Is it one minute to midnight in Europe?
The failure of German public opinion to grasp the dire state of affairs in Europe today is inviting a repeat of precisely the crisis of the mid 20th century that European integration was designed to avoid.
With every increase in the probability of a disorderly Greek exit from the monetary union, the pressure on the Spanish banks increases and with it the danger of a Mediterranean-wide bank run so big that it would overwhelm the European Central Bank. Already there has been a substantial re-nationalization of the European financial system. This centrifugal process could easily continue to the point of complete disintegration.
We find it extraordinary that it should be Germany, of all countries, that is failing to learn from history. Fixated on the non-threat of inflation, today's Germans appear to attach more importance to the year 1923 (the year of hyperinflation) than to the year 1933 (the year democracy died). They would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent.
Astonishingly few Europeans (including bankers) seem to remember what happened in May 1931 when Creditanstalt, the biggest Austrian bank, had to be bailed out by a government that was itself on the brink of insolvency. The ensuing European bank crisis, which saw the failure of two of Germany's biggest banks, ushered in the second half of the Great Depression. If the first half had been dominated by the American stock market crash, the second was all about European banks going bust.
What happened next? The banking crisis was followed by President Hoover's one-year moratorium on payment of World War I war debts and reparations. Nearly all sovereign borrowers subsequently defaulted on all or part of their external debts, beginning with Germany. Unemployment in Europe reached an agonizing peak in 1932: In July of that year, 49 per cent of German trade union members were out of work.
The political consequences are well known. But the Nazis were only the worst of a large number of extremist movements to benefit politically from the crisis. "Anti-system" parties in Germany -- including Communists as well as fascists -- had won 13 percent of votes in 1928. By November 1932, they won nearly 60 percent. The far right also fared well in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Communists gained in Bulgaria, France and Greece.
The result was the death of democracy in much of Europe. While 24 European regimes had been democratic in 1920, the number was down to 11 in 1939. Even bankers know what happened that year.
Those of us who repeatedly warned in the 1990s that the experiment of monetary union would end badly would be gloating now -- if we were not so troubled by the prospect of history repeating itself.
What is the situation today? Europe's periphery is in depression. According to the IMF, gross domestic product will contract this year by 4.7 percent in Greece and 3.3 percent in Portugal. Unemployment is 24 percent in Spain, 22 percent in Greece and 15 percent in Portugal. Public debt already exceeds 100 percent of GDP in Greece, Ireland, Italy and Portugal. These countries, along with Spain, are now effectively shut out of the bond market.
Now comes the banking crisis. We have warned for more than three years that continental Europe needed to clean up its banks' woeful balance sheets. Next to nothing was done. In the meanwhile, a silent run on the banks of the euro zone periphery has been underway for two years now: cross-border, interbank and wholesale funding has rolled off and been substituted with ECB financing; and "smart money" -- large uninsured deposits of high net worth individuals -- has quietly exited Greek and other "Club Med" banks.
But now the public is finally losing faith and the silent run may spread to smaller insured deposits. Indeed, if Greece were to exit, a deposit freeze would occur and euro deposits would be converted into new drachmas: so a euro in a Greek bank really is not equivalent to a euro in a German bank. Greeks have withdrawn more than 700 million ($875 million) from their banks in the past month.
More worryingly, there was also a surge of withdrawals from some Spanish banks last month. On a recent visit to Barcelona, one of us was repeatedly asked if it was safe to leave money in a Spanish bank. This kind of process is potentially explosive. What today is a leisurely "bank jog" could easily become a sprint for the exits. Indeed, a full run on other PIIGS banks would be impossible to avoid in the event of a Greek exit. Rational people would ask: Who is next?
In the meantime, the credit crunch in the euro-zone banks on the periphery remains severe as banks -- unable to achieve the new 9 percent capital targets by raising private capital -- are selling assets and contracting credit, thus making the euro-zone recession more severe. Fragmentation and balkanization of banking in the euro zone, together with domestication of public debt, is now well underway.
The process of political fragmentation is also speeding up. In the last Greek elections, seven in 10 voters cast their ballots for smaller parties opposed to the austerity program imposed on Greece in return for two EU-led bailouts. Established parties are also losing out to splinter parties in Italy, where the comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement has just won control of the city of Parma, and in Germany, where a maverick party called the Pirates is all the rage. Less frivolous populists now have substantial support in France, the Netherlands and Norway. This trend is ominous.
Reducing Moral Hazard
The way out of this crisis seems clear.
First, there needs to be a program of direct recapitalization -- via preferred non-voting shares -- of euro-zone banks both in the periphery and the core by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and its successor the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The model should be the US's successful Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
The current approach of recapping the banks by the sovereigns borrowing from domestic bond markets -- and/or the EFSF -- has been a disaster in Ireland and Greece. It has led to a surge of public debt and made the sovereign even more insolvent while making banks more risky as an increasing amount of the debt is in their hands.
Direct capital injections would bypass the sovereign and avoid the surge in public debt. In practice, the euro-zone taxpayer would become a shareholder in euro-zone banks and the current balkanization of banking would be partially reversed. This might also help overcome the political resistance to cross-border mergers and acquisitions in coddled domestic banking systems.
Of course, over time, sound banks that restore capital through earnings would be able to buy back the public preferred shares. So this partial nationalization would be temporary.
Second, to avoid a run on euro-zone banks -- a certainty in the case of a "Grexit" and likely in any case -- a EU-wide system of deposit insurance needs to be created.
To reduce moral hazard (and the equity and credit risk undertaken by euro-zone taxpayers through the recap and the deposit insurance scheme), several additional measures should also be implemented:
- The deposit insurance scheme has to be funded by appropriate bank levies: This could be a financial transaction tax or, better, a levy on all bank liabilities -- both deposits and other debt claims.
- To limit the potential losses for euro-zone taxpayers, there needs to be a bank resolution scheme in which unsecured creditors of banks -- both junior and senior -- would take a hit before taxpayer money is used to cover bank losses.
- Measures to limit the size of banks to avoid the too-big-to-fail problem need to be undertaken. In the case of Bankia, the merger of seven smaller caixas merely created a bank that was too big to fail.
- We also favor an EU-wide system of supervision and regulation. If the euro-zone taxpayer backstops the capital and deposits of euro-zone banks, then supervision and regulation cannot remain at the national level, where political distortions lead to less than optimal oversight of banks.
True, European-wide deposit insurance will not work if there is a continued risk of a country leaving the euro zone. Guaranteeing deposits in euros would be very expensive as the exiting country would need to convert all euro claims into a new national currency, which would swiftly depreciate against the euro. On the other side, if the deposit insurance holds only if a country doesn't exit, it will be incapable of stopping a bank run. So more needs to be done to reduce the probability of euro zone exits.