Please, click here to read this article in pdf format:Â March 25 2012
During the past week, we think, we witnessed some interesting developments. In our previous letter, we had discussed what was the KreditAnstalt event of 1931. We saw a striking similarity with the current status quo because just like then, we now have sovereigns at the brink of default, whose creditors are other public institutions or countries, rather than private investors.
But there is more to itâ€¦
During the past week, we had Fedâ€™s Chairman Ben Bernanke answering questions at the US Congress. It was there that Rep. Dan Burton (Indiana, 5th District) took Mr. Bernanke to task on the issue of the currency swaps the Fed has extended to the European Central Bank. On Thursday, we learned that the amount outstanding, which had reduced to $67BN, has remained there and increased a little bit. All this, in the face of a 7 Â½ -month record low in US dollar funding costs for EU banks, given the 3-month cross currency swap basis reached 53bps below Euribor, on that same Thursday. The fact that the Fed currency swap lines are still in demand while the cost of US dollar funding keeps falling tells us that the EU financial system is segmented, with those who can access the market and those who cannot. But it also tells us that there is, paradoxically, an oversupply of US dollars, as we explain below.
R. Dan Burton then asked Mr. Bernanke how would the Fed recover the US dollars it loaned, should the Eurozone break. We made this point at â€œA View from the Trenchesâ€, many, indeed many times before. You may see our latestÂ letter on this issue at:Â http://sibileau.com/martin/2012/01/23/. Of course, Mr. Bernanke categorically played down the likelihood of such a scenario. He first lied to everyone saying that the debtor, the European Central Bank, does not finance governments. It was an insulting lie because not only does the ECB finance them indirectly via LTROs, but also explicitly and directly, through its Securities Market Programme, where more than EUR200BN are booked. Mr. Bernanke could not have and does not ignore this fact. Here is the link to the discussion:Â http://youtu.be/HzejoDbVXXs
On the other hand, we know that exactly this scenario, where the US had to bailout Europe, has already taken place in similar conditions. Back in 1931, when Austria defaulted leaving the gold standard, there was a generalized bank run (which the LTRO of last December prevented) and the United States had to establish a moratorium on the loans it had outstanding to Germany and to others. It was precisely this decision, that later pushed the United States to abandon the gold standard too, in 1932. Obviously, Americans understood that the amount of gold at the Fed, backing those claims now in moratorium, was not enough and they run against their banks as well. We found the video that shows President Hoover announcing the moratorium. It would have been so nice to have it handy to show to Mr. Bernanke beforeÂ Congress:Â http://youtu.be/MFdTISc1KG0
Last week too, it was painful for those of us who still hold on to gold. Gold made interim lower lows at $1,628/oz on Thursday and bounced back to $1,665/oz on Friday afternoon. Is it still trading within range or is it consolidating to retake its bullish trend. We have our doubts, but the long term fundamentals support it. Letâ€™s seeâ€¦
One of the things that really caught our curiosity was to see the Euro appreciate since March 14th, with the simultaneous deterioration in sovereign credit risk. Since then, the sovereign spreads of Portugal, Spain, Italy and even Germany have been increasing. Should we not be looking at a weaker Euro in light of this? Why would we see the Euro flirting with a $1.33 level?
That should be the case, if the US dollar had been the main funding currency. But we think the game may have changed. Since the LTROs (liquidity lines) from the ECB are in place, and weâ€™re talking about more than trillion Euros, it could well be that the Euro is now the main funding currency within the Eurozone. That would explain a lot of the things we saw.
Indeed, if sovereign debt placed as collateral with the European Central Bank widens, margin is called and banks need to sell first Euro-denominated assets or assets denominated in other currencies, to later buy Euros. This hypothesis would explain why the Euro appreciates as EU stocks fall, commodities fall, US stocks have a hard time appreciating and the cost of USD liquidity falls. In fact, it could also explain why we saw (last week) gold depreciate at the open of the European trading session and appreciate later in the day, as the North American markets open.
There are however unexpected, unintended and negative consequences here, as a result of this fundamental change, namely the implementation of collateralized liquidity lines by the European Central Bank. We drew a graph below to visualize this horrible circularity: As the sovereign risk of EU members deteriorates, margin is called by the ECB, assets need to be sold, Euros have to be bought, the Euro appreciates making the EU members less competitive globally (particularly the peripheral countries) and crowding the private sector out of the Euro funding market. With a more expensive Euro, Germany is less able to export to sustain the rest of the Union and growth prospects wane. At the same time, the private sector of the EU looks for cheaper funding in the US dollar zone, which will eventually force the Fed to not be able to exit its loose monetary stance. This is the scenario that R. Dan Burton was proposing to Mr. Bernanke. Again, if this logic is correct, that scenario is not a tail risk, but the base risk.
How do we escape this circularity? With the ECB embarking in plain, good old Quantitative Easing. The collateralization of liquidity lines forces the EU to work within a context similar to that of the gold standard, where liquidity has to be backed by a commodity!Â In fact, if on the margin the supply of liquidity will only grow from collateralization, the EU would be better off under the gold standard, because gold at least, does not entail any credit risk!!!!Lowering interest rates, weakening collateral rules or extending maturities will not solve this problem.
If the ECB does not embark in Quantitative Easing, the Fed will bear the burden, because the worse the private sector of the EU performs, the more dependent it will become of US dollar funding and the moreÂ coupledÂ the United States will be to the EU. These reasons make us feel comfortable holding gold.
We run out of time here, and we wished we had had the opportunity to discuss the fragile situation in two relevant countries: India and Canada. We will in our next letter.
Mr. Sibileau currently works as Director for the Loan Portfolio Management team of a Toronto-headquartered financial institution. In his free time, he regularly writes on global macroeconomic developments at www.sibileau.com.
Since 1997, he has held various positions in the areas of corporate finance, strategy consulting, international banking, commercial banking and risk management.