Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Are ECB Target2 Balances Ever Risky?

Izabella Kaminska is a very talented and intelligent writer for FTAlphaville and I try to read everything she writes, because she makes you think.  I will continue to read what she writes.  When she wrote yesterday that ECB Target2 balances are a big deal, I was thrown for a loop and wondering what am I missing.  I even reached out to another financial and economic professional for a give and take discussion.

Kaminska cites the March BIS Quarterly which shows that Target2 balances have substantially increased as the result of the Asset Purchase Program but CDS spreads have remained stable.  She then concludes that the capital flight during the 2012 Greek crisis was a big deal which resulted in Target2 balances increasing and creating "financing" by Target2 credit National Central Banks, such as the Bundesbank in Germany.  She also concludes this was a failure of the transmission mechanism and cites a paper on the old Soviet Union's International Investment Bank in an attempt to draw a comparison of flows and a failure of the transmission mechanism.

I have written about Target2 twice in 2015 (here and here) and discussed it with economic and financial professional in the United states and other countries.  Additionally, as I have previously cited, Whelan published an excellent paper on Target2 and how it works in 2012.

I am going to try to keep this simple.

The stable CDS spreads with increasing Target2 balances show the Asset Purchase Program is working.  In fact Footnote 3 in the BIS March Quarterly cites the BIS November 2016 Quarterly which states, "The ensuing upward trend in TARGET balances largely reflects the settlement of these cross-border transactions by central banks and, therefore, does not signal renewed stress in financial markets."

Target2 credit balances are money created by the ECB and not by financing from the credit National Central Banks.  National Central Banks are only liable for losses at the ECB to the extent of their Capital Key ratio, which with Germany is 17.9973%.  With respect to the APP, National Central Banks are only exposed to 20% of any APP losses which would be distributed according to the NCB's Capital Key ratio. 

With respect to the study on the Soviet Union's International Investment Bank, its failure was from pricing, industrial capacity, governmental policy, access to international markets, and a weak Soviet ruble unsuitable for international trade.  It is an interesting study of a failure of the transmission mechanism.  However, the ECB and Target2 during 2012 demonstrates the success of a transmission mechanism.  While the ECB balance sheet shows spikes in 2012 and currently, they are from two different causes and both speak to the maintenance of financial stability. 

The IIB transferable ruble loans to Soviet Block countries creating foreign currency denominated debt for those countries has some similarity to every eurozone country having its debt in a foreign currency (euro), but the eurozone is a monetary union (without a fiscal transfer mechanism) with a central bank (ECB) exercising monetary policy.

When would Target2 levels constitute a risk?  Any risk to Target2 would be a risk to the eurozone itself.  This is why arguments against Target2 have been arguments against the credibility of the euro as a currency and attempts to argue the euro is on its way to a currency crisis.  While I have long maintained the euro is treading towards a currency crisis, the crisis is dependent on growing political risk fed by a defective monetary union without a fiscal transfer mechanism which uses destructive austerity to compensate and only creates negative economic growth, more unsustainable debt, and a growing eruption of political unrest which is swelling to possible political risks in Italy and France. 

People are suffering.  Greece, which is already at depression economic levels, is again facing demands for more destructive austerity from the EMU and has never recovered from the EMU enforced coup in 2012 or the monetary warfare waged by the ECB in 2015.  Spain has had a temporary government for so long it may have forgotten how a real democratic parliament functions.  Spanish and Italian banks need support.  Portugal was allowed to keep its government on condition it did what the EMU wanted.  Cyprus had its citizens bank deposits taken away from them. It is no surprise people are unhappy.  And nobody really wants to ask how strong German banks, not just the large international banks (like Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank) but the national, savings, and landes banks really are, particularly since Germany has resisted including all its banks in ECB stress tests.

How serious would the political risk have to be?  If you look at the CDS spreads of 2003 euro bonds and 2014 (which have CAC provisions) bonds, you can see the increased political risk with the spreads between the two doubling to 40 basis points.  This perceived political risk ignores the possibility of an eurozone country actually exiting the EMU, changing its countries bond laws and abrogating CAC's, and redenominating its debt from the euro to its own fiat currency.  Just using Target2 balances as a base example, it is easy to see that if Greece and Portugal both left the EMU, the EMU could easily survive with its monetary credibility tarnished.  However, if Spain and Italy left and defaulted on Target2 and redenominated euro debt, it would create a significant loss and change in remaining eurozone countries Capital Key ratio.  Even if France left, it would create a significant change in remaining countries Capital Key ratio and create damaged euro credibility.  A currency depends on its credibility to survive.

Could the eurozone survive as a monetary union without Spain and Italy if they defaulted on Target2 and redenominated their euro debt?

The political risks are growing and they are not supportive of democracy. 

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