Thursday, June 5, 2014

5/6/2014: Why ECB might have found a cure that strengthens the disease

Today's announcement by the ECB Governing Council that the Bank will be charging a premium to hold private banks' deposits has the potential to generate two positive effects and one negative, in the short run, as well as another negative in the medium-term. The ECB cut its deposit rate to minus 0.1 percent from zero and reduced its benchmark interest rate to a record-low 0.15 percent.

On the positive side,
  1. Lower repo rate can translate, at least partially, into lower rates charged on variable rate legacy loans and new credit extended to households and companies. It will also reduce the cost of borrowing in the interbank markets. This potential, however, is likely to be ameliorated, as in the past rate reductions, by banks raising margins to increase profitability and improve the rate of loans deleveraging. This time around, the ECB introducing negative deposit rates is designed to reinforce the effect of the lending rate reduction. Negative deposit rate means that banks will find it costly to deposit funds with the ECB, in theory pushing more of these deposits out into the interbank lending market. With further reduction in funding costs, banks, in theory can borrow more from each other and lend more into the economies, including at lower cost to the borrowers. Note: in many countries, like Ireland, reduced lending rates will likely mean a re-allocation of cost from tracker loans (linked to ECB headline rate, their costs will fall) to variable rates borrowers (whose costs will rise) washing the entire effect away.
  2. Negative rates, via increasing supply of money into the economy, are hoped to drive up prices (reducing the impact of low inflation) and, simultaneously, lower euro valuations in the currency markets (thus stimulating euro area exports and making more expensive euro area imports. The good bit is obvious. The bad bit is that energy costs, costs of related transport services, other necessities that euro area imports in large volumes will have to rise, reducing domestic demand and increasing production costs.

On the negative side,
  1. The ECB has spent all bullets it has in terms of lending rate policy. At 0.15 percent, there is very little room left for ECB to manoeuvre and should current policy innovations fail, the ECB will be left with nothing else in its arsenal than untested, dubiously acceptable to some member states, direct QE measures. 
  2. But there is a greater problem lurking in the shadows. US Fed Chair, Janet Yellen clearly stated last year that deposits rates near zero (let alone in the negative territory) can trigger a significant disruption in the money markets. If banks withhold any funds from interbank markets, the new added cost of holding cash will have to be absorbed somewhere. If the banks pass this cost onto customers by lowering dramatically deposit rates to households and companies, there can be re-allocation of deposits away from stronger banks (holding cash reserves) to weaker banks (offering higher deposit rates). This will reduce lending by better banks (less deposits) and will not do much for increasing lending proportionally by weaker banks (who will be paying higher cost of funding via deposits). Profit margins can also fall, leading all banks to raise lending costs for existent and new clients. If, however, the banks are not going to pass the cost of ECB deposits onto customers, then profit margins in the banks will shrink by the amount of deposits costs. The result, once again, can be reduced lending and higher credit costs.

On the longer term side, assuming that the ECB measures are successful in increasing liquidity supply in the interbank markets, the measure will achieve the following: stronger banks (with cash on balance sheets) will now be incentivised (by negative rates) to lend more aggressively (and more cheaply) to weaker banks. This, de facto, implies a risk transfer - from lower quality banks to higher quality banks. The result not only perpetuates Europe's sick banking situation, and extends new supports to lenders who should have failed ages ago, but also loads good banks with bad risks exposures. Not a pleasant proposition.

By announcing simultaneously a reduction in the lending rate and the negative deposit rate, the ECB has entered the unchartered territory where negative effects will be counteracting positive effects and the net outcome of the policies is uncertain.

Aware of this, the ECB did something else today: to assure there is significant enough pipeline of liquidity available to all banks, it announced a new round of LTROs - cheap funding for the banks - to the tune of EUR400 billion. The two new LTROs are with a twist - they are 'targeted' to lending against banks lending to businesses and households, excluding housing loans. TLROs will have maturity of around 4 years (September 2018), cannot be used to purchase Government bonds (a major positive, given that funds from the previous LTROs primarily went to fund Government bonds). Banks will be entitled to borrow, initially, 7% of the total volume of their loans to non-financial corporations (NFCs) and households (excluding house loans) as of April 30, 2014. Two TLTROs, totalling around EUR400 billion will be issued - in September and December 2014. The ECB also increased supply of short term money. TLTROs are based on 4 years maturity. Ordinary repo lending will be extended in March 2015-June 2016 period to all banks who will be able to borrow up to 3 times their net lending to euro area NFCs and non-housing loans to households. These loans are quarterly (short-term). Crucially, to enhance liquidity cushion even further, the ECB declared that loan sales, securitisations and write downs will not be counted as a restriction on lending volumes.

Thus, de facto, the ECB issued two new programmes - both aimed to supply sheep money into the system: TLTROs (cost of funds set at MRO rate, plus fixed spread of 10 bps) and traditional quarterly lending. There was a shower of other smaller bits and pieces of policies unveiled, but they all aimed at exactly the same - provide a backstop to liquidity supply in the interbank funding area, should a combination of lower lending rates, negative deposit rates and TLTROs fail to deliver a boost to credit creation in NFCs sector.

Final big-blow policy tool was to announce suspension of sterilisation of SMP programme - I covered this topic here. The problem is that Mario Draghi claimed that non-sterilisation decision was acceptable, since non-sterilisation of SMP does not imply anything about sterilisation of OMT (his really Big Bazooka from 2012). He went on to say that ECB never promised to sterilise OMT in the first place. Alas, ECB did promise exactly that here. Update: WSJ blog confirming exactly this and published well after this note came out is here.

In line with this simple realisation - that non-sterilisation of SMP opens the door to outright funding of sovereigns by the ECB via avoidance of sterilising OMT - German hawks were already out circling Mr Draghi's field.

Germany's Ifo President Hans-Werner Sinn said: "This is a desperate attempt to use even cheaper credit and punitive interest rates on deposits to divert capital flows to southern Europe and stimulate their economies," Sinn said on Thursday in Munich. "It cannot succeed because the economies of southern Europe must first improve their competitiveness through labour market reforms. Long-term investors, in other words savers and life insurance policy holders, will now foot the bill," warned Sinn.

And there we go… lots of new measures, even more expectations from the markets and in the end, Germans are not happy, while Souther Europe is hardly any better off… In the long run - weaker banking sector nearly guaranteed… A cure that makes the disease worse?.. And if one considers that we just increased even further future costs of unwinding ECB's crisis policies, may be the disease has been made incurable altogether?..

Here are a couple of charts showing just how massive this legacy policies problem is (although we will face it in the mid-term future, not tomorrow):

Did Draghi just make the impossible monetary dilemma (here and here) more impossible?

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