Wednesday, May 25, 2011
The Hidden Cost of Saving the Euro - ECB's Balance Sheet Contains Massive Risks
While Europe is preoccupied with a possible restructuring of Greece's debt, huge risks lurk elsewhere -- in the balance sheet of the European Central Bank. The guardian of the single currency has taken on billions of euros worth of risky securities as collateral for loans to shore up the banks of struggling nations.
On the green fields near Carriglas, halfway between Dublin and Ireland's west coast, the wind whistles eerily around rows of half-finished houses. Most of these buildings are roofless, leaving their bare walls unprotected against the elements. Even the real estate brokers' for-sale signs and the project offices are gone. Hardly anyone in Carriglas believes that the houses will ever be finished.
There are many of these ghost towns in Ireland, including 77 in small County Longford alone, which includes Carriglas. They could end up costing German taxpayers a lot of money, as part of the bill to be paid to rescue the euro.
That bill contains many unknowns, but almost none of them is as nebulous as the giant risk lurking in the balance sheet of the European Central Bank (ECB), in Frankfurt. Many bad loans have now ended up on that balance sheet, including ones that were used to build houses like those in Carriglas and elsewhere. No one knows how much they are worth today -- and apparently no one really wants to know.
Since the beginning of the financial crisis, banks in countries like Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece have unloaded risks amounting to several hundred billion euros with central banks. The central banks have distributed large sums to their countries' financial institutions to prevent them from collapsing. They have accepted securities as collateral, many of which are -- to put it mildly -- not particularly valuable.
Risks Transferred to ECB
These risks are now on the ECB's books because the central banks of the euro countries are not autonomous but, rather, part of the ECB system. When banks in Ireland go bankrupt and their securities aren't worth enough, the euro countries must collectively account for the loss. Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, provides 27 percent of the ECB's capital, which means that it would have to pay for more than a quarter of all losses.
For 2010 and the two ensuing years, the Bundesbank has already decided to establish reserves for a total of €4.9 billion ($7 billion) to cover possible risks. The failure of a country like Greece, which would almost inevitably lead to the bankruptcy of a few Greek banks, would increase the bill dramatically, because the ECB is believed to have purchased Greek government bonds for €47 billion. Besides, by the end of April, the ECB had spent about €90 billion on refinancing Greek banks.
Former Bundesbank President Axel Weber criticized the ECB's program of purchasing government bonds issued by ailing euro member states. In the event of a bankruptcy or even a deferred payment, the ECB would be directly affected.
But even greater risks lurk in the accounts of commercial banks. The ECB accepted so-called asset-backed securities (ABS) as collateral. At the beginning of the year, these securities amounted to €480 billion. It was precisely such asset-backed securities that once triggered the real estate crisis in the United States. Now they are weighing on the mood and the balance sheet at the ECB.
No expert can say how the ECB can jettison these securities without dealing a fatal blow to the European banking system. The ECB is in a no-win situation now that it has become an enormous bad bank or, in other words, a dumping ground for bad loans, including ones from Ireland.
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