Thursday, December 29, 2011

Various European Central Bank Topics

Interesting things in Europe, where threats of various economic crises seem to have abated but not disappeared.

While Mario Draghi, the relatively new head of the European Central Bank, has been strident in saying that the ECB cannot be the lender of last resort to European governments, it seems that his actions are different from his words. Last week, the ECB opened up low interest (1%) three year loans to European banks in a "liquidity-providing operation" and banks promptly borrowed €489 billion. And this week, it was reported that the ECB's balance sheet had grown to €2.73 trillion, €553 billion higher than three months ago.

And as background, we have French President Sarkozy encouraging banks to run a "Sarkozy carry trade," that is, borrow from the ECB at 1% and invest it in sovereign government bonds that yield close to 7% (Italy). In fact, the ECB will even take those bonds as collateral on the loans! Not a bad deal if you can get it!

The expansion of the ECB balance sheet is of course from its lending program, among other things, and it represents an injection of high powered reserves into the European banking system. It seems to me to be quantitative easing, the new terminology for what we used to just call expansion of the money supply through open market operations.

By itself, this is not a bad thing, and in times of a liquidity crunch, such expansion is called for. However, there are some worries in the European situation. Are the loans to the European banks to help them with liquidity problems, or are the loans to the banks just a back-door way for the ECB to buy European government bonds? There certainly seems to have been an impact, as yields on Italian and Spanish bonds have fallen.

John Cochrane has a great editorial on many of these matters. Cochrane emphasizes how European banks have huge risks, as they have loaded up on sovereign bonds, and now they have even more incentive and ability to do so. And all this sovereign debt gets a zero weighting in the regulatory bank capital schema, meaning that it is considered risk-free!

To the extent that European banks run the Sarkozy carry trade, there is an interesting divergence between the US central bank policy and what the ECB is effectively doing. During the US credit crisis (post-Lehman) the Fed pumped up its balance sheet, partly through a policy of buying mortgage bonds issued by FannieMae and FreddieMac. This sounds similar to the ECB buying up bonds of Italy, Portugal and Spain. However, with the Fed and in the US, the bad practices that got us into the mess had ended -- the subprime market was shut, and even Freddie and Fannie tightened significantly their lending practices (so much so that it is too hard now for people to get a mortgage). In Europe, it is not yet clear that the government policies that got them into trouble have really been fixed. And the bonds sold by those governments are now on the balance sheet of the ECB.

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