The ECB as lender of last resort….or on the short memory of central bankers

ECB President Draghi speaks to France's Central Bank Governor Noyer and ECB Member of Executive Board Praet in Barcelona

Peter Praet, member of the Executive Board of the ECB, gave an interesting speech on the ECB’s lender of last resort (LOLR) activities in crisis on February 10, 2016.

The ECB, he argued, had a two-folded approach: a ‘monetary approach’ LOLR and a ‘credit approach’ LOLR.

The ‘monetary’ LOLR, following the classic advice from Walter Bagehot, lent European banks base money (reserves) if these banks had acceptable collateral. The purpose:

to create new reserves, on demand, for cash-stripped banks with viable business models, and thus to help these banks go through an emergency liability substitution operation without being forced to make large- scale fire sales of assets that would lead to insolvency

This approach, he suggests, was used in the first phase of the crisis, immediately after Lehman, when banks became reluctant to lend to each other, and in the second phase, the European sovereign debt crisis. In his account, the ECB bears no responsibility for either, the crisis being rather a combination of the confidence fairy and the sovereign-bank loop, somehow only ‘diabolical’ in Europe:

The second phase of the crisis came as a consequence of a much more targeted and disruptive loss of confidence: the sovereign debt crisis. This was special to Europe; it brought on the development of redenomination risk and thereby threatened the integrity of our currency. Banks’ exposures to selected governments came under intense market scrutiny and entire national banking systems lost access to wholesale funding.

The ‘credit’ approach involved the provision of emergency liquidity assistance – the now famous ELA. In contrast to the ‘monetary’ LOLR, this involves a more discretionary approach, whereby national central banks assume the responsibility, and the potential costs, for supporting banks without eligible collateral.

Imagine that Praet decides to read his own research before writing this speech. He chooses a 2008 paper he wrote with Valerie Herzberg, entitled ‘Market liquidity and banking liquidity’, while both were at Bank of Belgium. Here is a copy-paste of their arguments:

  1. Interbank funding is itself becoming increasingly dependent on market liquidity as a growing proportion of interbank transactions is carried out through repurchase agreements.
  2. This increasing reliance on secured operations means that (European) banks are mobilising a growing fraction of their securities portfolio as collateral.
  3. Banks are increasingly mobilising their traditional government and corporate bond portfolios to finance less liquid, but higher yielding forms of assets that again can be reused as collateral.
  4. In periods of stress, margin and collateral requirements may increase if counterparties have retained the right to increase haircuts or if margins have fallen below certain thresholds.
  5. Asset liquidity may no longer depend on the characteristics of the asset itself, but rather on whether vulnerable counterparts have substantial positions that need liquidating.

This, we argue with Cornel Ban in our paper ‘Banking on bonds’, is the untold story of the European sovereign debt crisis. Not a story of a confidence fairies and redenominations risks, but of rapidly growing European repo markets before the crisis (1 above), of European banks mobilizing their portfolios of European government debt as collateral (2 and 3), of runs on collateral markets, including the government bond markets of the European periphery (4), that reflected more the funding pressures of large banks involved in US shadow banking than the fiscal probity of sovereigns (5). The European sovereign debt crisis was a story of fragile collateral in market-based banking, rather than the convenient eruption of redenomination risk.

More importantly, we argue, the ECB increased stress in collateral markets exactly as Praet predicted in point 4: in its lender of last resort operations, the ECB increased margin and collateral requirements, made margin calls, and in general worsened funding conditions at critical junctures in the crisis, both for European banks and European sovereigns.

Thus, we show that the ECB has played a critical role in trying to energize the integration of national repo markets in the Eurozone in the early 2000s. It decided to treat all Eurozone governments as equal collateral for its collateral framework – the terms on which it lends, via repo operations, against collateral. With this, it hoped private repo markets would follow suit, and accelerate integration of European financial markets. Anticipating objections that this effectively encouraged fiscal indiscipline in Europe (objections so loudly formulated by 2005 by Willem Buiter that Trichet was forced to defend the ECB’s collateral decisions in the European Parliament), the ECB adopted the risk practices of repo market participants: daily mark-to-market, margin calls and haircuts.

In doing so, the ECB could argue that its collateral policies had no substantive impact on government bond markets for two reasons. First, banks had little incentive to use government bonds to borrow from the central bank, since its repos carried higher haircuts than private repo transactions (where haircuts were zero for government debt) and ECB-held collateral could not be re-used in the repo market. Second, the ECB stressed that its collateral policie accommodated market views of credit quality. If markets distrusted Germany, its bonds would fall in market value. Like any repo market participant, the ECB would mark German collateral to market and make margin calls. Rather than disrupt, the ECB argued that its collateral policies reinforced private market discipline.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.26.17

By trying to strike a delicate balance between its financial integration priorities and its independence, the ECB made a radical departure from how central banks in EMU countries had previously managed lending operations, including lender of last resort. These central banks rarely marked to market and never made margin calls when lending to banks (except the Dutch central bank), and few used initial haircuts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.00.12

By 2012, the ECB recognized that market collateral practices matter, but refused to include its own practices in that analysis. Vitor Constâncio noted that ‘the decline in collateral values translates in additional collateral calls possibly compounded with higher haircuts and margins requirements. A system in which financial institutions rely substantially on secured lending tends to be more pro-cyclical than otherwise’. He could have added: ‘ a system in which the central bank relies substantially on secured lending tends to be more pro-cyclical than otherwise’. The graph below is illustrative – it shows that the ECB was making increasingly large margin calls throughout 2012, and those calls only diminished once it announced OMT.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.01.05

Short memory vs. politics and accountability? Had Praet followed through with his 2008 analysis, he would have had to make the ECB an active actor in the crisis. The dominant narrative that he reproduces in his 2016 speech –  that it miraculously came to the rescue of inept governments in the periphery – does not hold under scrutiny of his 2008 predictions. The European public – including governments – would have good reason to hold ECB accountable for its disruptive role in the European crisis.


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