One point that I have been shouting from the proverbial roof tops in my research, to partners and colleagues is that 2012 may well be the year when all major central banks will be conducting both conventional and unconventional monetary easing at the same time. I think this is a very strong testament not only to the severity of the ongoing debt crisis in the developed world, but also to the propensity of central banks to choose inflation as the desired route to recovery. We need not initially discuss whether they are deploying the proper set of policies or even whether such policies represent moral hazard or a ponzi scheme on government debt.
The main thing is to realise that this is an unprecedented global monetary experiment.
My message to investors in 2012 would then be not to underestimate this inflation bias by part of global central banks. Inflating your way out of too much debt won't work in the long run without considerable defaults and/or economic stress (hyper inflation). Events since 2008 are ample evidence of this, but the simultaneous inclination to create inflation and debase your currency (to generate more inflation and exports) by all major central banks will continue to exert a profound effect on asset prices and the global economy.
In so far as goes the idea that an investors' interest in asset prices is conditioned on return and volatility we can say that central bank policy will affect both. Financial assets will certainly benefit from excess liquidity, but the unravelling of too much debt through inevitable defaults and the central bank policies themselves will generate volatility. Whether the combination of such volatility and return means that you should stay out of the market entirely is a question for the individual investor.
From a macroeconomic point of view, the downbeat assessment remains however that it is difficult if not impossible to paint a picture of where sufficient growth is going to come from and on the investment side of things, the higher level of volatility will tend to shake the foundation of investors even if money is to be made for short periods of time.
Most attention has been centered on the ECB, whether the 3y LTRO represent QE and whether the continuing rejection to buy government bonds outright means that the ECB is a laggard among global central banks (see this excellent report by Hinde Capital for additional analysis relative to the points below).
750 Billion USD, and counting ...
Europe remains the center of the global debt crisis, a role the continent has now decisively taken over from the US which stood at the forefront in the initial phases of the crisis in 2008. Apart from the almost endless summits and meetings among government officials the significant measures continue to be the ones coming from the ECB.
In my view, the European interbank market is virtually dead and dusted, and the ECB and the Fed are now effectively the only thing between Europe's banks and large scale failures. Since early September 750 billion USD worth of liquidity has been provided to the European banking system of which 100 billion sits on the Fed balance sheet through USD swap lines.
Who will bet against the final 3y LTRO auction to take this beyond one trillion USD?
Spanish and Italian curves are now nicely steep again after a brush with inversion which obviously was one of the main objectives even if it was always debatable whether banks would buy government bonds with the liquidity taken up at the ECB.
The question is; how do you unwind all this? 750 billion USD to roll short term liabilities with the ECB and the Fed seems to me to be one of the biggest gamble in monetary history.
While the BOE and the Fed have been transparent in their QE efforts and the BOJ never really having left the zero bound the ECB has been more covert. However, it is my contention that with the expansion of the securities market programme (SMP) in 2011 to buy considerable amounts of government bonds (1) as well as the 3y LTRO the ECB is now fully engaged in quantitative easing.
I base this on two points.
- The ECB has acted as a sovereign debt buyer of last resort in times of crisis. It is common knowledge in the market that the ECB has been Italian and Spanish bonds in times of particular stress on the notion that these two economies in particular could not be allowed to fatally succumb to the debt snowball dynamics.
- ECB support for the banking system in the form of collateralised liquidity and wholesale funding is not temporary but structural and permanent in nature. The interbank market in Europe is not working and has not been working since the crisis started in 2008.
The ECB will of course vehemently deny this but investors should understand that such denial is mainly out of political reasons. When Draghi unveiled the ECB’s attempt to backstop the crisis in Europe by offering full allotment liquidity on a 3y basis, the market was disappointed because the central bank president also reiterated that the ECB would not step up its purchases of government bonds.
I think that the ECB will be forced into a much more direct and active role where unsterilized purchases in the primary market (monetisation) will be needed, but I fully appreciate the political issues. We are currently in a delicate situation where new governments in most of the involved countries are saddled with forced mandates to impose austerity. It is very difficult for all parties involved to push this agenda if the ECB had stepped up a full backstop. Moral hazard risks are consequently paramount here.
As such, investors must content with the ECB’s attempt to shore up the European banking system which is no little feat given the bank rollover schedule in 2012 as well as new Basel II regulation which will further impair already shaken balance sheets. The ECB’s initiatives then follows the steady deterioration of conditions in the European (indeed global) banking system which initially culminated in the coordinated action by global central banks to supply dollars through Fed swap lines and which found its European answer in the ECB’s decision to provide unlimited liquidity yet again.
The problems look ominous for European banks and the global financial system in general. No matter what, European financial institutions will have to delever significantly which will spread its tentacles wide and far due to the high penetration by European banks in emerging markets (Eastern Europe in particular).
Behind the scenes however, significant ink has been spilled to debate and speculate on to the exact significance of the ECB’s liquidity operations.
John Hempton for example suggests that the ECB’s policy move is an open invitation to play the carry trade game using almost free liquidity to buy higher yielding government bonds.
Well the Euro fix is in. Whether it works - that is another question. But the fix is this: European banks can borrow unlimited amounts for three years to buy Euro government debt. The debt often yields 5 percent. The money costs 1 percent.
I agree that the incentives are certainly there for the banks to play this game especially in the context of government bonds as zero risk weighted assets. The problem is that many European banks have spent more than a year and two stress tests to get rid of substantial amount of peripheral government debt (which do not count as zero risk weighted assets according to Basel III) and as such weak governments are unlikely to benefit from this.
The flip side of this is that most of the liquidity taken up by banks go straight back to the ECB at the deposit facility which is now standing higher than at any time between 2008 and 2010.
The euro zone banking system starts the new year awash with record levels of liquidity but few signs that institutions are prepared to lend to each other, leaving money markets frozen.Most of the near half trillion euros of three-year funds borrowed from the European Central Bank in the last week of 2011 have made their way back to the ECB's overnight deposit account.
The Reuters piece goes on to argue that most of the liquidity will probably go to aid the large refinancing need banks face in 2012 and thus effectively as a replacement for a non-functioning interbank market that would normally be able to roll this financing. If this does nothing to solve the problem of sovereign insolvency and illiquidity it will work wonders through the fact that banks won't act as a drag on their respective sovereign's balance sheet as long as the ECB is involved.
I would note though that even though the liquidity is mainly reflected in reserves held at the ECB, it still represents excess liquidity as noted by Danske Bank.
Some market commentators have argued that the first 36 months long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), in which banks took EUR490bn in total, has so far not worked as planned because the extra liquidity has simply been placed on the deposit facility at the ECB. However, this argument is false.The sharp increase in outstanding open market operations (MRO+LTRO) increases excess liquidity (defined as open market operations plus recourse to the marginal lending facility minus autonomous liquidity factors minus reserve requirements) and this excess liquidity shows up as deposits at the ECB in just the same way as it did in 2008-10.
However, nothing is easy and despite the fact that collateral can be posted for liquidity the sovereign is still on the hook as my friend Edward Hugh points out.
Banks are being encouraged to keep rolling over what are basically NPLs by financing them at 1% at the ECB (foreclosing on them in Spain and keeping the property on the books may cost something like 8% in comparison). But the ECB isn't assuming the risk here, the national sovereign implicitly is, and is getting in deeper by the day.
This is certainly true by the letter of the law but one has to wonder whether the ECB will ever get paid back here. I mean 3 years is an awful lot of time. The ECB can roll these loans as long as need be (it has already effectively been rolling bank funding since 2008) while maintaining the figue leaf that it is not funding sovereigns. This may be true, but it is effectively funding the sovereign's banks and postponing the day of reckoning which is bank failures or nationalisation or both.
If the ECB is then forced take a hit on the collateral or the loans themselves, it will need to create the money to pay for these loans by printing euros. This sounds as a plan to me except that it does not solve the funding risks of governments which may or may not be able to ask their banks for help. The likely answer is that they won't be unless the ECB and EU decide to wield the ultimate weapon of financial oppression which would be to penalise reserves over a given level with negative interest rates at the same time as banks would be forced, through regulation, to hold government bonds.
But Edward makes another interesting point;
Looking at the Greek PSI, what they would try and do (if all this gets that far, I mean if the Euro holds together long enough in this Byzantine world) ) is load up the private sector share of the haircut, and keep the ECB as untouchable official sector. At the limit they can use ELA to keep the banks afloat while the sovereign restructures and then recapitalises.
Why would any ex Eurozone third party want to be counterparty to anything which might end up being subordinated to ECB exposure later on down the line. The more I think about it the more it seems to me that the 3 yr LTROs might end up choking the European banking system to death.
It is difficult to disagree on the gist of this point, namely that the ECB is digging itself a very big hole. If banks can exchange under water assets at the ECB for a deposit asset at the ECB (albeit with a negative carry) the ECB is running the risk that it becomes the sole counterparty of bad assets in the euro zone in which case seniority will mean very little.
The Greek situation is a good example. Private creditors face an almost certain 100% wipeout exactly because they represent such a small tranche of the total stock of debt. In such a situation the asymmetric relationship between subordinate and senior debt holders mean that the latter essentially become equity holders. But once subordinate creditors are wiped out the turn comes to the senior debt tranches and the further the ECB goes along the road of providing full allotment liquidity the higher will be its implicit direct claim on assets of all sorts of qualities.
In conclusion, it is my view that the ECB is now the only thing between the economy and widespread bank failures, but I also concur that the consequence of this is a permanent outsourcing of the interbank market in Europe to the ECB's balance sheet and, quite possibly, Fed's USD swap lines.
(1) - Even if such purchases have been fully sterilised.