserves which the ECB holds, around €79bn, shows the potentially difficult situation which the ECB could find itself in following a Greek restructuring. Essentially the ECB would either have to ask eurozone governments for an injection of capital or or try to print their way back to an acceptable level of capital and reserves.

Therefore, following a Greek restructuring the ECB may have may face a difficult choice: completely ignore its primary mission (i.e. price stability) and print money or go hand in cap to governments - like the bad banks in the financial crisis - and ask for cash (almost like a bail-out).

Two questions: how in the world did the ECB allow itself to get so deep into this mess? And do German politicans/economists/opinion formers understand how incredibly exposed the ECB - once dubbed the world's strongest central bank - actually is?

2 comments:

Rollo said...

It is not becoming a bad bank: it is a bad bank. It has been buying dud bonds at well above their market value, only because the market will not buy them. As the ECB has no money of its own, it is simply lumbering the tax payers of europe with debt.

john graham said...

'Two questions: how in the world did the ECB allow itself to get so deep into this mess? And do German politicans/economists/opinion formers understand how incredibly exposed the ECB - once dubbed the world's strongest central bank - actually is?'

Have you thought about the possibility that the euro was designed to fail and that Germany has a history of causing a problem and then finding a solution to it!