Category Archives: Euro area crisis

8/2/15: Reformed Euro Area Banks… Getting Worse Than 2007 Vintage?..

For all the ECB and EU talk about the need to increase deposits share of banks funding and strengthening the banks balance sheets, the reality is that Euro area banks are

  1. Still more reliant on non-deposits finding than their US counterparts; 
  2. This reliance on non-deposits funding in Euro area is actually getting bigger, not smaller compared to the pre-crisis levels; and
  3. This reliance is facilitated by two factors: slower deleveraging in the banking system in the Euro area, and ECB policy on funding the banks, despite the fact that Euro area banks are operating in demographic environment of older population (with higher share of deposits in their portfolios) than the US system. Note that Japanese system reflects this demographic difference in the 'correct' direction, implying older demographic consistent with lower loans/deposits ratio.
Here's the BIS chart on Banking sector loan-to-deposit and non-core liabilities ratios  showing loan-deposit ratios:

Note: 1)  Weighted average by deposits. 2)  Bank liabilities (excluding equity) minus customer deposits divided by total liabilities. 3) The United States, Japan and Europe (the euro area, the United Kingdom and Switzerland). This ratio measures the degree to which banks finance their assets using non-deposit funding sources.

3/2/2015: Japanification of Europe?

One of the main narratives for understanding European economy's longer term growth outlook has been the risk of Japanification: a long-term stagnation punctuated by recessionary periods and accompanied by low inflation and or deflationary episodes and pressures. I posted on the topic before (see for example here: and generally think we are witnessing some worrying similarities with Japan, driven primarily by longer-term trends: debt overhangs across real economy, nature of debt allocations (concentrated in less productive legacy assets, such as property in some countries, physical capital in others) and, crucially, demographics-impacted political and institutional paralysis.

One recent paper, titled "The Macroeconomic Policy Challenges of Balance Sheet Recession: Lessons from Japan for the European Crisis" by Gunther Schnabl (CESIFO WORKING PAPER NO. 4249 CATEGORY 7:MONETARY POLICY AND INTERNATIONAL FINANCE, MAY 2013) sets out the stage for looking into the direct comparatives between Japan's experience and that of the EU.

Per Schnabl, "Japan has not only moved through a boom-and-bust cycle …almost 20 years earlier than Europe but has also made important experiences with a crisis management in form of monetary expansion, unconventional monetary policy making, fiscal expansion and recapitalization of banks. Although Japan has reached the (close to) zero interest rate environment more than a decade earlier than Europe and gross general government debt (in terms of GDP) has gone far beyond the levels, which are today prevalent in Europe, growth continues to stagger."

In other words, as we know all too well, Japan presents a 'curious' case of an economy where neither monetary, nor fiscal policies appear to work, even when applied on truly epic scale.

What Schnabl finds is very intriguing. "The comparison between the boom-and-bust cycles in Japan and Europe with respect to the origins of exuberant booms, the crisis patterns, the crisis therapies, and the (possible) effects of the crisis therapies shows that despite significant differences important similarities exist. With the growing socialisation of risk Europe follows the Japanese economic policy decision making pattern, with – possibly – a similar outcome for European growth and welfare perspectives. The gradual decline in real income in Japan should be incentive enough for a turnaround in economic policy making in both Europe and Japan."

The key to the above is in the phrase "With the growing socialisation of risk Europe follows the Japanese economic policy decision making pattern" which of course has several implications:

  • Mutualisation / Socialisation of risk is actually mutualisation and, thus, socialisation of debt - clearly suggesting that the path toward debt deleveraging is not the one we should be taking. The alternative path to debt deleveraging via mutualisation / socialisation is debt restructuring.
  • To date, no European leader or organisation has come up with a viable alternative to the non-viable idea of 'internal devaluation'. In other words, to-date we face with a false dichotomous choice: either mutualise debt or deflate debt. Neither is promising when one looks at the Japanese experience. And neither is promising when it comes to European experience either. See more on this here: and
  • ECB policies activism - the alphabet soup of various programmes launched by Frankfurt - is still treating the symptom (liquidity or credit supply to the real economy) instead of the disease (debt overhang). And the outcome of this activism is likely to be no different from Japan: debt overhang growing, economy stagnating, asset prices and valuations actively concealing the problem, data detaching from reality.

Here are some slides from Schnabl's November 2014 presentation on the topic:

So here's the infamous monetary bubble / illusion:

And the associated public sector balloon (do ignore some of the peaks that were down to banks rescue measures and you still have an upward trend):

And an interesting perspective on the Japanification scenario for Europe:

Happy demanding more Government involvement in the economy, folks... for this time, all the monetary, fiscal, regulatory, institutional, propagandistic etc 'easing' will be, surely, different... very different... radically different...

26/1/15: Markets v Greece: Too Cool for School… for now

There is much talk about the impact (or rather lack thereof) of Greek elections on the markets.

In fact, the euro continued to price in the effects of a much larger factor - the QE announcement by the ECB, the stock markets did the same. Only bonds and CDS markets reacted to the Greek elections, and even here the re-pricing of Greek risks was moderate so far (see chart below and the day summary for CDS - both courtesy of CMA).

The reason for this reaction is two-fold.

Firstly, Greece is a small blip on the overall radar map of Euro area's problems. Even in terms of Government debt. Here is the summary of the Government debt overhang levels (over and above 60% of debt/GDP benchmark) across the Euro area:

In simple terms, real problems for the euro, in terms of risk pricing, are in Italy, France and Spain.

Secondly, Greece is a political risk, not a financial risk to the Euro area. And it is a risk in so far, only, as yesterday's election increases the probability of a Grexit. But increasing probability of a Grexit does not mean that this increase is worth re-pricing. It is only worth worrying about if (1) increase in probability is significant enough, and (2) if elections changed the timing of the possible event, bringing it closer to today compared to previous markets expectations.

Now, here is the problem: neither (1) nor (2) have been materially changed by the Syriza victory last night. My comments to two publications yesterday and today, summarised below, explain.

Greek elections came as a watershed for both the markets analysts and the European elites, both of which expected a much weaker majority for the Syriza-led so-called 'extreme left' coalition. The final outcome of yesterday's vote, however, is far from certain, and this has been now fully realised by the markets participants.

The confrontation with the EU, ECB and the IMF, promised by Zyriza, is but one part of the dimension of the policy course that Greece will take from here on. Another part, less talked about today in the wake of the vote is accommodation.

Let me explain first why accommodation is a necessary condition for both sides in the conflict to proceed.

Greece is systemically important to the euro area, despite all claims by various European politicians to the contrary. Greece is carrying a huge burden of debt, accumulated, in part due to its own profligacy, in part due to the botched crisis resolution measures developed and deployed by the EU. It's debt is no longer held by the German, French and Italian banks, so much is true. German and French banks held some EUR27 billion worth of Greek Government debt at the end of 2010. This has now been reduced to less than EUR100 million. There is no direct contagion route from Greek official default to the euro area banking sector worth talking about. But Greek private sector debts still amount to roughly EUR10 billion in German and French banking systems (with more than EUR8 billion of this in German banks alone). Greek default will trigger defaults on these debts too, blowing pretty sizeable hole in the euro area banks.

However, lion's share of Greek public debt is now held in various European institutions. As the result, German taxpayers are on the hook for countless tens of billions in Greek liabilities via the likes of the EFSF and Eurosystem.

And then there is the reputational costs: letting Greece slip out into a default and out of the euro area will mark the beginning of an end for the euro, especially if, post-Grexit, Greece proves to be a success.

In short, one side of the equation - the Troika - has all the incentives to deal with Syriza.

One the other side, we can expect the fighting rhetoric of Syriza to be moderated as well. The reason for this is also simple: the EU-IMF-ECB Troika contains the Lender of Desperate Resort (the ECB) and the Lender of Last Resort (the IMF). Beyond these two, there is no funding available to Greece and Syriza elections promises make it painfully clear that it cannot entertain the possibility of a sharp exit from the euro, because such an exit would require the Government to run a full-blown budgetary surplus, not just a primary surplus. For anyone offering an end to austerity, this is a no-go territory.

So we can expect Syriza to present, in its first round of talks with the Troika, some proposals on dealing with the Greek debt overhang (currently this stands at around EUR 210 billion in excess debt over the 60% debt/GDP limit), backed by a list of reforms that the Syriza government can put forward in return for EU concessions on debt.

These reforms are the critical point to any future negotiations with the EU and the IMF. If Syriza can offer the EU deep institutional reforms, especially in the areas so far failed by the previous Government: improving the efficiency and accountability of the Greek public services, robust weeding out of political and financial corruption, and developing a functional system of tax collections, we are likely to see EU counter-offers on debt, including debt restructuring.

So far, Syriza has promised to respect the IMF loans and conditions. But its rhetoric about the end of Troika surveillance is not helping this cause of keeping the IMF calm - IMF too, like the ECB and the EU Commission, requires monitoring and surveillance of its programme countries. Syriza also promised to balance the budget, while simultaneously alleviating the negative effects of austerity. In simple, brutally financial terms, these sets of objectives are mutually exclusive.

With contradictory objectives in place, perhaps the only certainty coming on foot of the latest Greek elections is that political risks in Greece and the euro area have amplified once again and are unlikely to abate any time soon. Expect the Greek Crisis 4.0 to be rolling in any time in the next 6 months.

So in the nutshell, don't expect much of fireworks now - we all know two deadlines faced by Greece over the next month:

These are the markers for the markets to worry about and these are the timings that will start revealing to us more information about Syriza policy stance too. Until then, ride the wave of QE and sip that kool-aid lads... too cool to worry about that history lesson, for now...

26/1/15: If not Liquidity, then Debt: ECB’s QE competitive limping

I have written before, in the context of QE announcement by the ECB last week (see here: that the real problem with the euro area monetary and economic aggregates has nothing to do with liquidity supply (the favourite excuse for doing all sorts of things that the ECB keeps throwing around), but rather with the debt overhang.

In plain, simple terms, there is too much debt on the books. Too much Government debt, too much private debt. The ECB cannot even begin directly addressing the unspoken crisis of the private debt. But it is certainly trying to 'extend-and-pretend' public and private debt away. This is what the fabled EUR1.14 trillion (or so) QE announcement is about: take debt surplus off the markets so more debt can be issued. More debt to add to already too much debt, therefore, is the only solution the ECB can devise.

While EUR1.14 trillion might sound impressive, in reality, once we abstract away from the fake problem of liquidity, is nothing to brag about. Take a look at the following chart:

Forget the question in red, for the moment, and take in the numbers. Remember that 60% debt/GDP ratio is the long-term 'sustainability' target set by the Fiscal Compact - in other words, the long-term debt overhang, in EU-own terminology, is the bit of debt above that bound. By latest IMF stats, there is, roughly EUR3.5 trillion of debt overhang across the euro area 18, just for Government debt alone. You can safely raise that figure by a factor of 3 to take into the account private sector debts.

Which puts the ECB QE into perspective: at the very best, when fully deployed, it will cover just 1/3rd of the public debt overhang alone (actually it won't do anything of the sorts, as it includes private and public debt purchases). Across the entire euro area economy (public and private debt combined) we are talking about the 'big bazooka' that aims to repackage and extend-and-pretend about 10-11% of the total debt overhang. Not write this off, not cancel, not burn... but shove into different holding cell and pretend it's gone, eased, resolved.

This realisation should thus bring us around to that red triangle and the existential question: What for? Between end of 2007 and start of 2015, the euro area has managed to hike its debt pile by some EUR3 trillion, after we control for GDP effects. Given that this debt expansion did not produce any real growth anywhere, one might ask a simple question: why would ECB QE produce the effect that is any different?

The answer, on a post card, to the EU Commission, please.