On tonight’s edition of The Frontline on RTE, Gavin Blessing, Head of Bond Research at Collins Stewart made some comments about repayments of ELA liabilities by the IBRC (i.e. Anglo-INBS) that I’d like to elaborate on. Gavin pointed out that IBRC’s major liabilities are to the Central Bank of Ireland. Indeed, I estimate that IBRC now owes about €42 billion in ELA to the Central Bank.
Gavin then followed this up by saying that we would be “burning ourselves” if we cancelled these payments to the Central Bank. This is a complicated business and I fully understand Gavin Blessing expressing the situation in this way. However, I would like to emphasise that it is my understanding that there is no offsetting financial gain to the Irish state from the IBRC’s repayment of Emergency Liquidity Assistance to the Central Bank.
The details are below but I can summarise this issue as follows: Channelling taxpayer funds towards repayment of ELA is equivalent to burning public money.
Let me start by describing the information communicated by a central bank balance sheet, such as this one for the Central Bank of Ireland. Central banks could create money by following Milton Friedman’s analogy and dropping it from a helicopter. However, helicopter drops are neither efficient nor fair. So the long-standing tradition has been for central banks to issue money by acquiring assets via open market operations.
Central bank balance sheets thus show you the assets that a central bank has accumulated via its money issuance. At some point in time, somebody decided it was a good idea to place the money that was issued to acquire these assets on the “liability” side of this balance sheet. I’m not sure this was such a great idea as central bank balance sheets can cause a lot of confusion. Suffice to say, however, these liabilities are somewhat theoretical. If someone brings a banknote to the Central Bank, the only thing they can exchange it for is other banknotes that the cost the Bank almost nothing to print.
That over with, the accounting treatment for Central Bank’s issuance of ELA can be described as follows.
1. The Central Bank provided ELA by crediting, for example, Anglo’s reserve account that it holds with the Central Bank. This was just the Central Bank creating electronic money out of nowhere and this new money was counted as a liability on the Bank’s balance sheet. In particular, this shows up in “Other Liabilities” on the CBI’s balance sheet.
2. On the other side of the balance sheet, the money that Anglo then owed back to the CBI as a result of the ELA is counted as an interest-bearing asset for the CBI.
Now consider the repayment of part of the ELA by the IBRC. For example, consider repayments funded by IBRC’s annual receipt of €3.1 billion in promissory note payments. One could imagine two possibilities for what happens next.
One possibility is that the following happens. A €3.1 billion repayment gets taken in by the CBI who can then, for example, buy German bonds with it and ultimately use the interest payments on these to pay money back the government when they make profits. In this case, the amount of money created from the original operation doesn’t change and the Central Bank’s ELA asset gradually turns over time into other, more tangible, financial assets. It is likely that this is what Gavin Blessing thinks is happening.
The alternative possibility is less attractive. The Central Bank takes in the €3.1 billion repayment and then deducts this from the value of its ELA asset. On the liability side it reduces “other liabilities”—the idea is that taking in this €3.1 billion is effectively siphoning off part of the money that was created in the original ELA operation. In this case, no new securities are purchased by the Bank. The €3.1 billion is effectively being burned.
The available evidence indicates that the latter, less attractive, mechanism is what occurs.
Earlier this year, the Irish government deposited a large amount of money in the Irish banks; this money was later converted from a deposit liability into equity when the banks were recapitalised. When the banks obtained these funds, they reduced their ELA debts to the Central Bank of Ireland.
A quick look at the Central Bank’s balance sheet shows that “other assets” (which we know is mainly ELA) are down by €17 billion since February. Other liabilities are also down by €19 billion. There is no sign of any jump in the Central Bank’s holdings of other securities as a result of the ELA repayments. There is no hidden positive story at the end of the ELA rainbow.
So why repay it at all? Well, if we don’t repay this money, the Central Bank’s ELA operation will have been equivalent to flying a helicopter over the IBRC, dropping €40 billion and not asking for it back. A jolly good wheeze for the bondholders and depositors who got paid back but possibly not a good precedent for the Euro area. If every Euro area country could do that with their troubled banks, there would be no banking problems but there would probably be a decent amount of inflation.
So our European partners would consider failure to repay ELA to be bad form. But that still seems to leave the pace of repayment, and the funding of this repayment, as very much an open question. In the meantime, let’s not kid ourselves about hidden benefits from these payments.