Thursday, June 14, 2018

EU Banks are Insolvent, Disaster is Coming

The disruption of an Italian withdrawal from the euro would be fatal for the EU’s banking system on at least four levels.

The support from the ECB for the Italian banks would be withdrawn, which would have the potential to allow a cascade of bank failures in Italy to develop, either as a result of bad debts crystallising within the system, or due to balance sheet deterioration from falling Italian government bond prices.

Problems for banks will arise when past loans remain denominated in euros, while their balance sheets are transitioned into a new, weakening currency. The Italian banks lack the margins to weather lop-sided balance sheets, whose assets are denominated in a declining currency relative to the currency of their liabilities.

There will be a rush for residents in other Eurozone countries to reduce and eliminate their Italian commitments, amounting to a banking run against the whole country. The only political solution would be to impose draconian capital controls between Italy and the rest of the world, including other EU member states.

Lastly, there is the threat to the ECB and the euro-system itself.

These require little elaboration, expect perhaps for the threat to the ECB and the euro-system. The ECB has been buying large quantities of Italian bonds, effectively financing the Italian government’s excess spending, at yields that are ridiculously low. In effect, the ECB has put itself in an impossible position, and as the Italian situation worsens, the debate over the fate of TARGET2 imbalances is bound to intensify. These are shown in the chart below, which is of balances at end-March.

So long as the euro-system holds together, we are reassured that these imbalances do not matter. However, with the Italian central bank in debt to the system to the tune of a net €447bn, how these imbalances would be dealt with on an Italian exit from the euro without a collapse of the system is an interesting question. And it is worth noting that Spain’s central bank is also in the hole for €390bn, just in case the Spanish electorate, or even the Catalans or Basques get ideas of leaving as well.

The Bundesbank is owed a net €896bn and will be extremely nervous about Italy. The ECB itself also owes a net €235bn to all the national central banks. When the ECB buys Italian government debt, the Banca d’Italia acts on its behalf. The Italian bonds are held at the Banca d’Italia, and the money is owed to it. To the extent the ECB has bought Italian bonds, the overall negative balance at the Banca d’Italia is reduced, so its deficits with the other national banks in the system are actually greater than the €447bn shown, by the amount owed to it by the ECB.

In short, it is hard to see how Italy can leave the euro without the ECB having to formally guarantee all TARGET2 deficits. It is not impossible and the guarantee is already implied, but the ECB won’t want anyone questioning its own solvency, so we can safely assume an exit will not be permitted, for one simple reason: the system and the banks in it are only solvent so long as the system is unchallenged.

The question over Italy’s euro membership may not arise anyway, because the new coalition does not yet know what it wants. The Italians must also be dissuaded from their desire for debt forgiveness, for the same reasons the Greeks were similarly deterred. And as the Greeks found, trying to negotiate with the EU and the ECB was like talking to a brick wall. The Italians will experience the same difficulties. We can dismiss any idea that because Italy is a far bigger problem, they have negotiating clout. A brick wall remains a brick wall.

So far as Brussels and Frankfurt (the home of the ECB) are concerned, they are always in the right. The European project and the euro are more important than the individual member nations, and their electorates have no say in the matter. We often take this to be arrogance, which is a mistake. It is worse: like Marxists, the eurocrats have unarguable conviction on their side. Across the table will sit the Italians, with no political beliefs worth mentioning, and all too readily frightened by the consequences of their own actions.

This is the way the EU works. Inevitably, in a faceless statist system such as this there are always problems at the national level to deal with. Then there are localised difficulties, such as Deutsche Bank, whose share price tells us it is failing. But in that event, it will doubtless be rescued because of its enormous derivative exposure, the containment of eurozone systemic risk, and German pride. The ECB has shown great skill at bluffing its way through these ands other problems and is likely to continue to succeed in doing so, except for one particular circumstance, which is the crisis stage of the credit cycle.

- Source, James Turk Goldmoney