The Big Blink?
Wolf Richter www.testosteronepit.com
Markets soared in Asia, Europe, the US, everywhere. Let the good times roll. The euro jumped to the highest level in a couple of weeks. Yields on Spanish bonds plunged to the lowest level since, well, Monday. A miracle had happened. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had blinked. Um, a little bit.
All eyes were on her at the EU summit in Brussels, the one summit that would once and for all save the Eurozone, THE summit, where she’d be forced to submit to the majority of the Eurozone, and indeed to the majority of the world, and where she’d be forced to come to her senses and give in to the demands set out before the summit.
There was the Grand Plan, issued by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. It included all the goodies: a European Treasury with power over national budgets and how much countries could borrow; Eurobonds; a banking union that would guarantee deposits; and the ESM that would bail out banks directly.
There was French President François Hollande’s plan, first issued during his campaign, then reiterated many times since. It included Eurobonds and the ability by the European Central Bank to directly buy sovereign bonds of debt sinner countries. He’d formed a triumvirate with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to corner Merkel.
Rajoy had been begging for help but didn’t want Spain to take the bitter medicine that the bailout Troika would prescribe if he asked for a full-fledged bailout. Hence his emphasis on bailing out the banks directly, and let Spain run its dismal affairs as it saw fit. Monti had warned last week that the Eurozone would break apart if summit attendees didn’t sign off on his list of items that were “absolutely necessary” to save the Eurozone.
So, here are the summit results on these items:
- Eurobonds? Nein.
- A banking union with tools to prop up banks and with a common deposit insurance fund. Nein.
- Allowing the ECB to buy sovereign bonds directly? Aber nein!
They did agree on a common banking regulator (even Merkel had wanted that). Of course, they already have one, the European Banking Authority (EBA), established in late 2010. It conducted “stress tests” on 91 major European banks. Results came out in July 2011. And in October, the 12th safest bank, the Franco-Belgian megabank Dexia, collapsed.
So now, they want a different regulator. The ECB should play a role, the agreement said, but.... The Federal Association of German Banks and the Federal Association of Public Banks both expressed their opposition to the ECB becoming a regulator. Since the UK declared it wouldn’t have any part of it, German banks were worried that they’d experience pressures from the regulator that UK banks would not experience. And they were worried about the conflict of interest between the ECB’s role in funding states and in supervising banks that were also funding states.
And Merkel did blink. Or at least she redrew the line in the sand: she agreed to the tweaking the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the permanent bailout fund. The ESM doesn’t exist yet and hasn’t been ratified by a whole slew of countries, and it’s getting scrutinized by the German Constitutional Court, but assuming it will see the light of the day, it would be changed in several ways, including:
- It can bail out banks directly, rather than lending to the government which then recapitalizes the banks. This way, on paper, this new debt to bail out the banks would not raise the indebtedness of the country.
- It can buy sovereign bonds of countries that stick to their commitments to cut budgets and implement structural reforms; thus, no further austerity measures if they ask for aid.
However, funding banks directly won’t be possible until after the Eurozone banking regulator has been established. The Commission will present a proposal in the near future. If all member states pass it by the end of the year, direct aid to banks would be possible at the earliest in 2013.
So, the ESM will be able to bail out Spain and Italy, and their banks, and all the other countries, to which Slovenia may be added by end of July—and do all this with the €700 billion it may in theory have some day. In theory because the €700 billion includes the contributions of Spain and Italy, the very countries that the fund would have to bail out.
Merkel’s switcheroo on the ESM caused some consternation in Germany. “A new breach in the dam,” it was called. Others complained that “the ink isn’t dry and they already announce the next changes,” and that it was one more step towards a “transfer union.” As before, it will pass. The line in the sand has been moved. That's it. None of the fundamental problems have been solved. And the wait for Merkel’s big blink on Eurobonds continues.
In Cyprus, it’s panic time. €1.8 billion is needed by June 30. That’s just the beginning. Its banks have been eviscerated by Greek government bonds, Greek corporate debt, a real estate bubble that collapsed, and a title-deed scandal that they colluded in. It has a communist president and vast deposits of natural gas. Russia and China hover nearby. And now Cyprus points out, unwittingly, why no country should ever transfer even more sovereignty to the EU. Cyprus and the EU: Bitter Medicine.
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