Friday, December 14, 2012

ECB dilemma

It was announced yesterday that  Europe will have a new, central bank supervisor run by the ECB, much as our Fed combines monetary policy and bank supervision. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

One big unified central agency always sounds like a good idea until you think harder about it. This one faces an intractable dilemma.

Here's the problem. Why not just let Greece default?" is usually answered with "because then all the banks fail and Greece goes even further down the toilet." (And Spain, and Italy).

So, what should a European Bank Regulator do? Well, it should protect the banking system from sovereign default. It should declare that  sovereign debt is risky, require marking it to market, require large capital against it, and it should force banks to reduce sovereign exposure  to get rid of this obviously "systemic" "correlated risk" to their balance sheets. (They can just require banks to buy CDS, they don't have to require them to dump bonds on the market. This is just about not wanting to pay insurance premiums.) It should do for the obvious risky elephant in the room exactly what bank regulators failed to do for mortgage backed securities in 2006.

Moreover, it should encourage a truly European market. Greek, Spanish, Italian banks failing is no problem if large international banks can swoop in, pick up the assets, and open the doors the next day. Bankruptcy is recapitalization.  Greece needs a national banking system as much as Chicago (same population) does.

All well and good. And all diametrically opposed to the ECB's "crisis-fighting" agenda. The right arm of the ECB should be protecting the banking system in this way. But the left arm of the ECB is using banks as sponges for sovereign debt.

In trying to manage the sovereign debt crisis, the ECB has bought huge amounts of sovereign debt. It has lent  euros to banks that in turn have bought large amounts of sovereign debt (often, I gather, with not so subtle pressure from their governments).  It has lent more euros to the same banks to replace deposits that are quite wisely fleeing out of those banks.

How can the right arm protect the banking system from sovereign default, while the left arm wants to stuff the banking system with sovereign debt?

Converesely, how can the left arm do anything but print euros like mad, now that the right arm has responsibility for the banking system?  Lending to banks who buy sovereign debt was always excused by the idea that the bank shareholders bear the credit risk and national supervisors take care of that problem. Now it's in the ECB's lap. Politically, can the ECB really shut down national banks, stiff the creditors, and let them be taken over by big pan-european banks?

I bet on the outcome: print euros like mad, keep pretending sovereign debt is risk free, and prop up existing banks. Let's hope I'm too cynical. For once.