By Michael Steen in Frankfurt
(FT) —The European Central Bank said it earned €555m last year on its holdings of Greek sovereign bonds that were bought during the crisis in an attempt to calm financial market fears of a break-up of the eurozone.
The bank also revealed for the first time that nearly half of its holdings in the so-called Securities Markets Programme are of Italian debt. At the end of 2012 it held €99bn in Italian sovereign bonds, €30.8bn in Greek debt, €43.7bn in Spanish paper, €21.6bn in Portuguese debt and €13.6bn in Irish bonds.
By Marshall Auerback and Warren Mosler
October 3, 2011 — The refusal to countenance a Greek default is now said to be dragging the euro zone toward even greater crisis. Implicit in this view, of course, is the idea that the current “bailout” proposals are operationally unsustainable and will lead to a broader contagion which will ultimately afflict the pristine credit ratings of core countries such as Germany and France.
Well, we see a very different view emerging: The “solution” currently on offer – i.e. the talk surrounding the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) now includes suggestions of ECB backing. This makes eminent sense. Let’s be honest: the EFSF is a political fig-leaf. If 440 billion euros proves insufficient, as many now contend, the fund would have to be expanded and the money ultimately has to come from the ECB — the only entity that can create new net financial euro denominated assets — which means that Germany need no longer fret about being asked for ongoing lump sums to fund the EFSF in a way that would ultimately damage its triple AAA credit rating.
Despite public protestations to the contrary, it is beginning to look like the elders of the euro zone have begun to embrace the reality that, when push comes to shove, it is the ECB that must write the check, and that it can continue to do so indefinitely.
That means, for example, the ECB can buy sufficient quantities of Greek bonds in the secondary markets to allow Greece to fund itself in the short term markets at reasonable interest rates. And it gets even better than that for the ECB, as the ECB also substantially enhances its profitability by continuing to buy deeply discounted Greek bonds and using Greece’s income stream to build the ECB’s stated capital. As long as it continues to buy Greek debt, Greece remains solvent, and the ECB continues to increase its accrual of profits that flow to capital.
The logical conclusion of all of this is ECB ownership of most of Greece’s debt, with austerity measures imposed by the ECB steering the Greek budget to a primary surplus, along with sufficient taxation to keep the ECB’s capital on the rise, and help fund the ECB’s operating budget as well. Now add to that similar arrangements with Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy and it’s Mission Accomplished!
Mission Accomplished? Are we daring to suggest that the Fathers of the euro zone had exactly this in mind when they signed the Treaty of Maastricht?
Or, put it another way: it’s all so obvious, so how could they not have this mind?
So let’s take a quick look at the central bank accounting to see if this seemingly outrageous thesis has merit.
Here is what is actually happening. By design from inception, when the ECB undertakes its bond buying operation, the ECB debt purchases merely shift net financial assets held by the ‘economy’ from Greek government liabilities to ECB liabilities in the form of clearing balances at the ECB. While the Greek government liabilities shift from ‘the economy’ to the ECB. Note: this process does not alter any ‘flows’ or ‘net stocks of euros’ in the real economy.
And so as long as the ECB imposes austerian terms and conditions, their bond buying will not be inflationary. Inflation from this channel comes from spending. However, in this case the ECB support comes only with reduced spending via its imposition of fiscal austerity. And reduced spending means reduced aggregate demand, which therefore means reduced inflation and a stronger currency. All stated objectives of the ECB.
We would stress that this is NOT our PROPOSED solution to the euro zone crisis (see here and here for our proposals), but it is clearly operationally sustainable, it addresses the solvency issues, and puts the PIIGS before the cart, which at least has the appearance of putting them right where the core nations of the euro zone want them to be.
Additionally, the ECB now officially has stated it will provide unlimited euro liquidity to its banks. This, too, is now widely recognized as non-inflationary. Nor is it expansionary, as bank assets remain constrained by regulation including capital adequacy and asset eligibility, which is required for them to receive ECB support in the first place.
To reiterate, it is becoming increasingly clear, crisis by crisis, that with ECB support, the current state of affairs can be operationally sustained.
The problem, then, shifts to political sustainability, which is a horse of a different color. And here is where the Greeks (and the other PIIGS) paradoxically have the whip hand. So long as the Greeks continue to accept the austerity, they wind up being burdened by virtue of their funding of the ECB. The ECB takes in their income payments from the bonds, and the ECB alone ensures that Greece remains solvent. It’s a great deal for the ECB and the core countries, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, as it costs the core’s national taxpayers nothing. And, as least so far, Greece thinks the ECB is doing them a favor by keeping them out of default. The question remains as to whether the Greeks will continue to suffer from this odd variant of Stockholm (Berlin?) Syndrome.
Perhaps not if some of the more recent proposals make headway. As an example of what might be in store for Greece, consider the “Eureca Project”, publicly mooted in the French press last week. In essence, it aims to reduce “Greek debt from 145% to 88% of GDP in one step” without default (so protecting all northern European banks); reduce ECB exposure to Greek debt (that is, force Greece to pay the ECB for the bonds it has purchased in secondary bond markets) and it claims that it will “kick-start the Greek economy and revive growth and job creation” and promote “structural reform.”
So how is it going to do all of that? Simple: engage in the biggest asset strip in history. The proposal in essence calls for a non-sovereign entity to take all the public assets – hand them over to a holding company funded by the EU which pays Greece who then pay off all it debtors. End of process – except that if it is implemented, the Greeks could well say “Stuff it. Let’s default and take our chances. At least we get to keep our national assets.” That’s the risk that is being run if the ECB and the economic moralists in Germany take this too far. If this proposal were accepted, the eurocrats would in fact have a failed nation state on their hands in 3 months time — in the eurozone, not the Mideast or Africa.
By contrast, the current arrangements seem tame in comparison. They obviate the solvency issue, but even here one wonders how much more can be inflicted on countries such as Greece. We stress that the current arrangements have OPERATIONAL sustainability, not necessarily POLITICAL sustainability. The near universally accepted austerity theme is likely to result in continuously elevated unemployment, and a large output gap in general characterized by a lagging standard of living and high personal stress in general. This creates huge systemic risk insofar as it might well make sense for Greece (and others) ultimately to reject this harsh imposition of austerity. But, so far so good for the core nations, as there appears to be no movement in that directions (except on the streets of Athens, rather than in the Greek Parliament).
By the ECB continuing to fund Greece, and not allowing Greece to default, but instead to continue to service its debt, the whole dynamic has changed from doing Greece a favor by not allowing Athens to default to disciplining Greece by not allowing the country to default. And while that’s what the Germans SEEMINGLY haven’t yet figured out, if one is to judge from the current debate, particularly in Germany itself, at the same time they have approved the latest package and are quickly moving in the direction we are suggesting. Note that Angela Merkel has been most adamant on the particular question of allowing Greece to default or allowing an “orderly restructuring.” It’s also worth noting that when the ECB funds Greece, that funding facilitates Greek purchases of German goods and services, including military, at no cost to the German taxpayer. In fact, Germany gets to run larger trade surpluses, which means by accounting identity it is able to run lower government budget deficits, which allows it to feel virtuous and continue its incessant economic moralizing.
So what’s in it for Germany? That should be obvious by now: Germany gets to export to Greece, and to control/impose austerity on Greece, which keeps the euro strong, interest rates in Germany low, and FUNDS the ECB. All in the name of punishing the Greeks for past sins. It doesn’t get any better than that for the core nations. It’s time for the Germans to stop pushing their luck. Rather, they should embrace the genius of one of the so-called southern profligates, Italy, as they have surely created an operationally sustainable doomsday machine of which Machiavelli himself would be proud. How could this not be the Founding Fathers’ dream come true?
The earnings on the Greek debt are particularly significant as there has been a political agreement to pay back profits made from holding the bonds to the Greek government. Because the bonds still pay interest and were bought at depressed prices, they yield a lot of interest.
The €555m compares with income of €654m in 2011 on Greek debt – also published on Thursday – but only represents the ECB’s share of the earnings, which is a combination of interest paid on the bond and a paper profit derived from amortising its value over time.
The Eurosystem as a whole, which comprises all 17 national central banks that work with the ECB, would have made a significantly larger amount on the Greek bond holdings.
The ECB, which declared a net profit of €998m for 2012, up from €728m the year before, pays its profits to the other Eurosystem central banks, which then declare their own profits before passing money to national governments. Only then can any declared profits on Greek bond holdings be returned to Athens.