Sunday, January 15, 2012

The EU Downgrades

This will be quite a short post. It has been impossible to miss the news from last Friday about the downgrades of several EU countries by Standard and Poor's (S&P):

Ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded the government debt of France, Austria, Italy and Spain on Friday. But it kept Germany's at the coveted AAA level.
The downgrades deal a blow to the eurozone's ability to fight off a worsening debt crisis. All told, S&P cut its ratings on nine eurozone countries.
The rating agency ended France and Austria's triple-A status. It also lowered Italy's and Spain's by two notches and did the same for Portugal and Cyprus. S&P also cut ratings on Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.
"In our view, the policy initiatives taken by European policymakers in recent weeks may be insufficient to fully address ongoing systemic stresses in the eurozone," S&P said in a statement.
France's downgrade to AA+ lowers it to the level of U.S. long-term debt, which S&P downgraded last summer.
S&P had warned 15 European nations in December that they were at risk for a downgrade.
The way that the press have reacted is as if this is some kind of shock, even though the potential for a downgrade has been been trailed, as is mentioned in the quote above. S&P's statement about why they made the downgrade can be found here. It has also had an impact on the rather dubious Euro bailout fund, with this from the WSJ:

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services on Friday said it had stripped triple-A ratings from France and Austria and downgraded seven others, including Spain, Italy and Portugal. It retained the triple-A rating on Europe's No. 1 economy, Germany.
The downgrade to France, the bloc's second-largest economy, will make it harder—and potentially more expensive—for the euro zone's bailout fund to help troubled states, because the fund's own triple-A rating depends on those of its constituents. The downgrades also speak to how deeply the concerns over countries on the euro zone's periphery have penetrated its core. Worst-case fears weren't borne out: France avoided the two-notch downgrade S&P had warned of last month.
So, is this really news? In some senses 'yes', and in some senses 'no'. The most interesting thing about the ratings agencies is that they are supposed to look into the future and make assessment of asset risk, but they nearly always seem to play 'catch up' with the reality on the ground. Even the most casual browse of the financial news would have told anyone that the problems of the Euro were spreading from the so-called periphery into the so-called core. The S&P downgrade is, as always seems to be the case, just playing catch-up.

However, it is news in the sense that it has real impacts. The first impact is on the bailout mechanism, as mentioned in the WSJ article. However, another impact is upon European banks. I expected to find a raft of headlines to this effect, but a search of Google News did not turn up what I expected (perhaps my keywords were not right, and I missed the articles). In particular, those banks that hold the sovereign debt of the downgraded countries will see further erosion of their already (in many cases) strained balance sheets. The only example I found discussing this point was curiously in reference to Japanese banks:
France’s loss of its AAA rating probably won’t have any immediate effect in Japan as domestic banks’ holdings of French bonds aren’t large, Azumi said in Tokyo yesterday, according to Kyodo News.
It is now an open secret that the ECB has been bailing out European banks in the hope that they will in turn use the money to purchase European sovereign debt. This from Wolfgang M√ľnchau in the FT:
And no, the European Central Bank’s huge liquidity boost is not going to fix the problem either. I do not want to underestimate the importance of that decision. The ECB prevented a credit crunch and deserves credit for that. The return of unlimited long-term money might even have a marginal impact on banks’ willingness to take part in government debt auctions. If we are lucky it might get us through the intense debt rollover period this spring. But a liquidity shower cannot address the underlying problem of a lack of macroeconomic adjustment.
Regular readers will know that I do not agree that the bailout was a 'good thing', but I quote this as it as it makes the point about the indirect purpose of the bailouts. I have mentioned before that there are large chunks of debt coming due in the next couple of months, and funding these chunks of debt may be a severe problem. I used this chart from the Economist before, as it paints the picture well:



When bank balance sheets are already under strain, the question is what they might do with all of the money that the ECB is pouring into their balance sheets. The new Basel accords are demanding higher levels of capital, and the ratings of assets will impact upon their compliance. The question is this; with their balance sheets already strained, when the periphery debt looks ever more dangerous, and the core debt is now being recognised as high risk, why on earth would any bank actually purchase high risk European sovereign debt?

The problem is this, that in the topsy-turvy world of banking regulation the ratings agencies really matter. They are, of course, completely hopeless in their assessment of risk, but they nevertheless have major impacts. However, it does occur to me that there is the possibility that the bailout of the banks by the ECB might come with strings attached, in backroom deals, that as a quid pro quo, the banks agree to continue to purchase dubious Euro sovereign debt. I can only speculate on this but, if such an agreement has taken place, it is a great way to increase the contagion. It really is kicking the can down the road.

Furthermore, as many (including myself) argued, the establishment of the Euro bailout fund would spread the problems into the Euro core, as countries such as France were already in a position of having too high levels of debt. A long time ago, I discussed the problem of who would be left to do the bailing out when every country was racking up too much debt. The context of the discussion was the US, if I remember correctly, but the same applies here. It has long been the case that any bailout is being funded by countries borrowing more money to enact the bailout. They are not using a net credit position to bailout, they are just borrowing more on the basis of having a better credit position than the bailee. However, when they are in a position of having too much debt themselves, they start to tip their own creditworthiness into the danger zone. Again, using your own fragile creditworthiness to support the less creditworthy is another case of kicking the can down the road.


The problem with such can-kicking is that it ratchets up the final consequences of the crisis. I have argued against the idea of contagion before, as the problem was not one that might be compared with a contagious disease, but more like a cancer that is destroying from within each country. However, the actions of trying to avert a major crisis are genuinely creating contagion. It was in the early points of the crisis that I suggested that contagion was the wrong metaphor for the problem, but it now seems appropriate. I am genuinely puzzled at what is going on. It just seems that policy-makers must actually see that they are in a hole, but they continue to keep digging it deeper.


It is not as if I am alone in questioning the endless successions of bailouts. Again, it does not take long to find voices expressing concern. What on earth do those who are enacting the policies think the end of the game might look like? Do they really believe that, for example, that one year from now that the Euro crisis will have ended, that sovereign debt problems will have disappeared, and that Europe will be on the road to economic recovery? They must, surely, have some kind of belief that this will be the case, and this must be why they continue to try to 'solve' the crisis? However, if they were to stop digging their hole for just a moment, the absurdity of this idea becomes apparent.

The crisis is getting ever larger, not diminishing. The fact that the ratings agencies are downgrading is just a belated indication of the reality of the situation, and just highlights exactly how bad things have become. When such clueless organisations have finally accepted the depth of the crisis, then it must be very, very bad indeed.


Note: A longer post than intended...

Update: 

Just after I completed the post, I found this in the Telegraph:

Use of the European Central Bank's three-year funding programme is expected to exceed €500bn in February when lenders are offered their second chance to access its new long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), according to Credit Suisse.
Last month, banks borrowed a total of €489bn using the LTRO, which has effectively seen the ECB take on the role of providing a large part of the funding required by several eurozone banks.
Analysts at Credit Suisse point out the ECB's willingness to provide an increasing proportion of the short and longer-term funding required by eurozone banks has led to a widening gap in the size of its balance sheet versus those of the Bank of England and the US Federal Reserve.
The ECB's balance sheet has risen in size to close to 30pc of eurozone GDP from just over 20pc before it launched the LTRO. By comparison, the Bank and Fed's balance sheets are both worth just under 20pc of domestic GDP.

And later:


The ECB's decision to increase its exposure to banks has effectively seen it provide the "bazooka" markets had been urging it to use to help stem the debt crisis.
Spanish banks that borrowed money using the LTRO are thought to have used most of it to buy Spanish government debt, leading to a lowering in yields.
Interesting, is it not? It still does not discuss the problem of the downgrades for the bank balance sheets, but it is there in the subtext. I still suspect my Google News search was looking for the wrong key words, so if anyone has seen an article on the effect of the downgrades on bank balance sheets, a link would be welcome. 

1 comment:

  1. I have to confess to not understanding much of what I read about the current crisis. I consider myself an economic lightweight but, I do try! Never the less, I do enjoy reading your posts so thanks for keeping me thinking. I found this interesting here http://www.openeurope.org.uk/media-centre/pressrelease.aspx?pressreleaseid=185. Not sure what you think?

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