In response to the sovereign funding crisis sweeping across the Eurozone, the ECB decided to “conduct two longer-term refinancing operations (LTROs) with a maturity of 36 months”. Combined with the commitment of the members of the Eurozone excluding the possibility of any more haircuts on private sector holders of Euro sovereign bonds, the aim of the current exercise is clear. As Nicholas Sarkozy put it rather bluntly,
Italian banks will be able to borrow [from the ECB] at 1 per cent, while the Italian state is borrowing at 6–7 per cent. It doesn’t take a finance specialist to see that the Italian state will be able to ask Italian banks to finance part of the government debt at a much lower rate.
In other words, the ECB will not finance fiscal deficits directly but will be more than happy to do so via the Eurozone banking system. But this plan still has a few critical flaws:
- As Sony Kapoor notes, “By doing this, you are strengthening the link between banks and sovereigns, which has proven so dangerous in this crisis. Even if useful in the short term, it would seriously increase the vulnerability of both banks and sovereigns to future shocks.” In other words, if the promise to exclude the possibility of inflicting losses on sovereign debt-holders is broken at any point of time in the future, then sovereign default will coincide with a complete decimation of the incumbent banks in Europe.
- European banks are desperately capital-constrained as the latest EBA estimates on the capital shortfall faced by European banks shows. In such a condition, banks will almost certainly take on increased sovereign debt exposures only at the expense of lending to the private sector and households. This can only exacerbate the recession in the Eurozone.
- Sarkozy’s comment also hints at the deep unfairness of the current proposal. If default and haircuts are not on the table, then allowing banks to finance their sovereign debt holdings at a lower rate than the yield they earn on the sovereign bonds (at the same tenor) is simply a transfer of wealth from the Eurozone taxpayer to the banks. Such a privilege may only be extended to the banks if banking is a “perfectly competitive” sector which it is far from being even in a boom economy. In the midst of an economic crisis when so many banks are tottering, it is even further away from the ideal of perfect competition.
There is a simple solution that tackles all three of the above problems – extend the generous terms of refinancing sovereign debt to the entire populace of the Eurozone such that the market for the “support of sovereign debt” is transformed into something close to perfectly competitive. In practise, this simply requires undertaking a program of fast-track banking licenses to new banks with low minimum size requirements on the condition that they restrict their activities to a narrow mandate of buying sovereign debt. This plan can correct all the flaws of the current proposal:
- Instead of being concentrated within the incumbent failing banks, the sovereign debt exposure of the Eurozone would be spread in a diversified manner within the population. This will also help in making the “no more haircuts” commitment more time-consistent. The wider base of sovereign debt holders will reduce the possibility that the commitment will be reversed by democratic means. The only argument against this plan is that such a concentrated new bank is too risky but that assumes that there is still default risk on Eurozone sovereign debt and that the commitment is not credible.
- The plan effectively injects new capital into the banking sector allowing incumbent bank capital to be deployed towards lending to the private sector and households. If sovereign debt spreads collapse, then the plan will also shore up the financial position of the incumbent banks thus injecting further capital available to be deployed.
- The plan is fair. If the current crisis is indeed just a problem of high interest rates fuelling an increased risk of default, then interest rates will rapidly fall to a level much closer to the refinancing rate. To the extent that rates stay elevated and spreads do not converge, it will provide a much more accurate reflection of the real risk of default. No one will earn a supra-normal rate of return.
On this blog, I have criticised the indiscriminate provision of “liquidity” backstops by central banks on many occasions. I have also asserted that key economic functions must be preserved, not the incumbent entities that provide such functions. In times of crisis, central banking interventions are only fair when they are effectively accessible to the masses. At this critical juncture, the socially just policy may also be the only option that can save the single currency project.