Weidmann, Munchau and Target2

Here are some comments on the reported letter of the Bundesbank president to Mario Draghi.  The blog software is objecting to posts longer than a couple of paragraphs, so for now I’ll just post links to files hosted on my own website.

Update: Here is a short piece on Target2 balances written by two Bundesbank staff that I’m guessing are not too thrilled with Mr. Weidmann’s intervention.

RTE: Nation to Be Spared From Promissory Note Deal

RTE’s Nine O’Clock news are reporting Enda Kenny as explaining that promissory note negotiations are totally separate from the question of will the Irish people vote for the Fiscal Compact Treaty and that the Irish people will not bribed to vote for the Treaty.

RTE also noted that the latest Council meeting was “dominated by jobs and growth” which sounds like great news. And, best of all, reporter Tony Connelly helpfully explained that it was now felt that asking for a better deal on promissory notes was actually a bad idea because it would send a bad signal to financial markets that we were not able to cope with our debt burden and that there was no way this issue would be dealt with any time before the summer.

Ok, so be it. But I suspect that “the Irish people won’t be bribed” may prove to be the worst referendum slogan in history.

2012 TINA Award Winner: Laura Noonan

One of the most depressing aspects of the Irish banking crisis has been the consistent insistence of most of our financial journalists that any action that ran counter to government policy would result in disaster. There was simply no alternative.

I remember countless reports that nationalising any more banks after Anglo would result in torrents of frogs and locusts in the streets of Ireland. Today we have many economic problems but I doubt if the nationalised status of AIB and ILP would make the top ten.

I remember, time and again, journalistic reports that you couldn’t nationalise a bank because the ECB couldn’t lend to such a bank because of the monetary financing clause. Only this was blatantly false.

Even more common was the insistence that if any senior bank bond was defaulted on, the Irish people would be reduced begging in streets for scraps for a millennium. Of course, Brian Lenihan ended his period as Minister for Finance looking to get haircuts applied to senior bank bonds and Michael Noonan spent most of 2011 arguing that this was the right thing to do.

It’s early days yet, but the status of runaway favourite for the 2012 “TINA Award” must go to the Irish Independent’s Laura Noonan for her appearance on last night’s Vincent Browne show. Despite Michael Noonan’s consistent statement of his hope that the promissory note could be renegotiated, Laura insisted that There Simply Was No Alternative to making the €3.1 billion on March 31.

Among the reasons why we “Had to Make this Payment” were:

  • Eurostat have insisted on it (yes, Eurostat, who knew they were the real powers behind the throne, huh?)
  • Failing to make the €3.1 billion payment would, via some mysterious process, trigger the need to pay the full €28 billion that was outstanding on the notes.
  • Failing to make the €3.1 billion payment would also trigger the need to pay all of Anglo’s outstanding bonds.
  • And all of AIB’s guaranteed bonds.
  • And all of Bank of Ireland’s guaranteed bonds.
  • I think the frogs and locusts appeared again at some point.

Anyway, exciting stuff. All complete nonsense of course. There is nothing preventing the note being restructured in any number of ways, provided the ECB Governing Council are willing to go along with it. And none of Laura’s appalling vistas are remotely relevant.

I guess the more interesting question is whether Laura is passing along what she’s been told by DoF spinners or whether she came up with this exciting stuff all on her own.

Those interested in checking out this Olympic-level TINA performance can check it out here (in particular, after 26 minutes in.)

Update: Laura has written to me to say the following: “A few points of fact: I never said that the Government could not restructure the pro note, in fact I said repeatedly that efforts were under way to restructure the pro note, and that they were progressing well. I said that the pro note repayment for this March would have to be made, with the benefit of more airtime I’d have qualified that it will have to be made unless the pro note is restructured before then. I did not say that there was no alternative to make the pro note payment every year to maturity – the whole point of the restructuring is that the pro note payment schedule would be changed.”

So I’m happy to say that Laura was only saying that the March 31 payment had to be made and that failure to do so would trigger these consequences. I have edited the post to remove any implication that Laura said  the note couldn’t be renegotiated at some point in the future.

Department of Finance Presentations: January 2012

Following on from the NTMA’s slidefest from a few days ago, here’s an interesting set of presentations that have just been released (apparently without a press release explaining who they were originally presented to but I think you can guess). There are presentations on Mortgage Arrears, SME Lending, Deleveraging, Funding, and a Banking Report Card. Enjoy.

Briefing Paper for Oireachtas Finance Committee

I’m appearing at the Oireachtas Finance Committee this afternoon, along with Brian Lucey and Stephen Kinsella, to discuss ELA and promissory notes. Here‘s a copy of a briefing paper I have provided to the committee and here are my opening remarks.

I’m told that the meeting can be watched live online at this link by choosing Committee 4 and also on UPC channel 801.

The ESM Treaty and PSI

There is some discussion of this issue in the comments but it’s worth putting on the front page. A much-heralded part of December’s EU negotiations was the decision to change the language on Private Sector Involvement (PSI) in the ESM Treaty.

On December 9, Herman van Rumpoy said

our first approach to PSI, which had a very negative effect on debt markets is now officially over.

It was being replaced with the following

from now on we will strictly adhere to the IMF principles and practices

Sure enough, the new ESM Treaty states

In accordance with IMF practice, in exceptional cases an adequate and proportionate form of private sector involvement shall be considered in cases where stability support is provided accompanied by conditionality in the form of a macro-economic adjustment programme.

Some are arguing that this is effectively a commitment to limit PSI to Greece. I don’t see how this is a tenable assumption. As this FT Alphaville post discusses, there is no sense in which IMF procedures rule out PSI. Furthermore, bond markets are also clearly not interpreting the new ESM treaty in this fashion since Portuguese bond yields are still effectively pricing in a default.

It’s very hard to see how, if the stars end up aligning sufficiently badly for Ireland, that “an adequate and proportionate” haircut won’t get applied to private sovereign bond holders.

New ESM Treaty

A newly-modified ESM Treaty has been signed. Documents are available here. One key aspect:

It is acknowledged and agreed that the granting of financial assistance in the framework of new programmes under the ESM will be conditional, as of 1 March 2013, on the ratification of the TSCG by the ESM Member concerned.

Viewers of the Vincent Browne show take heed!

Treaty Agreement: January 30

Information on the Treaty agreed last night by 25 EU member states is available here. Somewhat remarkably, given that draft texts have been circulating for weeks, there is no version of the agreed text.  Anyone out there have a link?

I’d note that the materials released all point to the need to implement the structural deficit rule at “constitutional or equivalent level” while the Independent reports that “preferably constitutional” is in the final draft.

If indeed it turns out that we need a referendum, this is a pretty bad start.

Update: The EU Council have finally released the text here. Anyway, “preferably constitutional” has been retained, which begs the question as to what van Rompuy and his officials were up to with their statements about “constitutional or equivalent level”.

Garret Fitzgerald Spring School: 10-11 February

Readers may be interested in the Garret FitzGerald Spring Seminar to be held at UCD on 10 and 11 of February. This is the first of an annual series of “Spring Schools” to be named in Garret FitzGerald’s honour focused on topics that were particularly close to his heart.

This year’s theme will ‘Democracy in the 21st. Century’ and the event will include an opening keynote from Mary Robinson on the evening of February 10th.

Further details can be found here. Those wishing to attend are requested to pre-book a space. Contact Mary.Buckley@ucd.ie.

Interest Rates on Promissory Notes Not the Key Issue

I am now planning to talk at Friday’s conference about promissory notes, ELA and all that. I will post a link to a detailed presentation when it’s finished, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this now.

However, I do want make a brief comment on the recent media commentary on the promissory note issue. Most of this commentary has motivated the issue in the same terms as this article in today’s Irish Times by Arthur Beesley:

State support for the bank is being financed with expensive promissory notes which carry a comparatively high interest rate of some 8.6 per cent.

This is considerably in excess of the prevailing rates for stability facility loans, leading the Government to explore whether it is feasible to draw down additional stability fund aid to replace the promissory note scheme.

Arthur is a fine journalist but I’m afraid this is not a good way to think about this issue. The interest on the promissory notes is going from one part of the state (central exchequer funds) to another (the IBRC). Since the interest rate on these notes is higher than the average interest rate on IBRC’s liabilities, the additional margin can be retained inside IBRC and handed back to the state at a later date. 

So the key issue in relation to the burden on the taxpayer of the IBRC is the amount of liabilities that need to be paid out to bondholders and central banks, and the timing of these repayments, not the interest rate on the promissory note.

I’d note that Arthur’s colleague, John McManus, correctly explains this aspect of the promissory note issue in this article (though other parts of the article are not correct, such as the claim that the Central Bank of Ireland had to borrow the ELA funds from the ECB and that the ELA needs to be collateralised by marketable assets.) The true interest cost of the promissory notes is the interest on the €3.1 billion a year being borrowed from the EU and IMF to hand over to the IBRC, not the notional interest rate on the promissory notes.

Manifesto Memories

The Irish Times reports

NEARLY 50 hospital consultants and almost 1,000 nurses of different grades are set to leave the health service before new pension changes come into effect at the end of February, the first official figures show.


In other parts of the public service about 1,130 staff in the education sector are understood to have applied to leave

This brings back memories (misty water-coloured memories) of pre-election promises

Additional Reduction in Back-Office Public Sector Numbers: As set out in our Reinventing Government plan, Fine Gael will reduce the size of the public service by 10% – just over 30,000 – without undermining key front-line services in health, policing and education, through over 105 reforms to cut back-office bureaucracy and delivery improved value for money. This means that Fine Gael will reduce back-office administrative positions in the public service by an additional 18,000 over and above the 12,000 reduction partners to seek further efficiencies in work practices

I guess these are back-office consultants, nurses and teachers.

How Not To Fill An Important Job

The Secretary-General of the Department of Finance is probably the most important job in the Irish civil service. With Kevin Cardiff’s imminent departure, the job has been publicly advertised and a shortlist arrived at.

Given the negative ramifications of the past mistakes made by the Department, one might have hoped that all efforts would be made to ensure that a good field of candidates is obtained and that the recruitment process would be run in a professional manner.

How’s it working out? Well, yesterday’s Irish Times confirms a story that has been run before, namely that “No expenses were paid for candidates travelling to Dublin to be interviewed for the position.” The government may as well have put up a sign to say “those working outside Ireland are not welcome”.

In addition, we are now informed

THE GOVERNMENT’S choice of a successor to Kevin Cardiff as secretary general of the Department of Finance is now expected to come from within the public service.

With morale in the department extremely low as a result of the economic crisis and the controversy over Mr Cardiff’s departure, appointing an outsider is being viewed within the Government as a risky strategy.

Appointing an external candidate to “shake up” the department would serve only to further demoralise staff, according to one source familiar with the process.

The article tells us that

The recruitment process, which includes the creation of a shortlist and up to two rounds of interviews, is being run by the Top Level Appointments Committee (TLAC). Five of the committee’s nine members, including chairwoman Maureen Lynott, are from the private sector.

At this point, a public statement from the TLAC that they are running a process with the sole aim of appointing the best-qualified person to the job would be welcome. A re-think on the policy of not paying for travel expenses would also be welcome.

Draft Treaty

A draft of the proposed Treaty has been released. I think we should be very very slow to look to put this to a referendum, if such is required (and it probably is).  Many things may happen in the meantime that could derail this particular process.

In the meantime, our leaders should stop making up exciting scenarios involving Ireland leaving the euro if a treaty is rejected. That Stephen Collins vehemently disagrees with this only strengthens my conviction on this point.

Promissory Note Campaign: A Quiet Downgrading

From the Irish Times:

THE GOVERNMENT has quietly downgraded its campaign to persuade the European Central Bank to change the terms of the €30 billion of promissory notes it issued to bail out Anglo Irish Bank, according to an authoritative Government source.

The efforts by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to seek a reduction from the ECB in the 8.2 per cent interest rates being charged on the notes or extend the term of the loan has not really worked, said the source.

I suspect most of us can think of other euphemisms for “quiet downgrading”.

Monetary Dialogue Briefing Papers: December 2011

The latest collection of briefing papers for the European Parliament’s Monetary Dialogue with the ECB are available here (click on 19.12.2011). Five papers (including one by me) discusses issues related to ratings agencies, prompted by the recent package of regulations proposed by the European Commission.  Three other papers discuss the ongoing Euro crisis.

European Commission Report on Ireland: December 2011

The latest European Commission report on Ireland is available here. Lots of interesting stuff in it. One bit that caught my eye is a discussion of an internal report prepared by the Central Bank

A second report covering the use of certain types of credit limits, from a prudential point of view, is at an early stage of development. This would take under consideration policy tools including Mortgage Insurance Guarantees and Loan-to-Value (LTV) limits, as well as potentially fixing all interest rates for certain products such as mortgages.

It’s not obvious to me that banning variable rate mortgages is a good idea, either from the point of view of consumers or from the point of view of international financial institions considering coming into Ireland to offer mortgages. While fixed-rate mortgages do offer increased stability, the premium required is quite large so that financing costs would be higher on average (and house prices probably that bit lower as a result).

There are various reasons why fixed-rate mortgages are not common in Ireland or the UK (this 2004 report on the UK mortgage market by David Miles discusses this issue in detail). But banning variable rate mortgages seems to be an extreme proposal.

More Target 2 Fun: Bloomberg Edition

This could have been a useful contribution to the discussions about Target 2 if it was tweaked a bit.

For instance, the following slight re-wordings may have helped to inform rather than mislead:

Involuntary money acquisition is what happens when your spouse wins the lottery and gives you loads of money. At some point it dawns on you that you’re rich.

Or this

The bottom line: Germany’s Bundesbank—BuBa for short—has quietly, automatically received €495 billion to the European Central Bank via Target2.

Ok, no big deal. Financial journalists in getting things wrong shocker!

However, the piece does address a new aspect of the question that was not discussed in earlier discussions about the Target 2 balances. What happens if the Euro area breaks up?

Mr. Coy from Bloomberg is pretty sure it will be bad for Germany:

If the euro zone breaks into sorry little pieces, Germany could possibly lose its entire €495 billion claim. That’s more than $650 billion. It is 60 percent bigger than Germany’s annual federal budget.

But let’s take a closer look. Who is this “Germany”? Will the German residents who got their accounts credited as a result of the Target2-facilitated transfers out of Ireland now lose their money? No. There will be no losses to private citizens. Despite all this misleading stuff about “enforced lending”, German citizens will be very grateful that they managed to repatriate their money to German via Target2.

So who loses? Well, the Bundesbank has a Target2 credit from the ECB, an organisation that used to be considered sound and a good credit because they have the power to print money.

If the ECB ceases to exist and the Bundesbank wanted its balance sheet to still balance, it could simply replace the “Target2 credit” by writing itself a big check and sticking it in the vaults. Call it “Sondervermögen Ersetzen Vermögensverwaltung Früher als Target2 Kreditkarten Bekannte“ (“Special Fund Replacing Asset Formerly Known As Target2 Credit” – blame Google Translate!)  Just like that, the Bundesbank’s balance sheet is balanced again.

Now watch how many commenters will try to convince you that placing a piece of paper in an empty vault will unleash hyperinflation.

A Yes or No Referendum on Euro Membership?

I wrote this post last night for the IIEA blog. I concluded it by discussing what I view as the likely upcoming referendum

Quoting myself(!):

It will be very important that other Eurozone member states be careful when discussing the problems faced by countries such as Ireland, for whom ratification of a new treaty will be politically complex.

For all the temptation to present such an agreement as a “yes or no” moment on euro membership (a temptation last seen with Mrs. Merkel’s “ya oder nein” moment) the truth is that there is no clearly defined way to expel a country from the single currency. Beyond the potential of a bullying approach back-firing with the Irish public, a focus on a referendum as a decision about euro membership risks triggering a massive bank run as depositors take flight to avoid the redenomination that is being threatened.

Needless to say, what happens today? Our own Minister for Finance comes out with the following:

FINANCE Minister Michael said today that any referendum here on the new EU deal would essentially be a vote on the country’s continued membership of the eurozone.

“It really comes down on this occasion to a very simple issue, do you want to continue in the euro or not,” Mr Noonan said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

“Faced with that question, I think the Irish people will pass such a referendum.”

I think this is a very poor way for the government to approach this issue and I would hope they reconsider it.

The Irish public have a history of responding poorly to threats as a motivation for voting for EU treaties. And if Mr. Noonan is keen on triggering another disastrous bank run (this time also involving retail depositors) then he should keep talking this way and linking the probability of Ireland being in the euro with the latest polls on how likely the referendum is to pass.

The truth is that, whether people like it or not, the debate about this referendum will have many parallels with the Lisbon Treaty debate. It wasn’t true that voting no on Lisbon meant leaving the EU. But it was true that the rest of the EU could have decided to form some new agreement, something which would have required a complex legal and political process.

Similarly, there is simply is no expulsion route from the euro. If Ireland voted down the new intergovernmental treaty but the government wished us to stay in the euro, then there is nothing that could be done to eject Ireland from what is legally a fixed and irrevocable currency union.

It is possible for other countries to move on after an Irish No vote to set up their own currency union. However, this would require them to leave the euro, which would very likely involve them leaving the EU. Legally and economically, such an approach would be hugely difficult for the EU, certainly more difficult than going on to apply the Lisbon changes to some inner core EU.

So a “No” vote would likely leave the EU with a legal and political mess similar to that which occurred after the failure of the Lisbon vote in Ireland in 2008. From the point of view of the core EU countries, this is all very undesirable. They hardly want to admit that any country that doesn’t like the proposed treaty should go around asking for changes on an a la carte basis. If this were the case, then there probably would be no treaty at all (no bad thing, some might say).

But that’s where things stand and it wasn’t a situation schemed up by Irish politicians.

Government ministers should say there is simply no question of Ireland leaving the euro and that’s the end of it. Then they should enter treaty negotiations reminding everyone in Europe of the terrible nuisance that is their constitution and of the huge decline in the popularity of the EU in Ireland since Lisbon and Nice were voted down.

While I don’t necessarily want to endorse Fintan O’Toole’s language about causing trouble, the legal situation is what it is and the government need to make the most of a bad situation. (This issue was also discussed on Monday’s edition of The Frontline).

It’s time to argue for a better treaty and a better deal on the IBRC debt.

It’s not time to bully the public about signing up to whatever is put in front of them or face being booted out of the euro.

Another Day, Another Target 2 Story

Today’s FT Alphaville carries another story by Izabella Kaminska on why the Bundesbank’s Target credit and its low level of private securities owned, em, loans to German banks may be a source of problems.

Thankfully, the Bundesbank flogging off the family silver, em, gold, has disappeared from sight. This time, Izabella cites two potential problems. Taking them out of turn, there’s the argument of Perry Merhling on factors affecting the “collateral crunch” in the banking system:

A second source of demand for collateral is the discount lending by national central banks to their own private bank clients. And a third source is the Eurosystem lending between national central banks, which takes place more or less automatically through the operation of the TARGET2 payments system.

Except that the TARGET2 credits and liabilities don’t involve the use of any collateral, so this is not, in fact, a source of collateral crunch.

Izabella’s other mechanism for concern isn’t accurate either but does have a bit more plausibility about it. She notes about the process of deposits flowing to Germany that

every time the German Bundesbank attracts commercial liabilities (deposits) via this process, in an ideal world it would want to sterilise them to keep its bond market in check with ECB policy.

In order to do that, it would be inclined either to offer domestic assets into the market outright or unwind the number of bank loans it has extended against domestic collateral

In other words, Izabella reckons that to implement ECB policy on interest rates, the Bundesbank needs to control the money supply in Germany. If this was true, and the Bundesbank had no loans to German banks, then it couldn’t cut back on these loans as a way to control this supply of money and thus influence interest rates.

This is an interesting idea but it’s also pretty far from an accurate description of how European monetary policy works. A couple of points.

First, you’ll be very hard pressed to find a real-world central banker familiar with operational issues who believes that the short-term money market rates targeted by central banks depend in some predictable way on controlling some definition of the money supply. Here and here are two good papers that discuss this issue in detail. And here and here are my own teaching notes where I discuss these issues.

To summarise, the ECB influences money market rates in the Euro area via a “corridor system” determined by the interest rates on its range of instruments (deposit facility, marginal lending facility and refinancing operations) rather than via the quantity of money supplied.

Second, in an “ideal world” (i.e. a fully functioning monetary union) the supply of money in Germany should have no influence whatsoever on the rates at which German banks borrow from each other. A bank can borrow funds from any other bank in the Euro area or directly from the ECB. Even in the ideal world that preceded the crisis, the Bundesbank wasn’t attempting to hit some target for the German money supply, so there’s no loss of control for the Eurosystem relative to what prevailed before and no loss of control over price stability.

Now, of course, the absence of an ideal world means that all sorts of other complications are affecting European money markets. The super-low rates that Izabella notes here are likely related to factors such as fears about the end of the Eurozone and the drastic reduction in the amount of assets viewed as truly safe. They’re not due to the Bundesbank losing the ability (which it wasn’t using anyway) to control the German money supply.

VoxEU Piece on Target 2

I know we’ve devoted too much time to this already but, for the anoraks out there, here‘s a VoxEU piece that I’ve written responding to the earlier article by Tornell and Westermann.

One of the funny aspects of this debate is it tends to trigger comments from German residents that say something like “phooey to you and your technical details, you know that Sinn is right that we’re getting ripped off”.  Forget the facts, feel the truthiness.

Fiscal Rules: Stocks, Flows and All That

Today’s Euro summit document commits all members to a fiscal rule in which “the annual structural deficit does not exceed 0.5% of nominal GDP.” It also commits to “The specification of the debt criterion in terms of a numerical benchmark for debt reduction (1/20 rule) for Member States with a government debt in excess of 60%.”

I’m on the record as being in favour of numerical benchmarks for debt reduction. Indeed, I argued for a more stringent one than the one-twentieth rule that has been proposed by the Commission and has been adopted today.

However, I wonder whether those proposing the limit of 0.5% of nominal GDP on the structural deficit have thought about what this implies for debt ratios. I take this proposal to mean that the average deficit, going through the cycle, should not be more than 0.5% of GDP.

Now suppose a country consistently ran a deficit of exactly 0.5% of GDP. What would happen to its debt-GDP ratio?

Here’s a little note describing the dynamics of the debt-GDP ratio in a simple world with a constant deficit ratio, d, and a constant growth rate of nominal GDP, g. It shows that the debt to GDP ratio converges over time to (1+g)*d/g. (One could add random fluctuations in the growth rate or the deficit ratio and then the debt ratio would cycle around this long-run average value. Also, the timing assumption could be changed so that the current-period debt is determined by last period’s deficit, in which case the (1+g) would dissappear, but that wouldn’t make much difference to the calculation.)

Let’s assume a modest long-term growth outlook for the Euro area of 3 percent nominal GDP growth, i.e. 2 percent inflation and 1 percent growth in real GDP. In this case, the long-run implication of a 0.5 percent of GDP deficit ratio is a debt-GDP ratio of 1.03*0.005/0.03 = 0.172.

Since 0.5 percent of GDP is to be a maximum for the average deficit, this is a fiscal rule that would see long-run debt-GDP ratios below 17 percent of GDP in all Eurozone member states.

This is, of course, a long way from where we are now in most member states. Many countries currently have excessive debt ratios and there is a need to get debt and deficit ratios down over the medium term. It would take a very long time for countries like Ireland to end up with this very low debt ratio, so these limits may work fine as a medium term rule for high debt countries.

However, taken on its own merits, this rule doesn’t seem to make much sense as a long-run legally binding rule. As an alternative, an average deficit of 1.5 percent of GDP could combine with a nominal growth rate of 3 percent to produce a stable and manageable average debt-GDP ratio of 51.5 percent. This would seem like a more sensible benchmark.

Of course, if a government followed such a policy, normal cyclical fluctuations would likely take the economy above a 3 percent deficit fairly often without in any way jeopardising long-run fiscal stability. So the elevation of a three percent deficit limit to sacred cow status (“As soon as a Member State is recognised to be in breach of the 3% ceiling by the Commission, there will be automatic consequences unless a qualified majority of euro area Member States is opposed”) has little grounding in the actual economics of fiscal stability.

There is little doubt that Europe needs to act to reduce debt levels over the medium term and better institutional fiscal frameworks are required. However, these rules, however much they may appeal to the Swabian housewife instinct, are overly restrictive and have little connection to fiscal arithmetic. They are all the more likely to be flouted in future because of their poor design.