The ECB's Balance Sheet Explodes

Below is a chart by Scott Barber showing how the first LTRO has affected the ECB's balance sheet. As 'only' about € 200 billion of the € 490 billion in this LTRO were additional funds (the remainder were rollovers of a previous LTRO), the balance sheet didn't increase by the full amount allotted. Nevertheless, the rate of growth has visibly accelerated. For the year, the ECB's balance sheet has now grown by 36%. The growth over the last month alone was approximately 100% annualized.



The recent growth in the ECB's balance sheet already exceeds that seen during the 2008 crisis in absolute terms – click chart for better resolution. 



Since there has been scant growth in credit inflation initiated by commercial banks over the past 18 months, the sideways move in the ECB's balance sheet over that period coincided with the lowest rate of growth in the euro area's true money supply since the inception of the euro. Year-on-year growth of euro area TMS has recently slightly accelerated from 1.5% to 1.8%, which is the upper end of the range it has seen over the past year or so.

As we have frequently pointed out, it is precisely this slowdown in money supply growth that precipitated the crisis. Since the lagged effects of this slowdown have yet to fully play out, one should expect economic growth to continue to weaken significantly over the next several months, as more and more malinvested capital is liquidated.

However,  it should be noted here that the ECB's extraordinary monetary pumping measures after the 2008 crisis were followed shortly by a vast expansion in euro area TMS. Whether the money supply will grow to a similar extent as a result of the recently implemented measures remains to be seen, but  we can already say that if the commercial banks decide to play the sovereign debt carry trade, then it will most definitely happen –  in spite of a dearth of private sector credit demand.

As we have previously pointed out, there are in fact a number of good arguments that the commercial banks will indeed engage in such carry trades. The most important one is that the banks are anyway condemned to sink or swim with their sovereigns. Furhermore, the EBA (European Banking Authority) has let it be known that falling bond yields would lower the required capital increases demanded by the regulator. Lastly, many banks have  depended on their governments in order to get hold of suitable collateral in sufficient amounts to be able to participate in the LTRO – specifically Italy's banks have issued bonds that have been garnished with  government guarantees to meet the ECB's collateral eligibility standards. 

It would be rather strange if there were no quid pro quo agreements struck sub rosa in the course of all this wheeling and dealing. In fact, the success of Italy's large bill and bond auctions this week and Spain's auctions in the prior week argue strongly in favor of this contention.



Euro area money supply aggregates and ECB credit outstanding, via Michael Pollaro. In 2008 a big spike in ECB credit slightly led a big surge in money TMS growth (the light blue line above). The subsequent sharp decline in this rate of growth has predictably led to crisis conditions. It remains to be seen if the renewed expansion in ECB credit will have an effect similar to that seen in 2008/9, but it seems likely – click chart for better resolution.



Yesterday euro area banks deposited a record amount of excess reserves with the ECB, an event that was interpreted as a negative development by the financial press. It is held to indicate that euro area banks still do not trust each other and that therefore interbank lending markets remain frozen. This is certainly true, but we would note that one must take the year-end activities of commercial banks with a grain of salt, as balance sheets are in the process of being prettified for the year end deadline. Large cash asset holdings certainly contribute to making these balance sheets look stronger.

The effects of the ECB's recent monetary policy interventions can probably only be assessed once the new year begins and we get an update on how they actually affect money supply growth. Moreover, there is a heavily front-loaded bond auction calendar in the first quarter, for both sovereigns and banks. The success of these auctions and the direction yields will take early next year will certainly tell us a great deal more. So far we can definitely state that sovereign bond yields are coming down, if only grudgingly in some cases.

As Bloomberg reported on the ECB's balance sheet growth:

The European Central Bank’s balance sheet soared to a record 2.73 trillion euros ($3.55 trillion) after it lent financial institutions more money last week to keep credit flowing to the economy during the debt crisis.

Lending to euro-area banks jumped 214 billion euros to 879 billion euros in the week ended Dec. 23, the Frankfurt-based ECB said in a statement today. The balance sheet increased by 239 billion euros in the week and was 553 billion euros higher than three months ago.

The euro weakened and stocks fell, halting a five-day advance in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, as the announcement highlighted risks from Europe’s debt crisis.

“The market reaction is slightly incomprehensible,” said Jens Kramer, an economist NordLB in Hanover. “After that record liquidity injection it would follow that the balance sheet would swell. Seeing the figure in black and white, and the fear of what would happen to the ECB if a country defaulted, may have spooked the market.”

The ECB last week awarded 523 banks three-year loans totaling a record 489 billion euros to encourage lending to companies and households and prevent a credit shortage. Barclays Capital estimates the loans injected 193 billion euros of new money into the system, with 296 billion euros accounted for by maturing loans. So far, banks are parking the money back at the ECB. Overnight deposits at the central bank increased to an all- time high of 452 billion euros yesterday.”


(emphasis added)

Meanwhile, the euro FRA-OIS spread has continued to ease somewhat from its early December highs, indicating that interbank lending stress is slowly receding,  in spite of the record amounts of excess reserves finding their way back to the ECB.



The euro FRA – OIS spread (forward rate agreement to overnight index swap) has been easing a bit ever since the ECB announced its new liquidity measures. In today's trading it lost a further 2 basis points to 72.25. The recent trend is in the desired direction, but the absolute level remains of course quite elevated – click chart for better resolution.



Worries Over Bank Collateral Shortage Remain

However, as the WSJ reports, the worries about the collateral shortage at euro area banks which we first mentioned in these pages a few months ago still won't go away:


“Even after the European Central Bank doled out nearly half a trillion euros of loans to cash-strapped banks last week, fears about potential financial problems are still stalking the sector. One big reason: concerns about collateral.

The only way European banks can now convince anyone—institutional investors, fellow banks or the ECB—to lend them money is if they pledge high-quality assets as collateral.  Now some regulators and bankers are becoming nervous that some lenders' supplies of such assets, which include European government bonds and investment-grade non-government debt, are running low.

If banks exhaust their stockpiles of assets that are eligible to serve as collateral, they could encounter liquidity problems. That is what happened this past fall to Franco-Belgian lender Dexia SA, which ran out of money and required a government bailout.

"Over time it is certainly a risk," said Graham Neilson, chief investment strategist for Cairn Capital Ltd. in London. "If banks don't have assets good enough to pledge as collateral, they will not be able to tap as much liquidity…and this could be the end-game path for a weaker bank."

The ECB earlier this month moved to address the collateral shortages; Mario Draghi, the central bank's new president, announced it would accept a wider range of assets as collateral for ECB loans, which have become a primary source of funding for many European banks.  The looser rules, which will allow some corporate bonds to be used, kick in early next year, in time for banks to pledge the assets in exchange for three-year loans that the ECB will offer on Feb. 29.

Some bank executives, regulatory officials and other experts are optimistic that will largely solve the problem.  "The ECB is being much more generous. We think there's enough [collateral] to exceed European banks' funding needs for the next year," said Jacques Cailloux, chief European economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group.

In one sign that the ECB move has eased market strains, even if only modestly, Italian borrowing costs dropped sharply Wednesday as the country successfully auctioned more than €10 billion, or $13 billion, of short-term debt. Average yields on six-month bills were 3.251%, half that of an auction a month ago and even below those in October, although yields on 10-year benchmark bonds remained just below 7%.

Other market watchers, however, remain concerned. In addition to fears that the banks might simply run out of eligible collateral, some bankers and regulators worry that the banks' growing reliance on "secured lending" will make it harder for the industry to return to its past practice of funding itself by issuing unsecured bonds. That could result in a permanent funding scarcity.”


(emphasis added)

We believe that the decision to allow the banks to use 'other credit claims' such as loans to corporations as collateral with the national central banks in the euro system will actually alleviate these concerns early next year, once the details of what precisely will be eligible have been hashed out. As we have mentioned a few days ago, the pool of potentially eligible collateral may have been increased by up to € 3 trillion due to this particular decision. Below is a graph from the WSJ that explains the crux of the collateral problem:



The collateral problem in a nutshell: as more and more covered bonds are issued, fewer assets are left that unsecured creditors could access in the event of a bankruptcy. Thus access to unsecured credit becomes ever more difficult for the banks.



Below is a chart from the IMF that explains how the flow of collateral essentially works, i.e., who the typical providers and users of collateral and collateralized funding are, using the year 2010 as an example:



Suppliers and users of collateral in 2010. The decision of US money market funds to curtail unsecured funding of euro area banks in the commercial paper market was a decisive factor in the growing shortage of dollar funding in the euro area in the second half of this year and the associated widening of euro basis swaps – click image for better resolution.



We will soon find out whether the ECB's recent measures on expanding the pool of eligible collateral will indeed have the desired effect. It is clear that for weaker banks in the euro area the decision to allow the pledging of 'other credit claims' held on the balance sheets of commercial banks could be a life-saver. Unfortunately this also means that inefficient institutions won't be weeded out, but instead will continue to be a millstone around the economy's neck.


Italian Bond Auctions Successful, Greek Government Once Again Fails to Deliver

Bloomberg reports that Italy's latest bond auction was another success – but only sort of,  as it came at a price:

Italy auctioned 7.02 billion euros ($9 billion) of bonds, falling short of the target, as borrowing costs declined in its final debt sale of the year.

The Treasury in Rome sold 2.5 billion euros of securities due in 2014, less than the 3 billion euro maximum for the sale, to yield 5.62 percent, down from 7.89 percent at the previous sale on Nov. 29. The Treasury priced 2.5 billion euros of its 5 percent 2022 bond to yield 6.98 percent, compared with 7.56 percent on Nov. 29. Italy also sold about 2 billion euros of bonds due 2021 and a floating-rate security due 2018.

The sale, which aimed to raise 8.5 billion euros, came one day after Italy auctioned 9 billion euros in treasury bills for 3.251 percent. That was about half the rate from the previous auction on Nov. 25 after the European Central Bank last week offered euro-area banks unlimited funds for three years.

“This is not a bad result at all, particularly given that the yield on the three-year note fell markedly,” Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy in London, said by phone from London. Still, “market pressure is unlikely to abate” because while “the ECB’s new three-year liquidity measures have provided a fillip to Italy’s short-term debt market, they do little to address underlying concerns about creditworthiness.”

Italian 10-year bonds (.IT10) stayed lower after the auction. The 10-year yield climbed 12 basis points to 7.12 percent at 10:33 a.m. London time. Three-year yields pared declines, dropping 4 basis points to 5.83 percent. They earlier fell to 5.68 percent. The euro weakened to a decade low against the yen after the auction, while European shares were little changed and U.S. equity-index futures gained.

Prime Minister Mario Monti held a press conference that began noon in Rome. He may outline measures aimed at boosting growth, including moves to open up closed professions, ease labor regulations and lower fuel prices. The economy contracted 0.2 percent in the third quarter and probably also shrank in the three months through December, meaning Italy may have entered its fourth recession since 2001.”


(emphasis added)

The fact that 10 year yields returned to their perch above the 7% level after declining slightly below it yesterday remains very worrisome. This is the level that is widely regarded as the threshold beyond which a deadly spiral of ever higher yields and ever more unsustainable – because too expensive –  debt refinancing tends to begin. So clearly Italy is not yet out of the woods by any measure, although it is certainly a positive that the yield curve inversion observed in November has been reversed rather convincingly.

As to Mr. Monti, he better hurry up with pushing through reforms aimed at boosting growth. He will have to battle strong and well-entrenched vested interests and it remains to be seen whether he will be successful.

The Papademos 'technocrat' government in Greece meanwhile is already failing on every front. As German news magazine 'Der Spiegel' reports, the new government of Greece is 'running out of steam'.

Six weeks after forming a transitional government to overcome its crisis, Greece is still failing to deliver its promised reforms. The cabinet of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos is deeply divided and has lost the public's confidence. Even the most urgent measures have ground to a halt.

The president of Greece's SEV business federation, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, recently invited journalists to his imposing neoclassical headquarters in Athens. He straightened his tie, leaned forward and with a grim expression spoke into half a dozen microphones arrayed in front of him. "Now the issue is simply whether we remain in Europe or not. The governing parties have an obligation to work together honestly to finally banish the nightmare of a return to the drachma. If this government doesn't get it right, Greece will go hungry."

His dramatic appeal was ignored, once again. The Socialist PASOK party, the conservative-liberal New Democracy party and the far-right LAOS party formed a transitional government six weeks ago under non-partisan former central banker Lucas Papademos. They vowed to avert a looming state bankruptcy. But they remain as divided as ever.

Instead of getting down to business, they are absorbed in policy wrangling that seems absurdly trivial given the scale of the tasks they face. At a cabinet meeting last Thursday, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos and Transport Minister Makis Voridis of LAOS fell out over a draft law to accelerate amicable divorces. Marriage, Voridis argued, was "a central component of our value system" — therefore LAOS could not agree to the law. Papademos remained silent.

This isn't the first time the LAOS minister has blocked a decision. Recently he resisted the complete liberalization of the issue of taxi licenses, and publicly threatened to resign.”

That doesn't sound particularly encouraging. Not surprisingly, the markets continue to price in a hard default for Greece. It may well be that it simply can not be reformed quickly enough, considering the administrative shortcomings identified in a recent comprehensive OECD report.

Greece may well become the first country to leave the euro area – involuntarily as it were, as according to a recent survey, Greece's citizens definitely want to  keep the euro. A majority of over 80% is in favor of Greece remaining part of the euro area, in spite of the fact that an equally large majority is extremely concerned and pessimistic about Greece's economic outlook.

Still, it should be clear that Greek citizen do not want to go back from the euro to the perennially weak drachma – no-one in his right mind would want to do that.




Charts by: Scott Barber, IMF, Bloomberg, WSJ, Michael Pollaro




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7 Responses to “ECB Balance Sheet Grows Strongly, Bank Collateral Worries Remain”

  • anto:

    I have been thinking a lot about these 3yr LTROs along the same lines. It seems to me rodney is perfectly correct; there is hardly any difference between what is called “Quantitative Easing” and “LTRO.” The perception seems to be that the Fed truly “prints money” during QE operations, but somehow the ECB is not truly printing, because… well, because they said so.

    But the mechanics of the situation seem nearly identical. After the first phase of the crisis, the Fed went out and expanded it’s balance sheet (printed money) and bought MBSs, toxic assets, etc., to get them off the banks’ books. I seem to remember the idea was that someday when the housing market “recovers” (i.e, nominal housing prices rise back to dangerous bubble levels) that the banks would buy back the ex-toxic assets back for cheap, then could put them back on their books and finally, someday, mark-to-market.

    QE2 (as I understand it) involved the Fed expanding its balance sheet further (printing money) and targeting specific paper and interest rates and even properties to try to pull interest rates down. More and more low quality assets were transferred to the Fed’s balance sheet, while it attempted to inject liquidity into the economy at (presumably) strategic points.

    Now what has the ECB done? The LTRO (again, as I understand it):

    1) Offered extremely low interest (100bps, but could possibly be “renegotiated” at a later date) 3 year repurchase loans to the Euro banking system.
    2)Lowers the collateral requirements that can be pledged for the repo’s.
    3)Removes the “stigma” attached to desperately grabbing as much money as possible from your central bank. Hey, everyone’s doing it!
    4)Have announced a second round in I believe March(need to check on date)

    But what I keep wondering is: What happens in 3 years? Presumably, everyone is hoping that the financial system will have recovered, and the European and global economy will be humming along, and all the garbage collateral that the ECB has been guarding for the banks will now be worth something again, when they get flipped back to the banks.

    This sounds awfully similar to the plan during the first round of QE. And coming up on 3 years after QE1, it don’t seem like the US banks are particularly eager to buy back any toxic assets off the Fed’s balance sheet. So the balance sheet will remain swollen with unmarketable junk. Why should we believe that the Euro banks will be in a position in 3 years to have their balance sheets reinfected with whatever bottom-of-the-barrel collateral the ECB has been holding.

    So obviously, when the time comes for the banks to “repurchase” these assets, and the assets are still no longer marketable, the ECB will be forced to renegotiate, or extend the repo’s, or turn them into temporary 5 year repos, or something. The Euro banks, who will have been diligently buying up any sovereign debt that matures before the LTROs have to be paid back, will now have a whole slew of new collateral for the ECB to repo again! While the ECBs balance sheet will swell and swell with deranged financial debt instruments that will never, ever be unloaded.

    It seems to me that the zero interest “liquidity” trap so dreaded by the central bankers is a sort of central-planning lightspeed-barrier. If they could just get all interest rates to go below 0, imagine the possibilities! We could actually get the future to pay us to borrow money from them! So they print and they print, faster and faster, but the closer they get, the more massive they become, until at the event horizon it would take an infinite amount of money being printed at an infinitely increasing rate to cross the zero-bound.

    Is there something I am missing? Is there some subtlety to repo agreements I don’t understand, that actually makes the LTRO different from QE? Or are they just making up new acronyms for the same thing to throw us off?

    Apologies for the long post, I may have gotten carried away ;) Happy New Year everyone!

    • mc:

      You raise some good points. My take is this:
      in a repo, the borrowing bank still has the fundamental interest in the underlying collateral. As you mentioned, this means they would have to “plan” to take it back on the balance sheet or get the “temporary” (to infinity) treatment by the ECB extended. In traditional QE, the central bank purchases outright assets, but usually only government debt (the Fed has gone farther, of course). You can make some good money just front-running this trade, and the money printed has near infinite duration. The Fed has made no hint of a mention of when these QE measures will in the end be reversed, and thus no need for banks to worry about the MBS coming back on their balance sheets.
      And, though you you are right to see how lower and lower quality collateral is being foisted off on the ECB, you have to also take into account the fact that this worse collateral is *the best the banks have left*. All of the good collateral is long since pledged to commercial lending, and even this mediocre collateral is now out the door. What is left is a crazily leveraged, barely liquid entity sitting on a increasingly dubious pile of assets. Any creditor should be scared of defaults and the certainty that their recoveries would be tiny due to the remaining assets, but the implied bailout of the national governments is, IMHO, the only thing keeping most of these banks funding possible.

    • Anto, I agree (see also below) that the difference is likely to be largely semantic. In reality, such ‘temporary measures’ can not be taken back, as immediately the threat of deflationary collapse would return.
      See as an example what happened when the BoJ took back part of its QE operations and lowered Japanese base money by 25% in 2006. It topped out the US housing bubble (it had less effect on Japan than on the rest of the world, as Japan is a huge exporter of capital and was already 16 years into its post bubble denouement).
      In the euro area it is even more difficult to take such measures back, as the private sector finances itself largely via bank credit and not so much through the equity and bond markets.
      An inflationary system by its very construction is forced to continually inflate – until one day the breakdown comes.
      MC makes a very good point about bank collateral – the more the ECB holds, the less safe unsecured bank creditors become (including depositors, I might add). So it will be very difficult if not impossible to transition from ’emergency funding’ to normal unsecured funding from third parties.

  • The money was printed when the loans were made. This is a solvency issue. If it turns into a money inflation issue it will be the banks blowing more speculative bubbles and finding themselves more insolvent. These are mere liabilities changing hands. Austerity is coming to Europe and that hardly means more money for anyone.

  • rodney:

    Regarding market outcomes, if Euro area TMS were to expand remarkably, the Euro, Gold and Silver should start some kind of botttoming process.

    The euro’s reaction appears counterintuitive (it should fall if money is inflating at a faster rate), but the markets appear to regard money printing as a solution.

  • rodney:


    A fair question is whether or not the LTRO constitutes QE. You have argued that it’s not because it’s temporary, acknowledging that ‘temporary’ should be qualified (this injection of liquidity won’t be reversed soon).

    I believe we should just admit that this operation is nothing but QE. We all know the temporary thing is BS. The private sector is engaged in a long-term, secular, deleveraging trend; this trend won’t be finished in one or two years, and as long as it is in place, central banks have no option but to keep inflating or face dire consequences (obviously kicking the can down the road).

    Moreover, the Fed can also reverse it’s QE operations by selling some of the RMBS and Treasuries it has bought, so it could be argued that this is also temporary in nature. We know it’s not in practice, the Fed hardly ever allows the money supply to contract.

    Would the ECB act differently, ever allowing the money supply to fall? Hard to believe. QE is the verdict.

    • I agree – it is different only in name, but highly unlikely to be different in practice. I have frequently mentioned that I do not truly believe in the ‘temporary nature’ of these operations. An inflationary system must always inflate further – and so far this is exactly what has happened.

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