The ECB broke the Euro, already

Can we get something straight? Euro deposits in Eurozone banks are liabilities of Eurosystem to individual EU citizens. Euro deposits in Greek banks are liabilities of those banks, and indirectly of the ECB, to individual depositors who live in Greece. Not to the Greek state. The Greek state is not part of this contract. If Greek banks were drachma banks they’d be the responsibility of the Bank of Greece. Now that they’re Euro banks they’re the responsibility of the ECB.

This is a contract of trust between the ECB and individual residents of EU states, including the Greeks. The Greek state is another actor, in essence a very large bankrupt business. The ECB is justified to be angry that the Greek state is threatening non-payment of its debt to the ECB, but that’s a dispute between a bankrupt business called the Greek state and the ECB. Because the ECB is unhappy with the Greek state, it decided to breach its contract with individual Greek citizens and refuse to honor their deposits. Sure enough, Greek citizens have a say in what the Greek state does but in the supposedly professional world of banking and contracts the individuals and the state are not the same thing.

To put this in perspective it’s like JP Morgan, the US bank, seizing the deposits of its customers in Detroit because it is owed money by Ford, Chrysler, etc. where these same people work. JP Morgan would then say “Ford employees refused to waive their pension claims in order to give Ford money to pay us, so we’re grabbing the deposits of these same employees directly”. Americans, how does that sound? I thought so. You cannot seize one person’s private property to recover the debt of another entity, however related. Well, you can if you are a political sovereign, but not with any pretence of legality.

Spaniards, how would you like it if the ECB decided not to honour your deposits after September because you voted Podemos?

Scots, what if your country voted Yes on independence and a few months down the line the Sottish state had a falling out with England? Inconceivable, I know. What if then the Bank of England refused to honour the deposits of individual RBS customers?

Germans, your banks now have tens of billions of liabilities to Greeks, Cypriots, Spaniards, etc. who decided as individuals to transfer their deposits to Germany. In the world of banking every liability requires a corresponding asset and in the Euro system the asset is something called TARGET2 balance from Greek to German banks. The asset behind that is Euro loans of Greek citizens to Greek banks. If you let the ECB seize deposits in Greece, Euro loans in Greece will go bad, Greek banks will fail, and said TARGET2 balances would be worth nothing.

German banks will then have tens of billions of Euros of liability to individual people, many of whom happen to be Greeks and Cypriots, with no corresponding asset. What solution will you legislate for that? Will you let your banks honour individual deposits or not based on the passport of the account holder? Will you haircut all deposits in Germany? Will you bail the banks out?

The rules of the game are that he ECB is responsible for all Euro accounts. It has accounts more or less directly with states – states are treated like very large businesses. The faith of the ECB also stands behind private banks, so that the private banks can honour Euro accounts of individuals. With Cyprus, and now with Greece, the ECB has decided to price in default risk, country by country, by refusing to honour the full value of the accounts of individuals.

If that is so the Euro has already failed. It is not one currency, it is already three: Cypriot Euro, Greek Euro, and the rest. If this policy line continues soon there will be a fourth, fifth, and more currencies all called Euro but having different net present value depending on in which country they exist as bank deposits. This is not a single currency system, it is a failure.

How to understand Greece’s negotiations with its creditors, part 1

Greece: We can’t pay the interest on our debt because the principal is high, the rate of interest is high, and our income is much too low thanks to the income-reducing austerity measures imposed by our creditors.

Creditors line so far: Prioritize paying creditors above anything else. We don’t care about the cumulative damage it does to your economy.

Greece with Syriza: We refuse to do that any more. Besides, can’t you see it’s pointless? We have less and less income to possibly pay you with.

Creditors after election: Well we can’t remove the debt principal from the books because debt is money and European nations’ money would have to disappear.

OK, these are good opening positions for negotiation. Greece is asserting you can’t collect from a business you’re running into the ground. Central bankers are asserting that “Europe’s money is our balance sheet” and you can’t remove debt from the assets side of the balance sheet without something bad happening to the liabilities (money) side.

What next? Compromise I expect. Either central bankers accept that balance sheets with liabilities exceeding assets are OK for central banks, or they’ll figure out a way to make old debt a token asset that generates little or no current account obligations. The first would be easiest, but the economic Zeitgeist is against it so I expect the latter. Some sort of indefinite near-zero real interest rollover as is the case with US or Japanese debt.

To clarify for the concerns of northern European folk:
No-one really expects a nation to pay back its debt. It’s not a project to build a highway, or little of national debt is like that. Nations borrow more or less indefinitely and the amount of debt may rise and fall but that’s an investment concern like the stock market rising and falling in valuation. Generally debt is supposed to rise slowly, and to pay it all back is a bad thing because it removes bonds from the investment market. Neither is Greece expected to pay back northern Europe nor are northern European taxpayers on the hook to pay Greece’s bill to someone. Sovereign debts are not like auto loans.

Rather, sovereign debts are like stocks or mortgages. They’re assets in the banking system. Greece essentially borrowed into a bubble and in 2010 was revealed to be a bad asset. Greece’s economy is worth less than it’s mortgage, so to speak. Bad call, maybe reckless, but it’s the truth. Since then the bad asset that’s Greece’s debt has been passed around until it ended up in Europe’s central banks, the way bad assets in the US ended un in the Fed. That’s OK, it’s partly what central banks are for. No one is going to liquidate a central bank because its liabilities exceed its assets. Except the ECB, if they decide to. But that would be dumb.

So what the negotiation is about is seeking one of two outcomes: Either agree in banking circles that having big holes in the balance sheets of central banks is OK, in which case they can write off a big chunk of debt and put the remaining amount back on the investment market on a sound footing, or figure out a clever way to keep the debt on the books so the books look neat but the debt generates no real interest or pressure on the real economy. The first is emotionally cleaner and revives the economy, and it’s what Syriza wants. The latter buries the problem until it dies of old age and is the Japanese approach. I like Japan…

Europe’s two problems

Europe has two big problems. Doubtless one of them is political, or to put it more precisely, it’s in the space of national politics.

The post-national European project has  stalled. It has certainly taken us a long way, from warring nation-states to an open community where we feel free and entitled as citizens throughout the continent. We’ve largely lost our national identities, and it may come as a surprise to Americans that we don’t care about our flags. National cultures are cherished as heritage, but not something to be defensive or overly proud of – certainly not something to kill or die for. The nation state was born in Europe in the 1700s and it died in Europe in 1945. Generations of visionary leaders have taken the people of Europe from the aftermath of an existential war to a point where the state is little more than an old-fashioned cultural and administrative unit. It took a lot of paternalism and manipulation to get us here, but on the whole we are grateful. Even the insular British do not prefer to go back to a time of animosity where crossing the border to Germany or France had the significance that entering Israel or Iran has today.

The problem is that after the Maastricht treaty and the introduction of the Euro the post-nationalist transformation has stopped. The Euro obviously came too soon for Europe, but also obviously it was the first of a sequence of bold steps that the then heads of state could not take all at once. Having the Euro is like putting one foot on a moving streetcar, but not climbing on board, instead limping desperately after it with the other foot on the street. The onward steps were very much expected and obvious, but they didn’t come: an elected European presidency; real powers for the European Parliament or some reformed elected chamber; continent-wide taxation, social security, and pension systems; business reform to allow companies to operate across the zone without country subsidiaries; stronger education, development, and technology agencies. None of this happened. The Euro and the ECB were the last post-national institutions that Europe saw.

We haven’t stopped to ask why. Continue reading

Economic newspeak in the EU

There’s no shortage of voices explaining what Europe needs. I tried to collect the main recommendations here. The de-facto leaders of Europe, Merkel and Draghi, are doubtless very smart individuals who can clearly see what ought to be done if one had the common good in mind. I don’t believe the hyperinflation argument is anything but a populist stalling tactic.

What we are observing is the elite of the Eurozone accurately picking up a democratic demand and then deliberately offering something that sounds like the demand but is in fact the opposite, an attempt to distort and defuse what is earnestly demanded.

Eurobonds – what is needed:
Eurozone states need to pool their debt into a common type of bond, or “Eurobond”, so that a billion Euros of Greek debt is indistinguishable from a billion of German debt, much like US treasury bonds are all alike and not denominated by state. Bond markets initially perceived Euro sovereign debt that way, creating a somewhat unhealthy credit boom in the periphery. When markets realized the bonds were not the same they attacked the debt rollover of the weakest economies in turn, Greece being the first, with loan shark rates that predictably destroy the indebted economy. Eurobonds would restore the ability for the whole zone to manage debt at the same rate, which will be low since zone-wide deficit is a few percent.

Eurobonds – what was offered:
The red-blue Eurobond proposal by a German think tank was an attempt to offer something called a Eurobond that expressly doesn’t have the desired effect. That proposal calls for “blue”, essentially high credit rating, bonds that meet tight fiscal criteria and “red” junk rated bonds that don’t. The scheme is no different from the status quo, as countries like Greece would package some existing “senior” debt as blue bonds and would only be able to issue new red bonds for their deficit and rollover needs. The red-blue Eurobond proposal is thus a distraction that protects creditors and bond speculators.

Continue reading