The ECB’s Inflation Target

The Eurozone HICP inflation index for February was at roughly the same level it had reached in the early months of 2012. That is to say the inflation rate has been essentially zero for four years.
The cumulative impact of this undershoot on the real burden of debt is getting to be very serious. The ECB’s own forecasts are for just 0.1% in 2016, 1.3% in 2017 and 1.6% in 2018, so they expect the undershooting to continue. By this time next year the price level will have been flat for five years. If GDP deflators had risen at 2% per annum for those five years various indebted countries would have knocked ten points off debt/GDP ratios, other things equal. So the ECB policy failure has consequences and has penalised the countries most heavily indebted.
Unlike the situation in the UK, the USA and other inflation-targeting countries there is not even a clear figure. The phrase (intoned at every Draghi press conference) is ‘below, but close to, 2%’. Why so coy? What does ‘close to’ actually mean? Will the 1.6% predicted for 2018 be deemed to have done the job?
The treaty talks only about price stability so the choice of target is entirely a matter for the ECB Governing Council. The tortured phraseology looks like a compromise – the sound money people getting the ‘below’ part and the rest getting the ‘but close to’. The 2% number had to get a mention, since various central banks had settled on an explicit 2% figure. It would hardly have been feasible to publicly declare a lower target number like 1% and would have had market repercussions. Whichever scribe came up with the form of words has hopefully been promoted.
Suppose the measures announced last week have their desired impact and Eurozone inflation reaches somewhere deemed ‘close to’ 2% in 2018. By that stage the heavily-indebted countries will have been short-changed substantially on real debt burdens. The remedy would be to raise the target, say to 4%, for five or six years in order to compensate, as Olivier Blanchard proposed when he was at the IMF. The indebted countries would be remiss not to push for this when the time comes, assuming the show is still on the road.

Save the Eurozone – Scrap the €500 Note

The Eurozone, Japan, Switzerland and some Scandinavian countries now have negative official interest rates, so they charge commercial banks for holding excess funds at the central bank. The idea is to incentivise them to lend more money instead into the real economy. This has not really been happening: business firms are too nervous to borrow and do not feel the need for extra productive capacity. The European Central Bank is considering whether its charge on bank credit balances should be increased to power up the incentive, that is, whether the negative rate should be even more negative. There are numerous snags attaching to this latest venture into unorthodox policy.
The first is that commercial banks, whose balance sheets remain fragile, find it very hard to make money when interest rates get this low. Healthy bank profits are hardly a priority for most people but loss-making banks are not a very attractive prospect either. The other problem is that negative official interest rates mean that monetary policy is already reaching its limits. Economists have long written about the ‘zero lower bound’ for interest rates: nobody will hold deposits at a cost and will resort instead to cash. Interest rates on demandable deposits are already zero in Ireland (or 0.01% to be more accurate) and some Swiss banks are now levying a charge. If you deposit €1000 they will pay you back only €999, or €995, a year from now. This is not an attractive deal and people will prefer to keep their money in banknotes.
The trouble is that most bank deposits by value are in amounts much larger than €1000. Many business corporations, nonbank financial companies and pension funds keep deposits in the multiple millions. They cannot stuff the filing cabinets with physical banknotes. But they are not captive customers of the commercial banks either. If they can find somebody trustworthy to hold banknotes on their behalf it might be a better deal even if there is a storage cost. It appears that storage costs could be cheaper than the negative interest rates now threatened, particularly given the availability of large denomination notes such as the $100 bill or, even more attractive, the €500 note in the Eurozone. You could fit a million easily into a briefcase in the form of €500 notes. The ECB’s negative rate is currently 0.3% and it may penalise depositors even further at its next monetary policy meeting on March 10th next. Wholesale interest rates on large deposits will inevitably follow the ECB rate. There have been calculations that storing millions in the form of €500 notes would cost less than the likely wholesale penalty if the ECB goes even more negative.
So somebody needs to come up with a cunning wheeze to escape this latest policy cul-de-sac and there are active proposals to, you guessed it, abolish the €500 note. It would not be acceptable to explain that this was necessary because of another policy misadventure, so the spin coming out of both Brussels and Frankfurt is that the €500 note is mainly used by criminals, and since nobody likes criminals, it has got to go. The coincidence of this discovery with the dilemma over negative interest rates is just that, a coincidence.
The logic is impeccable at first glance. Criminals use €500 notes, ban them and this will inconvenience the criminals. Like it did with machine guns. Ban them and, oops, the only ones with machine guns are criminals. Various international law enforcement agencies, including Interpol and Europol, have confirmed that the €500 note is popular with money launderers and drug dealers and there is no reason to doubt them. But there are many billions in €500 notes out there already and the ECB can hardly cancel them. They will continue to circulate in the shadows. There are lots of non-criminal users of large notes, not just horse dealers and bookmakers in Ireland but also wholesale traders in countries outside the Eurozone with dodgy currencies and unreliable money transmission systems. As much as half of all €500 notes is believed to circulate outside the Eurozone, especially in the Balkans, Turkey and Russia. Its predecessor was the German 1000 Deutschmark note which circulated widely in these places and the ECB version was consciously introduced so as to facilitate existing users.
As for the mafia, there have been prosecutions of numerous banks for facilitating their illicit transfers and it is hard to believe that the withdrawal of the largest ECB note will inspire their professional retirement. Readers will recall the spin justifying depositor haircuts in Cyprus including the assertion that the money belonged to the mafia, Russian chapter. They survived.
The proposal to scrap the €500 note is further evidence of the absence of a serious Eurozone macroeconomic policy.

The Euro Debate and the Abuse of Language

Defenders of the Eurozone’s initial design, subsequent management and purported reform invariably refer to the system as a ‘monetary union’. So do academic commentators including the authors of the recent Vox piece on the origins of the crisis. Whether intended or unconscious, this is an abuse of language.

Monetary unions do not experience selective bank closures, the re-introduction of exchange controls or the numerous other manifestations of financial fragmentation that have occurred before and after the Eurozone ‘reforms’. Germany is a monetary union. In 1974 the Herstatt Bank collapsed in Cologne and several banks based in Dusseldorf went down in the recent crisis. Both cities are in Nordrhein Westfalen, but there was no closure of bank branches in the state nor were exchange controls introduced by the state authorities on either occasion. Interest rates in Nordrhein Westfalen did not detach from rates elsewhere in Germany nor did bank deposits flee the state.

When the Continental Illinois Bank went under in 1984, at the time the largest-ever US bank failure, the state of Illinois was not expected to handle the fall-out. In the recent crisis the state of Delaware, home to lehmans, and the state of North Carolina, home to Wachovia, were similarly spared. The USA is also a monetary union and there is federal responsibility for bank supervision, bank resolution and the protection of bank creditors.

The Eurozone in contrast was established in 1999 as no more than a common currency area, with a ‘central bank’ responsible only for monetary policy in the aggregate, in pursuit of an inflation target. To describe it as a ‘monetary union’ is to deny that there is any distinction between a common currency area and a monetary union. If the Eurozone really was a monetary union in 2008 the history of the crisis would have been very different.

Language matters. In his 1946 essay (Politics and the English Language) George Orwell put it like this:

‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

The danger is that relentless description of the Eurozone as a monetary union deflects attention from the awkward truth that it is not, and from the political unwillingness to make it so.

Dublin Economics Workshop Conference – Final Call

The Dublin Economics Workshop will hold its annual economic policy conference at the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone on October 16th and 17th next. Some slots are still available and proposals in any area of economic policy are welcome. They should be forwarded as soon as possible to

Programme and booking details will be circulated shortly.

The Dublin Economics Workshop is kindly sponsored by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Call for Proposals DEW Conference 2015

The Dublin Economics Workshop will hold its annual economic policy conference at the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone October 16th and 17th next. Proposals in any area of economic policy are invited and should be forwarded, ideally before September 4th, to both of the following: and

Programme and booking details will be circulated in due course. The Dublin Economics Workshop is kindly sponsored by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

……the unpitied calamity of being repeatedly caught in the same snare….

If an extend-and-pretend deal is done it will be the third Greek ‘rescue’. Without debt relief it will also be the third to break the IMF rule, adopted after the Argentina failure in 2001, to avoid financing countries with unsustainable debts.

In early 2010 the debt/GDP ratio in Greece was predicted at 115% (it turned out to be 130%), the deficit in double digits and GDP sinking fast. The Fund rewrote its rule-book to get involved in the Troika despite the unwillingness of IMF staff to sign off on debt sustainability. See the account from the CIGI think-tank

The 2012 deal repeated the procedure, this time with haircuts of private creditors.

The Greek economy is again contracting, the budget headed back into serious deficit, the debt ratio headed for 180%. Even with low interest rates and long duration of official debts, no sustainability analysis is likely to look healthy. The bond market, to which Greece must return, agrees.

The IMF cannot credibly repeat the routine of 2010 and 2012 – it does have non-European members after all, and its exposure to Europe is already unacceptable to them. Lagarde, as French Finance minister, opposed Greek debt restructuring in 2010 but there is no guarantee that the IMF board will participate again without haircuts, this time for its European ex-partners. The week could see no deal with Grexit, or Trexit, the end of the Troika.

Giving the Game Away: The Economics of Corruption at FIFA

FIFA, the governing body of world football, has been a byword for corruption for decades, stretching back to the presidency of Sepp Blatter’s predecessor, the Brazilian Joao Havelange, when Blatter was number two in the organisation. Under the Havelange presidency millions of dollars went walkabout in murky transactions between FIFA and a company which marketed its TV rights. More recently the World Cup of 2022 was awarded to oil-rich Qatar, to be played in high Summer in temperatures of 40 degrees Centigrade. The Sunday Times has documented wholesale vote-buying on behalf of Qatar. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has made it clear that the FBI investigations, which have yielded criminal indictments against FIFA officials, cover offences stretching back to 1991.

Sepp Blatter has been a senior FIFA official for forty years and president since 1998. How can his serial re-elections be explained, the most recent two weeks ago after the announcement of FBI action? FIFA is a most unusual organisation and its governance and economic structures make corruption almost inevitable.

Governance: Every national association, in even the tiniest country, has one vote in FIFA elections. Some tiny palm-fringed idyll in the South Pacific, where soccer was unheard of until recently, can form a football association and expect instant recognition from FIFA. It will then have one vote at FIFA congresses, same as Germany and Brazil, the regular world champions. FIFA has 209 members. There are not 209 countries in the world (the United Nations has just 193 members, for example). ‘Countries’ such as Andorra, San Marino, the Faroe Islands and numerous others are FIFA members. The smallest member in population terms is Montserrat, home to 5000 souls. These ‘countries’ are not regarded as eligible for membership in any serious international organisation, since they are not fully-fledged states but remnants of the Dutch, British and French empires. FIFA member Liechtenstein is a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. It is not difficult, or costly in the overall scheme of things, to re-distribute rents to these minnows to ensure their loyalty. This is the first part of the explanation for Blatter’s repeated majorities.

Economics: The second part is the simple fact that FIFA has had, for the last four decades, quite a lot of rents to dish out. Without economic rent there is no pot of graft. The rent source is a monopoly, the World Cup: it has become, through TV rights and sponsorship, a huge money-spinner. The players, who tend to take the lion’s share of the earnings available in all other major sports, get paid very little for national team appearances. If they wish to play international football at all, they have little bargaining power. Once committed to a national team, usually the country of their birth, they cannot threaten to desert to someone who pays better. If they could, Saudi Arabia would win the World Cup. Most professional football clubs do not make profits: the players, and their industrious agents, make sure that most of the revenues flow through to the performers, which is what happens in every other branch of the entertainment business. In football the World Cup revenues flow to FIFA, an opaque and unaccountable organisation whose leadership is free to perpetuate itself through buying the small national associations around the world. These national bodies in turn have weak, or no, corporate governance. With one brave bound, the money is free.

It is the combination of equal votes for all with billions of unearned revenue dished out behind the curtain which has created the FIFA monster. This is corruption by design.

At Last, Eurozone Culprits Identified!

It is Dark Forces, after all.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, has finally terminated the endless speculation as to the source of the Eurozone’s travails. In a speech yesterday he has fingered the likely source of any threats to the survival of the common currency subsequent to a Greek exit.

Speaking to an audience at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, Jean-Claude Juncker said a “Grexit” would leave the euro prey to forces who “would do everything to try to decompose” what remained of the monetary union.

“Grexit is not an option,” said Mr Juncker.

“If we were to accept, if Greece were to accept, if others were to accept that Greece could leave the area of solidarity and prosperity that is the Eurozone, we would put ourselves at risk because some, notably in the Anglo Saxon world, would try everything to deconstruct the euro area piece by piece, little by little.”

His spokeswoman clarified that the reference to the Anglo Saxon world was not aimed at Britain but was to be construed as a reference to ‘markets and speculators’.

It should be a great relief to all, especially Greeks, to learn that the Eurozone is an ‘area of solidarity and prosperity’. The news that the dystopia of ‘markets and speculators’ is confined to the Anglo Saxon world is a further comfort.

Most importantly if the Great Experiment ends in tears there will be no need for an inquest. It was the Anglo Saxons!

Anyone remember Harold Wilson and the Gnomes of Zurich?

Mody on Creditor Impunity

I am surprised this has not received more attention.

The original sin of Eurozone crisis mismanagement was the May 2010 ‘bail-out’ of Greece. As Karl Otto Pohl noted at the time, the beneficiaries were German banks, even more so French banks (as always, you gotta hand it to the French!), and rich Greeks. Yanis Varoufakis agreed at the time with Pohl, for which he will not be forgiven.

If you subscribe to the view that careless lenders should face haircuts, the official lenders to Greece should take a belated bath.

All of them, including the IMF, which means its shareholders, including us.

The alternative is an international financial order built on a doctrine of official creditor impunity.

Pawn to King Four

The ECB has tonight withdrawn the eligibility as collateral for ‘normal’ liquidity provision of self-issued Greek bank paper guaranteed by the Greek government, effective February 11th. The banks must henceforth rely on ELA from the Greek central bank, permission for which is reviewed fortnightly by the ECB, next meeting February 18th. The ECB statement contains this sentence:

‘The Governing Council decision is based on the fact that it is currently not possible to assume a successful conclusion of the programme review and is in line with existing Eurosystem rules.’

Note that the decision is based on a fact! The opinion formed, presumably today, that the programme review may not be successfully completed, was reasonable yesterday and the day before, but has miraculously assumed the status of a fact this evening.

Surely the ECB would not deliberately encourage a run on the banks (presumed solvent, rightly or wrongly, if they are to be ELA-eligible) in a member state? Whaddya mean they did it before?

The ECB’s Policy Target

The only centralised macroeconomic policy target in the Eurozone is the ECB’s 2% inflation number. Today’s flash estimate from Eurostat shows a price decline of 0.2% over twelve months. The index for the Eurozone has in fact been flat now for eighteen months – today’s number of 117.70 compares to 117.61 in June 2013.

The undershoot would be a concern in a proper monetary union operating at the ZLB: real rates are too high. In the Eurozone, which is not a proper monetary union, just a common currency area with heavily indebted states, it creates two additional problems.

The real burden of debt is not eroding at the advertised rate. If the ECB had delivered a 2% rate since December 2008, at which point debt build-up in the periphery was already manifest, the index today would be 121.6 rather than 117.7. If the ECB fails to get the rate of inflation up to 2% for another couple of years as QE-pessimists fear, the failure to hit the inflation target could add 5% or 6% to real debt burdens of sovereigns which have already had to resort to official lenders.

The second problem is the absence of any other centralised macro policy instrument, if you discount, as you should, Jean Claude Juncker’s leverage wheeze. The instrument that has fallen short is the only one available.

The inflation target should now be Olivier Blanchard’s 4% rather than the ECB’s 2%, if only to make up lost ground. If you believe that the ECB cannot or will not deliver on the inflation rate, the alternative is illegal: a fiscal expansion financed by the central bank, the kind of thing they do in real monetary unions.

McSharry on Trichet

Former finance minister and EU commissioner Ray McSharry has contributed a chapter to the book of tributes to the late Brian Lenihan (Brian Lenihan, In Calm and in Crisis, Murphy, O’Rourke and Whelan (eds), Merrion Press 2014).

The chapter contains the following complete paragraph at page 111:

‘Brian had been keen to burn the big bondholders and we discussed this on a number of occasions. One morning I got a call about a quarter past eight and it was Brian. He told me that he was able to burn the bondholders and he was very happy because the European Central Bank President, Jean-Claude Trichet, had told him he could do it. This would have improved Ireland’s position significantly and it was going to be a big story, but later that day a now despondent Brian rang me back. He said Trichet had changed his mind because he realised that the main casualty if the bondholders were burnt would be big German and French banks. This was a disgraceful decision because the ECB is supposed to represent the interests of Europe generally, but they were clearly under the sway of the German and French banks. Even today, I still would not have much confidence in the ECB and until Europe gets a totally independent entity to defend its currency, the euro will remain a fragile currency’.

The context in McSharry’s piece indicates that

(i) the conversation took place in the summer or autumn of 2010, as the bank guarantee was coming to an end or had already ended, but prior to the EU/IMF programme, and

(ii) the bondholders referred to were bank, not sovereign, bondholders.

The phrase ‘…the main casualty if the bondholders were burnt would be big German and French banks…’ refers, it is reasonable to assume, not (or not only) to the direct losses that these banks would suffer as holders of the bonds in question (it is doubtful that they were big holders) but to the impact of default or haircuts in Ireland on their continued access to new debt funding from the bank bond market.

This reported conversation goes to the heart of Ireland’s unfinished business with the ECB. It is reasonable for the ECB president to display concern about the continued access of major European banks to important funding sources. Whether it is within the ECB’s powers under the statute to impose on an individual member state the cost of shoring up debt market access for Eurozone banks generally is not clear and will not be clarified until the European Court of Justice rules on the matter. The statute does not contain any explicit provisions conferring such an important power.

McSharry’s report of his conversation with Lenihan is further support for the view, which I have expressed many times, that Ireland should take a case against the ECB as provided for in the ECB statute. This is important for the credibility of the ECB as an independent central bank. Win or lose, referral of the matter to the ECJ would clarify whether the ECB possesses the powers it appeared to believe it had back in 2010. If the ECB can impose costs of policies aimed at stabilising markets across the common currency area on an individual member state it is time the member states knew about it.

DEW Conference, Cork October 17/18

The Dublin Economics Workshop holds its annual Economic Policy conference at the River Lee hotel in Cork on October 17/18 next. Proposals for papers are still being accepted and should be submitted to

The full programme and booking details will be posted here in due course.


Deflation Once Again

The media faithfully reported Eurostat’s flash estimate of yoy inflation in the Eurozone at 0.3% for August on Friday last. The yoy rate says merely that prices were 0.3% higher in August than they had been twelve months previously. Just two pieces of information are employed – today’s number and the number twelve months earlier. The intervening eleven pieces of info are ignored.

What do these eleven observations have to say? Well it is not pretty. The index was unchanged over eight months, and actually fell over four months. The country-by-country numbers are only available for July. Here is what happened over the four months from March.

HICP July % Change over March

Belgium         -1.5                  Germany       +0.2

Greece           -0.8                  Estonia          +0.5

Spain             -1.0                  Ireland           +0.1

Italy               -1.6                 Cyprus           +2.2

Luxembourg    -0.5                  Latvia            +0.8

Austria           -0.5                  Netherlands   +0.1

Portugal         -0.1                  Slovenia        +0.2

Finland          -0.3                  Malta             +4.1

France            -0.4                  Slovakia        +0.2

Half of the 18 countries experienced price falls, half saw increases. The weighted average Eurozone inflation rate over these four most recent months was -0.5%. No large country saw a significant increase but two, Spain and Italy, saw prices fall 1% and 1.6%, hence the weighted average decline.

Using twelve-month rates is well-established but it is hardly best practice. Since the Spring it is clear that the Eurozone has been experiencing a widespread and in some cases rapid fall in prices. With nominal interest rates as low as they can go, and zero real growth, the feared deflation has already commenced. It could even be too late to do too little.




DEW Economic Policy Conference 2013: Call for Papers

The Dublin Economics Workshop will hold its annual economic policy conference in Limerick on October 18-20. Stephen Kinsella is helping with local arrangements. 

Proposals for papers in any area of economic policy are invited and a brief summary should be forwarded, before August 20, to

Booking details and programme will be posted on this site in due course.

The Dublin Economics Workshop is kindly sponsored this year by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Reminder: DEW Meeting, Land-Use Regulation in the United Kingdom

The Irish planning and land-use system is very similar to the set-up in the UK. There is a re-think under way across the water and one of the main contributors will be visiting;

Speaker: Christian Hilber (LSE)

Topic: The British System of Land-Use Regulation: Key Features and (unintended) Economic Consequences 

Date and Time: Friday June 28th at 5.30 pm

Venue: Davy Stockbrokers, 5th. floor, 49, Dawson St., Dublin 2.

Admission is free but you are requested to book – email

The Workshop is kindly sponsored this year by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

DEW Meeting: Land-Use Regulation in Britain

The Irish planning and land-use system is very similar to the set-up in the UK. There is a re-think under way across the water and one of the main contributors will be visiting;

Speaker: Christian Hilber (LSE)

Topic: The British System of Land-Use Regulation: Key Features and (unintended) Economic Consequences 

Date and Time: June 30th at 5.30 pm

Venue: Davy Stockbrokers, 5th. floor, 49, Dawson St., Dublin 2.

Admission is free but you are requested to book – email

The Workshop is kindly sponsored this year by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Beware the Ides of March

The fateful Eurozone finance ministers meeting which signed off on the plan to haircut guaranteed depositors in Cyprus convened at 17.00 hours on Friday the 15th, the Ides of March, in Brussels. The meeting was attended by the seventeen finance ministers but also by Mario Draghi and Jorg Asmussen of the ECB and Christine Lagarde from the IMF with Reza Moghadam, the head of the European division at the Fund. Cypriot president Anastasiades left the meeting with, he clearly believed, the consent of those present for the since-abandoned scheme to haircut guaranteed depositors (accounts below €100,000) in all Cypriot banks, including some that were solvent.

The Cypriot parliament threw out the plan and guaranteed depositors were spared. The substitute Plan B sees very large write-downs for unguaranteed depositors in the bust banks as well as write-offs for shareholders and bondholders. But deposits in Cypriot banks were frozen and could not be used, beyond low thresholds, for withdrawals, or for external payments. Remarkably, internal payments within Cyprus were also restricted. The thresholds have since been increased but the suspension of internal convertibility for the Cypriot Euro was an astonishing event, going beyond the re-introduction of exchange controls and the inability to transfer funds abroad. The Nicosia business was effectively told ‘you may not use your money to purchase dollars, or Euro deposits outside Cyprus’ (exchange controls) but also told ‘you may not pay a bill over a specified amount owed to a business in Limassol either’ (suspension of internal convertibility).

On March 25th the ECB issued a statement which included the following (after Plan B had been cobbled together and insured depositors spared the threatened haircut):     

‘Today, the Governing Council decided not to object to the request for provision of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) by the Central Bank of Cyprus, in accordance with the prevailing rules. It will continue to monitor the situation closely.’

The Purpose of Plan B was to resolve the Cypriot banks, through creditor haircuts and other re-capitalisation measures. Banks which have been resolved are solvent – their liabilities have been reduced to the point where their (written down) assets exceed their liabilities. If they face a depositor run when they re-open, a proper central bank will provide them with liquidity without limit, since the run is unjustified. With the bank’s assets now written down to realistic values, there is no question mark over collateral quality.

 What appears to have happened in Cyprus is the following:

1. prior to the rescue deal, the ECB deemed the main Cypriot banks to be insolvent, and declined to approve ELA through the Bank of Cyprus.

2. The deal (Plan B) was done. The Cypriot authorities, fearing a run, froze deposits, creating internal as well as external, inconvertibility.

3. The ECB must have interpreted the ‘prevailing rules’ referred to in its March 25th statement as forbidding ELA for the (supposedly now solvent) Cypriot banks.

If this interpretation is correct, the Eurozone now has a de facto bank resolution scheme with the following feature: the day the resolved bank re-opens, with creditor haircuts to whatever degree is needed to make the bank solvent, the lender of last resort will go missing. Deposits will be frozen (up to some limit) and the domestic economy can get by on cash, trade credit and barter. At a recent press conference, Mario Draghi was asked about the ECB’s role in the Cyprus debacle and responded thus:

‘Cyprus is not a template; Cyprus is not a turning point in euro area policy. We have said many times that our resolution – and I said the very same thing when I was Chairman of the Financial Stability Board – is to resolve banks without using taxpayers’ money and without disrupting the payment system. That is why we have to have a resolution framework in place. So, it is not a turning point. That is exactly the resolution framework that all other countries have and the euro area will have.’

Sorry Mario – you did disrupt the payment system, you closed it down. Does the ECB president intend that ‘…the resolution framework that all other countries have and the euro area will have’ will include the refusal by the lender of last resort to stop deposit runs on solvent banks? On further questioning, he elaborated: ‘On Cyprus – I expect many more questions on Cyprus, so that I will only respond to your question narrowly, the fine question as to what the position of the ECB was. The ECB had presented a proposal that did not foresee any bail-in of insured depositors. And let me also tell you that this was exactly the same for all the other proposals – the proposals by the Commission and the IMF had exactly the same feature. Then there were prolonged negotiations with the Cypriot authorities, represented at that meeting, the outcome of which was what you know, namely a levy also on insured depositors. That was not smart, to say the least, and it was quickly corrected in a Eurogroup teleconference on the next day. But that is what is past.’

Everyone is entitled to their own version of history. Here’s mine: it was the Cypriot parliament on the following Tuesday evening, and not some teleconference on the Sunday, which scuppered the Anastasiades plan to haircut insured depositors. The ECB, the European Commission and the IMF allowed the Cypriots to leave a meeting at 3 am on Saturday morning with a plan to haircut insured deposits and to freeze accounts in banks supposedly resolved.

It would be nice to hear the IMF’s version of what they think happened at the meeting on the Ides of March.

Cyprus and Capital Controls

Having failed to agree a bank resolution regime more than four years into the Eurozone banking crisis, the EZ authorities have, at the second attempt, come up with a resolution of the Cypriot banks. The haircuts of uninsured bank creditors appear to be 60% and more.

After a bank resolution, the surviving banks are solvent. Naturally, depositors may feel sore, and there could be deposit flight as soon as they re-open, even where the haircuts have been severe enough to make them adequately capitalised again. But not to worry, the central bank is there to deal with irrational deposit flight. It is after all the lender of last resort.

But lo and behold, the Cypriot government has imposed capital controls – even insured deposits not facing a haircut are restricted. But since the written-down assets of the surviving banks are now in excess of their liabilities (they have been resolved) these assets will be money-good at the central bank.

Not so apparently. If the ECB believes that the surviving Cypriot banks are now solvent, why is there any need for restrictions on depositor withdrawals? Is the ECB prohibiting liquidity provision through ELA after a bank resolution to which it has been a party? 

Of course the haircuts may, in the eyes of the ECB, be inadequate to ensure solvency. In which case why is the deal not modified further? Capital controls effectively create an inconvertible currency trapped in Cypriot banks, a precedent likely to be remembered when trouble strikes elsewhere. Do re-opening US banks decline to release deposits after the Feds have done their work, for the want of a lender of last resort?

Toxic Debt Scare

Teams of economists have detected traces of bank-debt DNA in samples of Irish sovereign debt in portfolios all over Europe. Genuine Irish sovereign debt is believed safe for humans but bank debt is toxic. The economists believe that as much as 30% of all Irish sovereign debt is not genuine. The source of the contamination appears to be a premises in Frankfurt, Germany. The contamination dates from 2010, when a sovereign debt knackering plant was run from the premises by a Monsieur Trichet, a French national. It is alleged that he gathered up large quantities of toxic bank debt and mixed it up with genuine sovereign debt in the middle of the night, when nobody was looking.


There is no licensing or supervision of sovereign debt knackerers at European level and it is understood that the Frankfurt plant was staffed by people with no previous experience in the trade. Genuine debt from several other European countries was processed through the Frankfurt plant in 2010 and 2011 and may also have been infected. The plant, which claims to be the only sovereign debt processing facility in Europe, is now run by a Signor Draghi, an Italian. Monsieur Trichet has retired from sovereign debt knackering and has commenced a new career in the aviation business.    


The Irish Department of Finance has been seeking to return the infected sovereign debt to the Frankfurt plant with a view to removing the toxic component. They are afraid that retailers might remove the sovereign debt from their shelves. Signor Draghi has promised to do his best, but one of his assistants, Herr Weidmann, a German, believes that the toxic bank debt is harmless, and that anyway nobody will notice. He is refusing to operate the decontamination equipment.

More on the Pro-Note Deal

Here’s a few thoughts on aspects of the pro-note deal concluded last week.

The GGB Interest Saving

One of Karl Whelan’s slides at the recent irisheconomy conference sported the title ‘Eurostat and Reality’. The ‘general government’ concept used by Eurostat and consequently employed in the EU Commission’s implementation of budget rules and bail-out programmes has other critics besides Karl. One critic is the IMF.

The Fund argues that, once central banks begin undertaking quasi-fiscal functions, they may as well be consolidated with the fisc. Australia and New Zealand consolidate their central banks into the fiscal accounts. More pertinently the IBRC was not part of general government and NAMA is not either. Since the fisc was and will be on the hazard for both, the same argument applies to them. The fact that these three institutions, the CBI, the IBRC and NAMA are not part of general government has muddied the waters regarding the budget impact of the pro-note deal as John McHale points out in his post.

The true cost of the pro-note was the interest paid at the ECB’s MRO, the main re-financing rate, currently 0.75%. This will continue to be the cost when the pro-note passes to the CBI and is replaced with long-dated floaters. Transfers of interest arising from the pro-note and its floating successor between Irish government entities wash out in terms of economic impact. But they do not wash out in terms of the measured GGB deficit as per Eurostat, since these entities are not consolidated into general government.

This is the reason why there is an interest saving to the GGB (in addition to the discontinuation of front-loaded capital payments, which had to be funded but are excluded from GGB spending). Funds were being transferred, at high interest, to the IBRC, an operating subsidy if you will which would revert fully to the DoF eventually as part of the residual net worth (positive or negative) of IBRC. The excess interest was treated by ESA-95 as current spending, even though it was really the Exchequer lending money outside the GGB club to an entity it owned, guaranteed and planned to liquidate six years from now. No such sums will now be paid to NAMA or to any other state entity outside the GGB club. Hey presto, an interest saving of €1 billion. The interest shown, although heading in the right direction, is still not ‘correct’, in the sense that it does not equal the figure that would be shown if the Exchequer’s offspring were all living at home. The figure still looks too high, but by less. The ‘correct’ figure will rise eventually for two reasons: the 0.75% will rise as the Eurozone economy improves, and the amounts borrowed at this favourable rate will decline as the floaters in the CB’s book are re-financed in the market.
There has been no creative accounting and the DoF have done everything by the book. ESA-95 is just not a very coherent book. For more on all of this in an Irish context, see

The Floaters

The NTMA has already issued to the Central Bank eight long-dated floaters.
The base rate is six-month Euribor, recently a little under 0.4%. The margins over Euribor average about 2.6% so the government has issued €25 billion in very long dated floaters with opening yields of around 3%. The margin is fixed to maturity.

The rate does not matter (neither Euribor nor the margin) until the Central Bank sells some of the bonds and coupons start to leak outside the (fully consolidated) Irish state system. The CBI has agreed a schedule of minimum sales of the floaters, starting at €0.5 billion by end-2014 with steadily rising amounts that will see the lot gone by 2032. This means that the availability of concessionary state finance at the MRO rate contracts from 2014, slowly at first but more rapidly as 2032 approaches. The state is exposed at a diminishing rate to the ECB’s MRO rate and to the margin and Euribor at an increasing rate as the Central Bank sells out. The MRO will doubtless be higher during the life of these bonds, as will Euribor. The margin could compress or blow out. The exposure to this margin would have arisen anyway, and sooner, without the deal, as the pro-notes would have been replaced with market funding sooner. The margins, which are fixed through the life of the notes, have had to be estimated, since long-dated floaters are relatively rare and Ireland has none in issue. The initial margins chosen do not matter – it is the margin when the bonds are sold on that determines the effective cost. Floaters normally trade close to par, but the margin over Euribor for Irish sovereign risk could prove volatile and these bonds, when they come to be dealt in the secondary market, could trade further from par (on either side) than highly-rated sovereign floaters. Over the long haul, floaters are closer to index-linked bonds, since Euribor should follow the inflation rate.

Options in Favour of the CBI

The Central Bank will have some interesting but, it would appear, not very valuable options. Where these are options against the issuer, they have of course no net value to the state. The CB has an apparent option to convert the floaters to fixed, but only with the agreement of the NTMA. This option expires as the bonds pass to market purchasers. Without this provision the NTMA could get stuck with a growing component of long-dated floaters in its debt portfolio, for which market appetite is unknown. The NTMA rather than the CBI will likely call the shots on the exercise of this option – it will really be an option in favour of the NTMA, against the CBI as holder, but not against the ultimate market purchasers.

The CB has the option to sell more than the minimum required, but the MRO would have to exceed Euribor plus about 2.6% for this to be attractive, and would have to look like staying that way. This is most unlikely so this option has negligible value.

An Option in Favour of the ECB?

The CB has agreed (at the behest of the ECB) to a schedule of minimum sales into the market which will see the Central Bank dispose entirely of these securities by 2032, vaporising €25 billion of blameless money along the way. This schedule lengthens the duration of access to funds at the MRO relative to the duration under the pro-notes and is the key benefit of the deal. Any acceleration of this schedule diminishes the value of the deal.

The ECB can seek accelerated sales of the CBI’s holdings of the bonds, curtailing access to low-cost funds. This is potentially a serious option against the state as issuer. Governor Honohan also stated on RTE on Sunday that the CBI had agreed to retire the floaters as quickly as possible. He said: ‘The CBI has undertaken to sell these bonds as soon as possible, subject to financial stability’. This leaves the terms on which the state retains access to low-cost finance unclear. What is ‘financial stability’? Who decides if financial stability prevails, the CBI or the ECB? Is there a written understanding on the criteria that will be used? If so, it would be nice to know what it says. If not, there is a risk of future conflicts here.

What Caused the Eurozone Crisis, & Does it Matter?


The outline of a future European monetary union less vulnerable to crises than the current Franco-German design is beginning to emerge. It will need a banking union, including centralised supervision and resolution, as well as some common system of deposit insurance to curtail destabilising runs. It will also need stronger bank equity with minimum non-equity capital that can be bailed in when banks get into trouble. Sovereign debt ratios are now so high that future rescues by national treasuries will simply not be feasible, so the cost of debt to European banks will unavoidably be higher. The monetary union could do with a common macroeconomic policy – Europe as a whole is almost as closed an economy as the US.

But getting to first base in a re-designed monetary union means sorting out the current mess, and the willingness to accept and distribute losses is absent, largely because of the persistence of the belief that the crisis was caused principally by fiscal excess, and that sinners should pay. Sinners in this case means debtors. 

There have been numerous papers arguing that the origins of the crisis were not fiscal, but principally monetary. Here’s another one, with references to some more:

The European economy faces a re-building task on a scale corresponding to the aftermath of a (small) war. One of the lessons of twentieth-century European history is that allocating blame is not a good re-construction strategy after wars. The current impasse bears comparison to the ‘sinners should pay’ response to WW 1. 

After WW 2, with lessons learned, the blame-game was avoided to a considerable degree. It does not matter (except perhaps to lawyers) what caused the mess. What is the feasible allocation of costs  (infeasible allocations include pretending that the Greek default was big enough, for example) that offers the best prospects of economic recovery?

The costs have not all been incurred – failing to distribute the costs already incurred lets them grow.

DEW Economic Policy Conference 2012

The Dublin Economics Workshop holds its annual Economic Policy Conference on October 12 to 14 next at the Ardilaun House Hotel in Galway. Details of the programme and booking details are at Sarah Condon does all the work,

The keynote speakers are David Laidler, from the University of Western Ontario, and Jerry Dwyer from the Atlanta Fed. David taught me monetary economics 40 years ago and claims to be too old for jet-lag!  I am thrilled that David is coming to Ireland again in October. David Laidler has forgotten more about monetary economics than the rest of us are likely to  learn, however long we survive.  Jerry Dwyer gave a terrific paper at a conference in Greece a few months ago and has promised to update it. 

25 Irish economists, young and old, will aso be giving papers, including two regular commenters from this blog, Michael Hennigan and Paul Hunt 

All are welcome at DEW 35 in Galway

Reminder: DEW October Conference

Proposals are still being accepted for the DEW conference in Galway on October 12-14 next. Topics in any area of economic policy will be considered and proposals should be emailed to

Daivid Laidler (University of Western Ontario) will be the keynote speaker and the programme, with booking details, will be issued early in September.

Dublin Economics Workshop October Conference

The Workshop’s annual Economic Policy conference will be held at the Ardilaun Hotel, Galway, from October 12th to 14th next.


Invited papers will focus on the Eurozone banking and sovereign debt crises and on Ireland’s fiscal consolidation programme. Contributed papers are invited on these topics and in any area of Irish economic policy.


Brief proposals should be forwarded to before August 20th. The programme and booking details will be circulated early in September.

The Devil is in the Principles

Twenty years ago this summer, Europe’s currency arrangement, the ERM, began to tear apart. Fixed exchange rates last as long as the markets fear that central banks can out-buy the sellers. The Bank of England ran out of reserves in September, making George Soros famous, and the system broke up in the middle of 1993. There was no buyer of last resort for the weaker currencies.


Under EMU the sovereign bond market plays the role of the forex market. There is no buyer of last resort for the weaker sovereign bonds. The unwillingness of the ECB to play this role means that Spain and Italy can be forced out of the market. Their total bond stock is approaching €3 trillion. Ongoing deficits and rollovers mean their gross issuance could not conceivably be financed by official lenders.


So they must be kept in the market or the crisis enters the endgame. The ECB has suspended its SMP (Securities Market Programme) which bought sovereign bonds in the secondary market. It pursued this programme in half-hearted fashion, worrying in public about the quality of the bonds it was buying. Sterling would have crashed out of the ERM more rapidly if the Bank of England had gone around bad-mouthing the quality of the sterling it was supporting back in 1992.


Selling sterling to the Bank of England, if the latter possessed unlimited reserves, would have been a mug’s game. Selling Spanish or Italian bonds to somebody with unlimited stocks of Euros would be suicidal.


The Brussels summit has opened the way for the ESM to buy bonds in the secondary market, so the ECB has been replaced with a buyer whose balance sheet constraint is known. This is actually a retrograde step. The ESM could quickly become Bank of England Mark II if a sizeable bond market run re-emerges.


Nobody in their right mind will short an asset into the Central Bank against money. They cannot run out of the stuff. Nobody can operate a credible reverse tap in the Spanish and Italian bond markets except the ECB, or some agency with unlimited facilities at the ECB.


Some useful decisions were taken at Brussels last week but the crisis will persist until this central issue is addressed. Spain and Italy cannot pay more than 4%, or maybe 4.5%, and retain debt sustainability. A reverse tap operated by the ECB places credit risk on its balance sheet and extends the moral hazard (liberally available to European banks) to Mediterranean governments. So the fiscal compact must be implemented and the political commitment problems resolved.


The devil is never in the details. The devil is in the principles.