Monday, July 12, 2010

Economics 12/7/10: ECB - cooking up the (banks') books?

Something fishy is going on at the ECB. Having all but destroyed its own reputation (for the n-teenth time), the ECB has swung into its usual modus operandi – ‘We are tightening, tightening no matter what!’ First, in the face of clearly sluggish writedowns by the Euro zone banks, the ECB decided to close its longer-maturity lending window. Despite a clear warning from the Bank for International Settlements stating that there is a worldwide rising risk of a severe maturity mismatch on banks balancesheets.

Now, the ECB is signalling that it will cut government bond purchases – just in time for euribor climbing up and sovereign spreads shooting past their pre-Greek crisis highs. Last Friday, Jürgen Stark said that declining scale of the ECB’s bond markets interventions reflects improving market environment for sovereign bonds. In May the ECB was hovering ca €33bn in bonds per month, last week this has fallen back to €16bn in monthly purchase rates. “If the situation improves further, then there is no need to continue [with bonds purchases]”, he told FT.

Funny thing, the IMF has just urged the ECB not to discontinue bond purchases. But, to Mr Stark “The IMF has not caught up with the reality in Europe.” Oh, poor IMF, apparently a quick reprieve in some credit default swap indices last week (e.g. Markit iTraxx Financial, down 25bp, its largest decline in two months) is not exactly convincing for the IMF as far as prognosis of markets confidence in Europe goes. It looks like either the ECB is betting a house on its own forecasting prowess or setting itself up for another ‘Fool’s stumble’ through monetary policy. Expect bond purchases to resume once the summer is over and the markets re-open for business.

Oh, and just in case you might think that the IMF is really not getting the ECB’s “Europe is Great” vision, here’s the note from the WSJ blog (here) which shows that the ECB will be facing not just a steep sovereign bonds purchase curve, but will be getting more of the Euro area dodgy collateral into its vaults very soon. Apparently, the rest of 2010 through 2011, Euro area banks are facing a mind-blowing level of debt refinancing – the whooping €1.65 trillion worth of stuff. Don’t think they’ll be highlighting that in the shambolic stress-testing PR exercises that will be released July 23. I wrote about Euro zone’s banks propensity to stick their heads into sand when it comes to recognizing loans losses. But now, it also looks like they are doing the same with their funding sources – a dangerous game given the direction in which borrowing rates are going (see my earlier post on euribor).

Here is a nice pic I reproduced from the IMF GFSR database showing those dogs. The tail is wagging, noses are wet, barking mad… furry friends of ECB’s discount window.

I know, I know – Stark would say that the WSJ also ‘doesn’t get Europe’s great progress to prosperity’. But the little problem is – if the banks are to refinance these borrowings at current rates, between 2010 and 2015, Europe’s borrowers, consumers and investors will have to come up with a whooping €152-187 billion worth of interest rate cover. Yes, that’s right – while ECB is playing an outright silly game of ‘We are tough and things are great’, European economies will have to deliver almost 2% of their domestic output to plug interest rate hole alone.

But do not worry, the stress tests deployed by Europe are not designed to reckon with reality – they are simply a PR exercise. How else can one see a test that prices Greek default losses at 10% and Spanish at 3%, when the markets are pricing these at 4 times higher. Or how does one really test the banks if there are no scenarios for loans defaults and/or yield curve tests for debt refinancing?

If you need an indication just how shambolic these tests are, look no further than banks actions in refinancing markets over the last week. Clearly fearing that the investors might, just might, come to their senses and label the whole stress testing a farce, Euro banks have gone aggressively into the markets to raise €18.4bn worth of bonds last week, up from €4.8bn a week before. Do you think they are doing this because of cheaper cost of finance? Not really, costs remain high, though they are off their June peaks. So they are doing this only because they anticipate further increases in the cost going forward.

Yet, the ECB is drumming up the beat that the stress tests will reveal Euro area banks to be well-capitalized (haven’t we heard this before in Ireland? Ca 2008 from our own CB?). So the banks do not believe that the stress tests, which they all pretty much have passed already, per ECB assertions, are going to reduce risks perceptions in the markets. Why would that be the case, if the tests were honestly designed to really test their balancesheets? Last week’s survey of money managers by US-based Ried Thunberg ICAP found that 95% of the 22 survey respondents (controlling $1.39 trillion in assets) said most major European banks will receive positive test ratings.

Hmm… that, I would say, is a darn good evidence that the tests might be rigged. In which case, prepare for a rally in the banks that will turn South as soon as serious analysis of the tests assumptions comes through.
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