Draghi’s Stealth Plan

Mario Draghi has settled on a plan to pull the EU banking system back from the brink and hammer down sovereign bond yields at the same time. The European Central Bank chief has announced that he will launch an emergency liquidity assistance program on December 21, that will provide “limitless” loans to struggling banks at rock-bottom rates (1 percent) for up to 3 years.

Market analysts believe that Draghi is creating an incentive for banks to purchase high-yielding sovereign bonds from debt-stricken countries using the cheap money they borrow from the ECB. If, for example, a bank takes out a loan for $5 billion euros at 1 percent and buys the same amount of 10-year Italian debt at 7 percent, he will net 6 percent difference on the trade. It’s a carry trade windfall, a direct subsidy from the central bank. The ECB’s loans are intended to ease the stress for liquidity-starved banks while lowering the cost of funding for governments that have been walloped by the debt crisis.

Draghi’s plan is actually a type of backdoor quantitative easing (QE), the main difference is that the banks are being used as middlemen to purchase the bonds. But, at the end of the day, it’s all the same, which is to say that the ECB has printed money in exchange for dodgy collateral that is fast losing its value. The method was pioneered by the Fed when it swapped $1.45 trillion in reserves for toxic mortgage-backed securities (MBS) held by banks in the US. Three years later, there’s still no market for this unwanted dreck that has ballooned the Fed’s balance sheet to more than $2 trillion dollars.

Draghi has had to downplay what he’s doing for political reasons. Any talk of QE would put the hard money evangelists at the Bundesbank in a furor. So the ECB has issued a press release that grossly understates the potential size and impact of the program saying it’s merely designed “to support bank lending and money market activity.”

Right. Draghi also has to conceal the fact that the new facility flaunts the “no bailout clause” (Article 123) in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The central bank is strictly prohibited from providing monetary financing
for member states. But–as we’ve seen–the program is designed to divert money into sovereign debt thus providing fiscal support for the governments. In other words, the cagey Draghi is fudging the rules and stealthily carrying out “lender of last resort” operations. That’s bound to ruffle a few feathers in Berlin.

If the plan to lend the banks money to buy bonds sounds oddly circuitous, it’s because it is. Draghi’s trying to establish plausible deniability about what he’s up to. But the politicians know what’s going on. Just listen to what French President Nicholas Sarkozy said when the ECB made its original announcement. This is from Reuters:

“French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the ECB’s increased provision of funds meant governments in countries like Italy and Spain could look to their countries’ banks to buy their bonds. “This means that each state can turn to its banks, which will have liquidity at their disposal,” Sarkozy told reporters at the summit in Brussels.” (Reuters)

Got that? Sarkozy knows what’s going on and he’s on board. He’s probably also figured out that the loans will never be repaid in full. How could they be? Most of the debt the ECB will be accepting, was massively inflated during the bubble years. Sovereign bond prices are as likely to bounce back in the next few years as are housing prices in the US. In other words, they won’t. The ECB will be stuck with a gigantic stinkpile of junk assets such as A rated asset-backed securities (ABS) comprised of residential mortgages and loans to small businesses. Eventually, the losses will be passed on to EZ taxpayers just as the Fed’s losses will be passed on to US taxpayers. No difference.

In the meantime, Draghi will have breathed new life into the foundering EU banking system and brought it back from certain death. It’s worth noting that the funding markets are currently frozen and the banks are unable to sell equity; so they’ve effectively become wards of the ECB. Last week alone EU banks borrowed 292 billion euros from the ECB with an additional 41 billion in one-month funding. Absent a central bank lifeline, the system would already be in its death throes.

What’s happening to EU banks is what happened to US banks after the subprime timebomb went off. As their stash of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) suffered repeated downgrades, their capital cushion deteriorated, and their balance sheets dipped into the red. Many of the country’s biggest banks were technically insolvent. Then came TARP and QE1, and, well, you know the rest. That’s why Draghi is doing his level-best to get the banks a liquidity-infusion pronto. The situation is getting worse by the day and policymakers have been unable to successfully activate any of the 3 proposed emergency lending facilitities; the EFSF, the ESM or the $200 billion IMF facility. All three, are still in various stages of incubation, so the onus is on Draghi to act.

Of course, the logical thing to do would be to acknowledge that there was a humongous asset-price bubble and act accordingly; give bondholders haircuts, wipe out equity holders, restructure the banks and backstop the sovereigns with guarantees of a sustainable rate of interest. But that will never happen, because big finance has a stranglehold on the system, which is why Draghi– a former managing director of Goldman Sachs–is calling the shots. There won’t be any bank restructuring or haircuts, not if Draghi has anything to say about it. Just more bailouts as far as the eye can see.

So, how much garbage collateral is the ECB willing to take?

Well, according to the Financial Times blog (FT.Alphaville), there’s roughly €7,100bn.. of corporate and SME (small and medium size enterprises) loans on eurozone banks’ balance sheets. That’s 7 trillion with a “T”. Here’s a clip from the post:

“….we thought we’d share with you Goldman’s thoughts on how these corporate and SME loans might be valued as collateral. It’s well below €7,100bn but still a big chunk of change:

From Goldman report: “It is unclear how much of this €7.1 tn will ultimately qualify as collateral. That depends primarily on the size threshold (for individual loans) and the minimum IRB [internal rating based] rating….. But preliminary expectations are for some 20%-50% of corporate loans qualifying as collateral, before the haircuts are applied.” (“Let there be credit claim collateral”, ft.com/alphaville)

So, the ECB could be in for a major balance sheet expansion, perhaps as much as 3 trillion euros of unmarketable toxic sludge is set to wash up onto their balance sheet. Meanwhile, the wastrel banks that caused the mess with their loose lending and poor risk management will be making money hand over fist swapping Italian and Spanish high-yield paper for low-interest loans from the dissembling Mr. Draghi.

There are skeptics, though, people who don’t believe that Draghi’s magical miracle cure will lure banks into buying more sovereign debt. Take a look at this from the International Finance Review:

“Banks are unlikely to come to the aid of debt-ridden eurozone countries, with many planning to ignore political pressure to use cheap money from the European Central Bank to fund purchases of sovereign bonds….

Burned by Greek losses, and under the scrutiny of shareholders, banks have slashed their exposure to weaker European sovereigns over recent months. Senior bankers say they will cut further, despite pressure to use newly available, longer-term ECB loans to buy government debt as part of an officially-sanctioned carry trade.

“When investors are constantly asking what you have on your books and the board is asking you to reduce your exposure, it doesn’t really matter about the economics of the trade,” said the treasurer of one of Europe’s biggest banks. “Am I going to buy Italian bonds? No.”

That view echoes comments from UniCredit chief executive Federico Ghizzoni, who this week told reporters at a banking conference that using ECB money to buy government debt “wouldn’t be logical”. The bank had traditionally been one of the biggest buyers of Italian government bonds, with almost €50bn on its books.

Such attitudes will come as a major blow to European policymakers, who had been hoping banks would use ECB money to profit from the carry trade, helping governments in the process.” (“Banks resist European pressure to buy government”, IFR)

So, while Draghi’s circumlocutory bailout might work; it’s not a done-deal by a long-shot. The banks are increasingly wary of loading up on government bonds that are quickly losing altitude. EU banks are already on the hook for €650bn of liabilities next year alone. Do they really want to get in even deeper?

Maybe and maybe not. We won’t know for sure until Draghi’s Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) kicks-off on December 21. That’s when the rubber meets the road.

If the plan does succeed and sovereign bond yields fall while the banking system is slowly nursed back to health, then Draghi’s stock will rise considerably. In fact, he’ll be the most powerful man in Europe because he’ll be able to dictate economic policy by merely adjusting the amount of sovereign debt he accepts as collateral from the banks. This is unspoken goal of the emergency liquidity assistance facility, to put big finance in the catbird seat so they can impose hairshirt austerity measures on debt-stricken nations through the coercive manipulation of bond yields. It’s a foolproof way of trouncing representative government and handing the levers of power to unelected bankers. But then, there’s nothing really new about that, is there?

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.