ECB Has €444 Billion PIIGS Exposure, A 4.25% Drop In Asset Values Would Bankrupt European Central Bank

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As if insolvent European private banks were not enough to worry about (and with banking assets of 461 percent of GDP in the UK, 178 percent in Germany, and 820 percent in Switzerland, there is more than enough to worry about), a new study by Open Europe has found that at the heart of the insolvency argument is none other than the only hedge fund that is even worse capitalized than the US Federal Reserve: the European Central Bank. "With Greece forced to seek a second bail-out to avoid bankruptcy, Open Europe has today published a briefing cataloguing how the eurozone crisis could drive the European Central Bank itself into insolvency, with taxpayers likely to pick up a big chunk of the bill.  The role of the ECB in the ongoing eurozone and banking crisis has been significantly understated. By propping up struggling eurozone governments and providing cheap credit to ailing banks, the ECB has put billions worth of risky assets on its books. We estimate that the ECB has exposure to struggling eurozone economies (the so-called PIIGS) of around €444bn – an amount roughly equivalent to the GDP of Finland and Austria combined. Of this, around €190bn is exposure to the Greek state and Greek banks. Should the ECB see the value of its assets fall by just 4.25%, which is no longer a remote risk, its entire capital base would be wiped out." It seems that in crafting "prudent" capitalization ratios courtesy of Basel 1 through infinity, the global NWO regulators totally let the ECB slip through the cracks. The finding also confirms what we have been saying all along: there is no way that any form of voluntary or involuntary phase transition that will require the ECB to mark down assets that it has on its books at par (yet are worth 50 cents on the dollar) can ever occur: such an event would result in the immediate insolvency of the European lender of first and last resort, and, in turn, the unravelling of the Eurozone.

From Open Europe:

"The ECB’s attempts to paper over the cracks in the eurozone may have temporarily softened the impact of the crisis, but have exacerbated the situation in the long-term. The ECB has dug itself into a hole and now we are seeing that there is no easy way out.”

“Huge risks have been transferred from struggling governments and banks onto the ECB’s books, with taxpayers as the ultimate guarantor. There’s a real risk that these assets will face radical write-downs in future with eurozone governments and banks teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. This amounts to a hidden – and potentially huge – bill to taxpayers to save the euro.”

“The ECB’s wobbly finances and operations to finance states have landed a serious blow to its credibility. It must now seek to become the strong, independent bank that electorates were promised when the Single Currency was forged.”

Key points from the report:

- In parallel with the IMF’s and EU’s multi-billion euro interventions, the ECB has engaged in its own bail-out operation, providing cheap credit to insolvent banks and propping up struggling eurozone governments, despite this being against its own rules. The ECB is ultimately underwritten by taxpayers, which means that there is a hidden – and potentially huge – cost of the eurozone crisis to taxpayers buried in the ECB’s books.

- As a result, the ECB’s balance sheet is now looking increasingly vulnerable. We estimate that the ECB has exposure to struggling eurozone economies (the so-called PIIGS) of around €444bn – an amount roughly equivalent to the GDP of Finland and Austria combined. Although not all these assets and loans are ‘bad’, many of them could result in serious losses for the ECB should the eurozone crisis continue to deteriorate. Critically, struggling banks in insolvent countries have been allowed to shift risky assets away from their own balance sheets and onto the ECB’s (all the while receiving ECB loans in return). Many of these assets are extremely difficult to value.

- Overall, the ECB is now leveraged around 23 to 24 times, with only €82bn in capital and reserves. In contrast, the Swedish central bank is leveraged just under five times, while the average hedge fund is leveraged four to five times. This means that should the ECB see its assets fall by just 4.25% in value, from booking losses on its loans or purchases of government debt, its entire capital base would be wiped out.

- Hefty losses for the ECB are no longer a remote risk, with Greece likely to default within the next few years – even if it gets a fresh bail-out package from the EU and IMF – which would also bring down the country’s banks. We estimate that the ECB has taken on around €190bn in Greek assets by propping up the Greek state and banks. Should Greece restructure half of its debt – which is needed to bring down the country’s debt to sustainable levels – the ECB is set to face losses of between €44.5bn and €65.8bn on the government bonds it has purchased and the collateral it is holding from Greek banks. This is equal to between 2.35% and 3.47% of assets, meaning it comes close to wiping out the ECB’s capital base.

- A loss of this magnitude would effectively leave the ECB insolvent and in need of recapitalisation. It would then have to either start printing money to cover the losses or ask eurozone governments to send it more cash (via a capital call to national central banks).  The first option would lead to inflation, which is unacceptable in Germany, while the second option amounts to another fully fledged bail-out, with taxpayers facing upfront costs (rather than loan guarantees as in the government eurozone bail-outs). 

- The ECB’s actions during the financial crisis have not only weighed heavily on its balance sheet, but also its credibility. First, as a paper published by the ECB last year noted, “The perceptions of a central bank’s financial strength have an impact on the credibility of the central bank and its policy”.  Secondly, by financing states, the ECB has effectively engaged in fiscal policy – and therefore politics – something which electorates were told would never happen.

- Worried about the risk of these potential losses being realised, the ECB is vehemently opposed to debt restructuring for Greece and other weaker economies. However, continuing the ECB’s existing policy of propping up insolvent banks – and intermittently governments – would be even worse for the eurozone as a whole.

- The ECB’s cheap credit has served as a disincentive to struggling banks to recapitalise and limit their exposure to toxic assets in weak eurozone economies. This creates moral hazard for banks and governments alike, at times even fuelling the sovereign debt crisis, while transferring more of the ultimate risk to taxpayers across Europe. Therefore, in its attempt to soften the immediate impact of the financial crisis, the ECB may in fact have exacerbated the situation in the long-term, increasing the cost of keeping the eurozone together for taxpayers and governments.

- Moving forward, the ECB must return to its original mission of promoting price stability and a way has to be found to get ailing banks off the ECB’s life support. This should include a winding-down mechanism for insolvent banks.

Full report below:

ECB Open Europe