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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let The East Into The Eurozone Now!

“It’s 20 years after Europe was united in 1989 – what a tragedy if you allow Europe to split again.”
Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, in an interview with the Financial Times

(Click On Image To View Video)

World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, made a call this week - in an interview with the Financial Times - for a European Union-led and co-ordinated global support programme for the economies of Central and Eastern Europe. I agree wholeheartedly, and even if I have, reluctantly, to accept the point made last week by our Economy & Finance Commissioner Joaquin Almunia that our pockets, though deep, are certainly not bottomless (and thus it is probably beyond our means right now to rescue the non-EU Eastern states), I still feel we should make good on our responsibilities to those who are EU members, and to do so by opening the doors of the Eurozone to those who wish to join. Since this proposal is fairly radical, the justification that follows will be lengthy.

This is not a view I have arrived at lightly, but looking at the extent of the problem we now have before us, a problem which is growing by the day, and taking into account the fact that the origins of the economic crisis in the East must surely rest (at least in part) in the decision to make euro participation a condition for EU membership for these countries (a possibility which was subsequently withdrawn in the critical moment, when the going started to turn rough), and then assessing the risk to the Western European banking system which would be posed by simply sitting back and watching it all happen, I think this move is not only the least damaging of the policies we can now follow, it is the in effect the only viable path left to us if we are to keep the eurozone as an integral entity together.

If this proposal were accepted a new set of membership criteria would need to be drawn up, of course, but the underlying principle would have to be one of offering the certainty of entry as guaranteed forthwith, for those who chose to accept. Rules were made to be broken, and nothing should be so inflexible - not even the Maastricht eurozone membership criteria - that it cannot be ammended as circumstances dictate. And at this point even the undertaking that this - like the long awaited US Stimulus programme - was on the table, would be sufficient to provide immediate, and much needed relief. Flirting with doing nothing here is, in my opinion, flirting with disaster, both in the East and in the West.

Existing Maastricht Criteria

Convergence criteria (also known as the Maastricht criteria) are the criteria for European Union member states to enter the third stage of European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and adopt the euro. The four main criteria are based on Article 121(1) of the European Community Treaty. Those member countries who are to adopt the euro need to meet certain criteria.

1. Inflation rate: No more than 1.5 percentage points higher than the three lowest inflation member states of the EU.

2. Government finance:

Annual government deficit: The ratio of the annual government deficit to gross domestic product (GDP) must not exceed 3% at the end of the preceding fiscal year. If not, it is at least required to reach a level close to 3%. Only exceptional and temporary excesses would be granted for exceptional cases.

Government debt: The ratio of gross government debt to GDP must not exceed 60% at the end of the preceding fiscal year. Even if the target cannot be achieved due to the specific conditions, the ratio must have sufficiently diminished and must be approaching the reference value at a satisfactory pace.

3. Exchange rate: Applicant countries should have joined the exchange-rate mechanism (ERM II) under the European Monetary System (EMS) for 2 consecutive years and should not have devaluated its currency during the period.

4. Long-term interest rates: The nominal long-term interest rate must not be more than two percentage points higher than in the three lowest inflation member states.

The Dimensions Of The Problem

European governments, the European Union and international financial organizations need to act fast on risks stemming form banks’ exposure in the eastern part of the continent to avert an escalation of the credit crisis, Nomura Holdings Inc. said. East European countries are struggling to refinance foreign- currency loans taken out by borrowers during years of prosperity through 2007, when economic growth averaged at more than 5 percent. The International Monetary Fund, which has bailed out Latvia, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus, warned on Jan. 28 that bank losses may widen as “shocks are transmitted between mature and emerging market banking systems.” “Swift action is needed to restore confidence and prevent trouble” to financial and economic stability in the euro region and emerging Europe, said Peter Attard Montalto, an emerging markets economist at Nomura International in London. “Any move should be quick. The situation has begun to decline more rapidly since the end of last year and there is risk that any action may come too late.”

Robert Zoellick is far from being a lone voice in the wilderness about the current level of risk to the coutries in the East, and indeed precisely those EU banks who have been most active in emerging Europe are now busily trying to convince EU regulators, the European Central Bank and Brussels itself to coordinate new measures to counter the impact of the financial crisis confronting the region. The problem in the East certainly now adds a new dimesion to the problems facing us here in Europe, since West European governments are now being simultaneously hit on a number of fronts, and the situation is become more complicated by the day.

In the first place most West European economies are now either in or near recession, and their domestic banking systems are, to either a greater or a lesser extent, struggling. The West European states are thus, by and large, already feeling stress on their own sovereign borrowing capacities. But, with greater or lesser effectiveness, these countries are still able to increase their debt, even if sometimes the surge in borrowing is very dramatic, as in the case of Ireland, which will see gross debt/GDP shooting up from 24.8% in 2007 to a projected 68.2% in 2010 (EU January 2009 Forecast).

The situation in Eastern Europe is very different, and their economies and credit ratings evidently can't support such dramatic increases in their debt levels. Thus, in the case of those countries with a significant home banking presence, like Latvia's Parex, or Hungary's OTP, the support of external organisations (the IMF, the World Bank, the EU) becomes rapidly necessary when the bank concerned starts to have liquidity problems. But as a result of the consequent bailout the debt to GDP ratio starts to rise in a way which then places even subsequent eurozone membership in jeopardy. Latvia's Debt/GDP is, for example set to rise from around 12% of GDP in 2007 to over 55% in 2010. With a 10% plus GDP contraction already in the works for 2009, it is clear that Latvia's debt to GDP will rise beyond the critical 60% level. Hungary's debt/GDP is already above, and rising. If we don't do something soon, these two countries at least are being launched off towards sovereign default.

But the other half of this particular and peculiar coin turns up again in a rather unexpected way, and that is in the form of those West European banks who have subsidiaries in CEE countries, and who find now themselves faced, not with bailouts, but with ever rising default rates. This difficulty evidently and inevitably then works its way back upstream to the parent bank, and to the home state national debt, as the bank almost inevitably needs to seek support from one West European government, or another (in fact Unicredit, which has difficulty getting money from an already cash-strapped Italian government is talking of applying for support from the Austrian government via its Austrian subsidiary).

Austria is, in fact, a very good case in point here, since, as Finance Minister Josef Proell recently indicated, the country had some 230 billion euros of debt outstanding in Eastern Europe, equivalent to around 70 percent of Austria's GDP. The Austrian daily "Der Standard" have also reported the analysts view that a failure rate of 10 percent in Eastern Europe's debt repayments could lead to serious difficulties for Austria's financial sector. And this is no hypothetical "what if" type problem since the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has estimated Eastern Europe's bad debts could go over 10 percent and could even reach 20 percent in the course of the current crisis. Underlining the mounting concern in Austria, Proell tried last week to convince EU finance ministers to provide 150 billion euros is support to CEE economies as a first step in trying to contain the growing wave of defaults.

The total quantity of debt outstanding is hard to put a precise number on, but the Bank for International Settlements estimated that, as of last September, more than $1.25 trillion had been leant by eurozone banks, and if you add in U.K., Swedish and Swiss bank liabilities the number rises to $1.45 trillion.

Western Europeean banks have a very important market share in the East, ranging from a low of 65 percent in Poland to almost 100 percent in the Czech Republic. This basically means two things, that the region's businesses and consumers are extraordinarily dependent on uninterrupted capital inflows from the West, and that some West European banking systems are extremely sensitive to rising default rates in the East. Of course the problem goes beyond the EU's borders, and while EU bank market shares in the Community of Independent States is rather less significant than in the EU12, due to the still substantial domestic ownership which exists there, exposure to defaults is not unimportant, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and, of course, in Russia itself. Further, there is South East Europe to think about, and countries like Serbia and Croatia.

Large Banks Take The Initiative

Getting near to desperation, some of the largest banks involved - Italy's UniCredit and Banca Intesa, Austria's Raiffeisen International and Erste Group Bank, France's Societe Generale and Belgium's KBC - have launched a common initiative to try to lobby for an EU wide solution to the problem.

UniCredit is the largest lender in Poland and Bulgaria, while Erste is number one in Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with KBC occupying the position in Hungary, Intesa in Serbia, and Raiffeisen in Russia and Ukraine. Hungary's OTP Bank, emerging Europe's number 5 lender and the largest one in its home country, does not formally belong to the group. On the other hand OTP is actively looking for support.

OTP Bank Nyrt., Hungary’s biggest bank, said it’s in talks over a “role” for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as it announced a 97 percent drop in fourth-quarter profit and “substantial” job cuts. As well as a possible EBRD involvement, OTP may also seek funds from Hungary’s emergency loan package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank to “better serve the economy,” Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sandor Csanyi said at a press conference in Budapest today. “There’s a chance the EBRD will assume a role in OTP, but I must stress that we plan no issue of new shares,” he said. OTP “doesn’t need to be saved,” Csanyi added.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, while expressing support for the bank initiative, has stopped short of offering concrete assistance or suggesting measures beyond those which are already in place.

The president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Thomas Mirow, wrote in the Financial Times this week the bank proposals "deserve full support as a worsening crisis in emerging Europe will threaten Europe as a whole".

The Austrian government has already announced it is trying to raise support for a general European Union initiative to rescue the region’s banking system. The government has set aside 100 billion euros in cash and guarantees to stabilise its banking sector. Next in line in terms of exposure are Italy ($232 billion), Germany ($230 billion) and France ($175 billion).

Unicredit is publicly rather dismissive of the problem (as can be seen from the slide below which from a presentation they gave earlier this week, please click on image to see better), but Italian investors are far from convinced by their arguments, as witnessed by the fact that their stock has plunged 41 percent this year, and by the fact that they were forced to sell 2.98 billion euros in 50 year bonds this week to shore up their Tier I capital after investors only bought about 4.6 million shares, or 0.48 percent, from their most recent rights offer. UniCredit, which said last month it is considering asking for government assistance, has also been disposing of assets to raise money and it plans to pay shareholders their dividends in yet more shares. Nationalisation of banks to supply credit lines to the private sector is one hypothesis currently being studied by Silvio Berlusconi, according to a Financial Times report this morning.

(Click on image for better viewing)
The Austrian proposal includes funds from the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank and the EU Cohesion Fund. The Austrian government has offered money of its own and has been urging Germany, France, Italy and Belgium as well as the EU itself to contribute. One feature, however, stands out in all of the proposals which have so far been advanced: they are loan based-support. What Soros calls the "tricky question" of fiscal allocation from Europe's richer member states has not so far been raised, but it will be, since it will have to be.

And of course, Austria's concern is far from being altruistic, as Austria's economy and sovereign debt stability depend on finding a solution. It is hardly surprising to learn that credit-default swaps linked to Austrian government debt soared this week - by 39 basis points to a record 225 - on concern the country will need to bail out the domestic banks itself as they report losses and writedowns linked to eastern European investments. Erste, which said last week that full-year profit probably slumped by almost 26 percent, is in talks with the government to get 2.7 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in state aid. RZB has asked for 1.75 billion euros.

The European Central Bank on the other hand, seems reluctant to extend emergency financial help to crisis-hit countries beyond the 16-country eurozone. The ECB did not have “a mandate to be a regional United Nations agency”, Yves Mersch, governor of Luxembourg’s central bank, recently told the Financial Times. Such comments reveal the level of resistance which exists within the ECB’s 22-strong governing council to the idea of offering financial support to countries outside the zone.

The ECB has so far offered loans to Hungary and Poland, but has attached what some consider to be excessively strong conditions on facilities allowing them to borrow up to 5billion and 10billion euros respectively. Mr Mersch, whose views are thought to be widely shared in the ECB, suggested the central bank was worried about setting precedents if it relaxed its stance on helping individual countries. While some euromembers might favour assisting nearby nations, “we must not forget that other people might be sensitive to different countries”.

Who Bails Out The West European Banks In The East?

Governments and EU officials are struggling to formulate a coherent response to the economic and financial turmoil that has started to engulf the eastern part of the old continent. EurActiv presents a round-up of national situations with contributions from its network. Leaders of EU countries from central and eastern Europe will meet on 1 March ahead of an extraordinary summit on the same day with the bloc's other members, it emerged on Thursday (19 January). Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has invited his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for the talks to ensure the 27-nation meeting on the financial crisis is not dominated by the interests of Western member states. See full Euractiv article on background.

The EU has so far provided emergency balance-of-payments assistance to two of the East European member states in difficulty - Hungary and Latvia, and EU ministers did agree in December to more than double the funding available for such emergency lending to 25 billion euros ( so far Hungary has been allocated 6.5 billion and Latvia 3.1 billion). It is also quite probable that such lending will now have to be extended to the two newest southeast European members, Romania and Bulgaria, since their ballooning current account deficits and dramatic credit crunches mean that they are steadily getting into more and more difficulty.

The core of the problem is that the East European economies enjoyed strong credit driven booms, which fuelled higher than desireable inflation and lead to strong foreign exchange loan borrowing which simply bloated current account deficits. Now capital flows into emerging Europe have dried up as the global financial crisis has raised investors' risk aversion and prompted them to dump emerging market assets, leaving foreign-owned banks as the only source of loans for companies and consumers.

Italy's UniCredit, the biggest lender in emerging Europe, warned at the end of January that there was a clear risk of the global credit crunch gripping the region. UniCredit board member Erich Hampel stated at a Euromoney conference in Vienna that the bank was committed to fund its subsidiaries in the CEE countries and would continue to lend, but at the same time made absolutely clear that in order to do this his bank would need government support, whether from Austria, or Poland, or Italy itself.

Hampel said Bank Austria would decide during the first quarter whether to tap the Austrian government's banking stability package for fresh equity. " he said. "Our budget is under discussion now and clearly assumes growth in lending and in funding to the East. "

And according to a report from the Austrian central bank the fact that a relatively small number of Western European groups - including three Austrian ones - own most of the banks in Central and Eastern Europe means that there is the risk of a "domino effect", implying the crisis would spread quickly from one country to another. "How capital flows into (emerging Europe) will develop depends on the financial strength of the parent groups and of the sister banks, and on whether the parents are willing and able to fund their subsidiaries," the bank's half-yearly Financial Stability Report said. "The risks to refinancing are increased by the danger of a domino effect, because a large part of the foreign capital in many countries comes from a relatively small number of Western European banks," .

"What we see is that the emerging European economies have lost all sources of funding but banking," said Deborah Revoltella, chief economist for central and eastern Europe of UniCredit, the region's biggest lender. The task to carry whole economies through a downturn comes at a time when parent banks already face a double challenge: a likely sharp rise in loan defaults at their eastern subsidiaries and more difficult and expensive refinancing for themselves. "The international banks cannot solve this situation," Revoltella said. "They can do their part, and it's fundamental that they do their part but we have to take care of the other sources of funding which are missing now."
And it isn't only Austria who is worried, since Greek central bank governor George Provopoulos warned Greek banks only last Tuesday against transferring funds from the country's bank package to the Balkans, where they have invested heavily.

Regional Risks

In our view GDP growth is like to be negative in all CEE countries this year. In those countries “least” affected by the crisis (i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia) GDP is like to drop at least 2-5%, while those countries worst affected (i.e. the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine) are likely to face double digit declines in GDP. In other words, in terms of expected output lost in the region this is as bad as or even worse than the Asian crisis of 1997-98.
Danskebank - CEE: This Looks Like Meltdown

The problem that the EU has in adressing the situation in the Eastern member states is that what we have on our hands is not only a banking crisis, there is also a strong credit crunch at work, one which is now having a severe impact on the real economies in the region. Most of the economies in the region are already in recession, and those that are not soon will be (I have intersperced a number of relevant graphs throughout this post which should give some general impression of what is happening). Thus these countries are all taking multiple hits at one and the same time.

1/ In the first place they have an economic contraction on their hands, in some cases becuase they are struggling with a steep decline of export demand from western Europe, in others because their externally financed credit boom has now come to a sharp and painful end.

2/. Most countries in the region have some form of foreign currency exposure, although at present this is largely household and corporate rather than sovereign. In a number of countries -notably Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltics this is particularly onerous since most of the mortgages were taken out in euros or Swiss Francs, and the default risk is now rising as their economies either deflate (internal devaluation) or their currencies fall as part of the regional sell-off. The danger is that as the bailouts are implemented at local level this exposure is steadily transferred over to the sovereign level, creating a dangerous dynamic which can endanger future eurozone membership. States which default will be unlikely candidate members.

3/. These countries are also suffering the impact of significant asset writedowns, as those assets bought at very high prices during the boom - some at up to six times their book value - now have to be written down, further weighing on earnings and weakening financial and corporate balance sheets.

4/ Finally there is significant contagion risk. The comparatively small number of foreign lenders involved has lead IMF economists and the credit ratings agencies alike to repeatedly warn of how the risk that a seemingly isolated incident in one country may rapidly spread right across the region.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the whole banking sector and financial system (in the region) rests on the response of parent banks," said Neil Shearing, economist at Capital Economics. "If they withdraw funding it's not very difficult to see how there would be a very severe financial crisis sweeping across the region, and the whole region en masse would have to go to the IMF," he said.

Governments in the region have already taken what measures they can. Most increased deposit guarantees from 20,000 to 50,000 euros following the EU October Paris meeting. Lithuania went further and upped the limit to 100,000 euros, while Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary all now offer unlimited protection. But this begs the question, who guarantees the government guarantees in the event they are called on.

So the problem has now become a very delicate one, since the banks want to maintain their presence in the region even while almost every factor imaginable is working against them. The latest such factor is the threat of credit downgrades for their core business in Western Europe, and Moody’s Investors Service warned only this week that some of Europe’s largest banks may be downgraded because of loans to eastern Europe, a warning which sent Italy's UniCredit to its lowest level in the Milan stock market in 12 years.

Moody’s argues there will be “continuous downward rating pressure” in the region as a result of worsening asset quality and western banks’ reliance on short-term funding. UniCredit’s Bank Austria subsidiary earned almost half its pretax profit from eastern Europe in 2007, Raiffeisen International Bank-Holding almost 80 percent and Austria’s Erste Group Bank more than 60 percent, according to Moody’s.

“The most risky parts of the western European banks’ businesses are in eastern Europe and when you decide to cut risks, you cut back on the most risky assets first,” Lars Christensen, an analyst at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen, said by telephone today. “This could add further risk in the region as the economies there may face large current account deficits if funding from western European banks is withdrawn.”

As a result last Tuesday we saw a surge in the cost of protecting bank bonds from default, lead by Raiffeisen International Bank-Holding and UniCredit. Credit-default swaps on Vienna-based Raiffeisen climbed 26 basis points to a record 369 and those for UniCredit soared 23 basis points to an all-time high of 213, according to data from CMA Datavision in London. Credit-default swaps on Erste increased 24.5 to 307, Paris- based Societe Generale rose 6 to 116 and KBC in Brussels was unchanged at 240, according to CMA prices.

The rising cost of insuring against default by a “peripheral” European government is likely to weigh on the euro, according to Merrill Lynch & Co. “This remains an important background negative for the euro,” Steven Pearson, a strategist in London at Merrill Lynch, wrote in a note today. “European banking-sector exposure to Eastern Europe, often via foreign currency lending, is an additional euro negative story that is gaining air-time.” Emerging market central banks may move away from holding European government bonds in their reserves as widening yield spreads between debt of different euro-zone economies makes bonds more difficult to trade, Pearson said.

So Why Would The Euro Help?

Well, in the first place, four of the Eastern economies - Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are effectively stuck, since their currencies are pegged to the Euro. They are in the unenviable position of being stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. They are now faced with US depression type economic slumps, and massive internal wage and price deflation all at the same time. Would Euro membership help? Well lets look at what the IMF said in their most recent report on the stand-by loan arrangement for Latvia.

Accelerated adoption of the euro at a depreciated exchange rate would deliver most of the benefits of widening the bands, but with fewer drawbacks. Unlike all other options for changing the exchange rate, the new (euro-entry) parity would not be subject to speculation.

By providing a stable nominal anchor and removing currency risk, euroization would boost confidence and be associated with less of an output decline than other options.Euroization with EU and ECB concurrence would also help address liquidity strains in the banking system. If Latvian banks could access ECB facilities, then those that are both solvent and hold adequate collateral could access sufficient liquidity. The increase in confidence should dampen concerns of resident depositors and also help stem non resident deposit outflows.

However, this policy option would not address solvency concerns and has been ruled out by the European authorities. If combined with a large upfront devaluation, there would be an immediate deterioration in private-sector solvency, which could slow recovery. Privatesector debt restructuring would likely be necessary. Finally, the European Union strongly objects to accelerated euro adoption, as this would be inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments, so this option is infeasible.

Basically, devaluating the Lat and entering the euro directly was the IMF's preferred option for Latvia, "euroization with EU and ECB concurrence" was the second option, and keeping the peg and implementing massive internal deflation only the third. The problem was that the EU, in its wisdom felt euro adoption "would be inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments" - as would I suppose bailing out Austria and Ireland be "inconsistent with treaty obligations of member governments under the Maastricht Treaty. Go tell it to the marines, is what I say!

And this is not just Latvia, but four entire countries (little ones, but still countries) that are effectively being thrown to the wolves here.

Downward Pressure On Currencies, Upward Pressure On Interest Rates

Nor is the position of those with floating currencies - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania - much better, since their currencies are now coming under substantial pressure, and as a result defaults are growing, defaults which will only work their way back upstream to the Western Countries whose banks will have to stand the losses.

At the same time, the risk of a sharper, 1997 Asian-style adjustment cannot be excluded, given the similarities between Asia before the eruption of the crisis there in 1997 and the situation in emerging Europe. Beyond any considerations about valuation, the FX market may overreact as it did during the Asian or Russian crises in 1997 & 1998. To halt the downward spiral of currency depreciation, a substantial rise in interest rates combined with a tight fiscal policy under an IMF programme could be necessary.
Murat Toprak & Gaelle Blanchard, Societe Generale

Obviously there is now a sense of urgency here, and the warning signs are everywhere, for those who know how to read them. According to Zbigniew Chlebowski, the chairman for the Polish ruling party’s parliamentary group speaking in an interview earlier this week, the Polish government has been in official talks with the European Central Bank over joining the pre-euro exchange-rate mechanism “for several days.” So consultations are getting to be fast and furious.

And Hungarian, Polish and Czech government debt, which has been among the highest rated in emerging markets, is now being downgraded by bondholders. Investors are currently demanding 20 basis points more yield to own Hungary’s bonds than similar-maturity Brazilian debt, which is rated four levels lower by Moody’s Investors Service, according JPMorgan bond indexes. The risk of Poland defaulting is currently running at about the same as Serbia, ranked six levels lower by Standard & Poor’s, based on credit-default swap prices, while Czech 10-year bonds yield the most compared with German bunds since 2001.

“Everybody is running for the door,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging-market strategy at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen. “The markets have decided the central and eastern European region is the subprime area of Europe.”

The currencies of these currenciies are tumbling on investor concern the region’s economies are among the most vulnerable to the global credit crisis. Poland’s zloty has fallen 35 percent against the euro since August, the forint - which has fallen around 13% since the start of the year, and about 25% since last August -weakened to a record low of 309.71 this week. At the same time the Koruna hit the lowest level since 2005.

(Chart above - Polish Zloty vs Euro)

The zloty has risen - against the previous trend - by 3.2 percent this week, following a decision by the Finance Ministry to enter the market (on Wednesday) and started selling euros from European Union funds for zlotys. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said yesterday the currency must be defended “at any cost.” The Czech central bank stated it regards the buying and selling currencies to manage the koruna as an “exceptional” tool that it’s resisted using since 2002, with the implication that it may not be able to resist much longer, although interest rate hikes (as practised in Hungary) seem to be the more likely approach in the Czech Republic. Such gains as have been obtained for the zloty are likely to be short lived (intervention is a tool of desperation, not of strength, and rarely has any lasting effect) and they can hardly exhaust EU funding they badly need to spend on stimulus type projects in the face of the downturn defending the indefensible, as Russia has been learning to its cost in another context.

“It [currency intervention ]is for us an exceptional tool at our disposal,” Tomas Holub, head of its monetary policy department, said in a telephone interview today. “Of course it’s one of the potential tools, but so far no decision has been taken in this direction.”

After intervention the only real tool left is interest rate policy, and fear of further currency falls is now acting as a serious brake on monetary policy as the pace of economic contraction gathers speed in one country after another. “A lowering of interest rates at the current levels of the exchange rate is completely out of the debate,” Deputy Governor Miroslav Singer told E15 newspaper earlier this week. “The question is whether to raise, and by how much.”

Really the suggestion that all these countries simply traipse off to the IMF (one after the other) in search of help is shameful. There is simply no other word for it, shameful. As Oscar Wilde put it, losing one child may be an accident, but losing all your children, now that has to be negligence! Let them in, and let them in now, before the whole house of cards collapses on top of each and every one of us.


This article is the second in a series of five I am in the process of writing on ways forward with Europe's financial and economic crisis.

The first was Why We Need EU Bonds.

Subsequent articles will deal with:

a) The need for Quantitative Easing In The Eurozone
b) What might a new Stability and Growth Pact look like?
c) Why as well as rewriting the banking regulations we also need to do something about Europe's demographic imbalances.

Update: The Danskebank View

With which I wholeheartedly agree.

This week the crisis in the CEE markets has intensified dramatically after the publication of a number of reports putting a negative focus on Western European banks’ exposure to the overly leveraged CEE economies. The crisis is clearly developing in an explosive fashion and there is a very clear risk of an Asian crisis style meltdown. The economies in the region are already in free fall, and at least one country – Ukraine – is dangerously close to sovereign default. Rapidly rising concerns have led policy makers across Europe to call for immediate action to avoid a dangerous collapse that potentially could spill into the euro zone. However, policy makers seem very divided on what to do in the current situation.

Earlier this week Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius called for coordinated action from the EU to try to solve the problems in CEE. Later in the week the World Bank’s president Robert Zoellick echoed Kubilius’ cry for help.

However, the EU Commission does not seem very excited about a coordinated effort to avoid meltdown. Rather Joaquín Almunia, EU monetary affairs commissioner, this week said that he would prefer a country-by-country approach to crisis management. In our view, a country-by-country approach to crisis management entails a number of risks, as there is a strong potential for contagion from one CEE country to another due to the significant integration in the financial sector across the region. Therefore, we think that there is urgent need for a more coordinated effort to stabilise the situation– otherwise this crisis will drag out and uncertainty remain elevated for an extended period.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The EU Bonds Story Rumbles On

Wolfgan Munchau was complaining only last weekend about the extraordinary narrow-mindedness of Europe's economic and political leadership in the face of the current financial and economic crisis, from Ireland in the West to Hungary in the East, and from Greece in the South to Sweden in the North. But more than narrow mindedness what we are faced with is innocence and inability to react, and frankly I am not sure which is worst. I say "innocence" because it is by now abundantly clear that they simply haven't yet grasped the severity of the problems we face (in countries like Spain, or even Germany itself, let alone in the East), and I say inability to react, since they are always and forever moving too little and too late. The initial response to the banking crisis last October was one example (where we saw a landshift-style volte face in the space of only one week) and the way we are now confronting the need to live up to the promises then made about guaranteeing the banking sector, and in particular the "systemic" banks, would be another.

The complete confusion which seems to reign over at the ECB about whether or not the Eurozone can operate some sort of US/Japanese style quantitative easing would be a third.

Only today we are faced with yet another example of how our leaders are meticulously dangling their toes in the icy water where a more seasoned mariner would simply see the need to dive straight in and rescue the drowning man.

It is reported this morning that Germany and France are now contemplating the possibility of bailing-out entire nations, rather than simply individual banks, as European government budget commitments steadily mount-up while their sovereign debt ratings start to buckle under the weight of a growing and deepening European recession.

As reported in my post yesterday (here) German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck became the first senior European politician to broach the topic earlier this week, when he stated that some of the 16 euro area nations are now “getting into difficulties” and may need help, citing Ireland as an example. French officials are also reportedly concerned about how the current "stand alone" sovereign debt situation is leading to widening spreads on Austrian, Irish, Greek and Spanish debt as the cost of insuring against default rises to records. What we have before us is not simply a case of seeing "fiscal irresponsibility" punished, it is a mechanism whereby the eurozone can be peeled apart, and where those states who enter a negative economic growth-bank bailout-fiscal deficit dynamic which means the cost of financing their debt (and thus their bank bailouts) rises so prohibitively that it virtually excludes the possibility of giving further fiscal stimulus to their sinking economies, and does so in such a way that a self reinforcing (and self fulfilling) process may be produced, a process which only leads in one direction and to one conclusion: that of sovereign default.

The problem is that it is not just one or two quarters of negative growth we are talking about here, we are talking of deep depressions, and ones during which deep structural damage can be inflicted on the economies of those states who are hardest hit.

“When push comes to shove Germany, France, the larger players will bail out those smaller peripheral players,” said Alex Allen, chief investment officer of Eddington Capital Management. “You can’t let one part of the system fail because it leads to failure of the whole system.”

European deficits have evidently surged enormously this year as governments are faced with the need to provide funding for the heavily strained banking system and provide some kind of stimulus to their rapidly contracting economies. EU member states have already committed more than 1.2 trillion euros in an attempt to save the banking systems from collapse, and it is evident that a second and possibly larger wave of bailouts may now be imminent.

In particular many of us our now concerned that the eurozone bond market could potentially face a crisis similar to that unleashed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. As ECB board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi put it earlier this month there’s a “risk that the mistrust that there is today in financial markets” is “transformed into mistrust in states.”

“I would be very reluctant to say: ‘O.K., let Ireland or Greece default, the market will sort it out, punish them for their irresponsibility of the past,’” said Thomas Mayer, co-head of global economics at Deutsche Bank AG in London. “They tried it with Lehman and realized that was not a good idea.”

The Spreads Widen

The gap between the interest rates Greece, Austria and Spain must pay investors to borrow for 10 years and the rate charged Germany yesterday rose to the widest since before they adopted the euro. Credit-default swaps on Ireland rose to a record on Feb. 16, climbing to 378.4 points. Greek credit-default swaps, 270 points on Feb. 16, show a 4.5 percent chance that the country will default in the next 12 months, according to ING Bank NV.

Are Bailout's Possible Under Maastricht?

The simple answer to the above question is most emphatically yes, under article 119 of the Treaty. As follows:

Where a Member State is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with difficulties as regards its balance of payments either as a result of an overall disequilibrium in its balance of payments, or as a result of the type of currency at its disposal, and where such difficulties are liable in particular to jeopardise the functioning of the common market or the progressive implementation of the common commercial policy, the Commission shall immediately investigate the position of the State in question and the action which, making use of all the means at its disposal, that State has taken or may take in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty.

Which in plain English basically means, through you go with your proverbial coach and horses. Indeed they may well have already been driven through, last November, in the case of Hungary.

“The European Commission stands ready to provide a loan of €6.5 billion to Hungary,” the EU executive said in a statement on Wednesday (29 October), adding that “the concrete modalities will shortly be finalised in cooperation with the Hungarian authorities”. Under the plans, the Commission will borrow money from the markets using EU-denominated bonds and then lend it to Hungary, without drawing from the EU budget. The facility is established under Article 119 of the Treaty.It is the first time that Brussels has used the instrument to help an EU country (see background). The facility foresees an overall ceiling of €12 billion of outstanding loans. This funding is limited to EU countries which are not part of the euro zone.

The €12 billion ceiling currently provisioned for in the bond facility has not so far been reached, but it has long been evident that other Eastern EU countries would need to draw from the facility for financial help. Thus it is hardly surprising to learn that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had already proposed raising the ceiling to €20 billion at an EU summit on 7 November.

"I will propose on 7 November that the European Union itself, which has 12 billion available to support a certain number of liquidities and to support a certain number of states, should go up to at least 20 billion (euros) to increase our capacity to respond to the crisis," Sarkozy said, according to Reuters.

As one EU official told journalists at the time "the Commission could also change the regulation and lift the ceiling". Or, in other words, when needs must, it will.

A Little History

The principle of borrowing money from financial markets on behalf of the European Community has previously been applied to grant aid to extra-EU countries, in particular before the 2004 enlargement. Kosovo, Moldova and Georgia are all currently receiving financial help through EU loans raised on the market. In January 1993, Italy, a member of the European Community (the EU's forerunner), was granted an eight billion ECU loan to support its strained balance of payments. Since then, no member state has received financial help through this instrument.

The idea of borrowing money via the issue of EU bonds was first launched by former Commission President Jacques Delors via his 1993 plan for growth, competitiveness and employment. Delors initially wanted EU bonds to fund the European budget. But the majority of member states opposed the idea, fearing it would ultimately increase their expenditure on the Community budget.

Borrowed money has been used by the EU to fund projects in several cases, although the amounts involved have been small. For instance, a 'New Community Instrumentexternal ' was used in the late 70s and early 80s to help regions affected by earthquakes in Italy and Greece. Italy has recently proposed using European bonds to fund key EU projects, but the idea garnered little support

The gateway for the coach and horses is also being prepared on another front, as the Financial Times reports this morning. In this case we are talking about the European Investment Bank, which, according to the FT, is set to lend the European car industry 7 billion euros in the first half 2009 to support the manufacturing of environmentally clean vehicles. This is already a substantial increase on the approximately 2 billion euros a year the bank extended to the industry before the crisis, and there may be more, much more, to come. Pathways are being prepared, even as the wheels on the coach are oiled and the horses' mains groomed.
Philippe Maystadt, the bank’s president for the past decade, revealed the €7bn figure to the Financial Times, as he explained the EIB’s plans to shoulder a bigger financing burden in crisis-hit Europe. Member states have already asked the EIB to increase its annual lending programme by €15bn ($19.2bn, £13.3bn) to €63bn for this year and next in an effort to revive the economy.

So Why The Criticism?

So why, if there behind the scenes so many preparations are now being made did I start this post by saying that more than narrow mindedness, what I felt we were faced with is innocence and an inability to react? Well basically, because I think that Europe's leaders are still in general denial on the scope of this problem. We are not talking simply of little cases, like Greece and Ireland, we are talking about potentially much harder chestnuts to crack, like Spain, and Italy, the UK, and even Germany itself. Remember Germany's economic is now contracting at an almost astonishing pace, and German bonds are getting harder to sell all the time.

The full extent of the problems in the German banking system, as defaults mount in Spain and Eastern Europe, is yet to be measured. Only today German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet approved a draft bill allowing the state to seize control of property lender Hypo Real Estate Holding AG, paving the way for the first German bank nationalization since the 1930s. And the volume of assets thought to be likely to need to be bought by any bad bank (or banks) created is very large. Hypo's loans alone are thought to total almost 260 billion euros, and numbers in the 400 to 600 billion euro range are being mentioned. So the fear here is not that a German sovereign default is looming, but that German debt may no longer maintain "benchmark" status, and thus the rate of interest the German government may have to pay to maintain its debt may rise, again impeding efforts to help maintain the economy afloat, and almost inevitably biting into the country's already strained health and pension systems.

Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck was quoted by the Frankfurt Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung weekly newspaper as saying he could "not imagine (the establishment of a "bad bank") economically or above all politically". A bad bank would need to be financed with 150 billion to 200 billion euros of taxpayer funds, he said. "How am I supposed to present that to parliament? People would say we are crazy." Steinbrueck said no one could predict whether the rescue fund would need to be expanded given mounting losses at banks, but noted it still had room to distribute more money.

And one last example for today, of how the one half (the Commission) doesn't know what the other half (the Nation State leaders) is up to. Joaquin Almunia (who is so often "really out to lunch" on economic issues, he is, as they say "challenged" by the complexity of macro economics, see for example this post here) has warned that Brussels could take action soon against EU member states which let their budget deficits rise above the 3% threshold (see P O'Neill post here).

The EU's executive arm plans Wednesday to examine the budgetary circumstances of several countries, including France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain, to see whether action is needed. Most of them, notably France, Greece and Spain, have already forecast that their deficits will blow out beyond three percent of gross domestic product (GDP) -- the limit set out in the EU's Stability and Growth Pact.

France, which has called for the EU limit to be eased as governments grapple with the worst economic downturn in decades, has said it expects its deficit to be 3.2 percent GDP in 2008 and 4.4 percent in 2009. Ireland's deficit is expected to blow out to 5.5 percent in 2008, and then 6.5 percent in 2009, with Dublin hoping to bring things back into line in 2011. Spanish authorities expect a deficit of 5.8 percent this year. Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has forecast three percent this year but believes the figure could grow to more than four percent in 2010. Greece, for its part, foresees a deficit of 3.7 percent in 2009. The Netherlands is due to publish its latest figures Tuesday and might just scrape through.

Given the difficult, and unforseen, pressure we are all up against, this is, quite frankly ridiculous. Not that rising fiscal deficits, and rising debt to GDP ratios, are something we should be casual about, but I think what we need is a certain loosening of the rules in the short term, to be followed by a much stricter tightening as we move forward. And do you know the mechanism I would use to discipline the reluctant states when it comes to paying off the accounts run up during the emergency? Why yes, you've got it, the availability of those much-easier-to-finance EU backed bonds.

You see while the first argument in favour of EU bonds may be an entirely pragmatic one, namely that it doesn't make sense for subsidiary components of EU Inc. to be paying more to borrow their money when the credit guarantee of the parent entity can get it for them far cheaper, the longer term argument in favour is that it may well enable the EU Commission to become something it has long dreamed of becoming - an internal credit rating agency for EU national debt. Basically in the mid term the EU bonds system can only work if it is backed by a very strong Lisbon type reform pact for those countries who apply to make use of the facility. This is what now needs to be worked on. And how do we know that that there won't be yet another round of backsliding on all this? Well we don't, this is the risk we just have to take, but sometimes you do need to simply cross your fingers and jump, since the burning building behind you looks none to attractive either, but what we do know is that since there will now be a mechanism whereby the bad behaviour of the few really can penalise the many financially, then there really will be some meaningful incentive to generate a pact, this time, that really has teeth to stop that penalisation taking place.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Russian Debt And The Euro

Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system not as a morality play but as a technical challenge.
Martin Wolf, Financial Times

The euro fell again yesterday, by 1.1 percent against the dollar (to $1.2860) and by 1.2 percent against the yen (to 117.52 yen). The change, even if quite large in a short space of time, is hardly dramatic, but what is of more interest is the why. Russian companies announced yesterday that they were thinking of opening negotiations to "restructure" their debt. Bloomberg:

The euro fell after a Russian bank official said the nation’s lenders asked the government to help moderate talks with foreign lenders on $400 billion of loans, adding to speculation financial turmoil in Europe is worsening.

The euro fell versus 13 of the 16 most-active currencies after Anatoly Aksakov, president of the Russian Association of Regional Banks, said in an interview with Bloomberg News that the group has written to the government after talking with foreign banks. He said $135 billion of the loans are due this year and the remainder of the $400 billion within four years.

The “report of rescheduling debt is driving the euro lower because European financial institutions have a bigger exposure to Russia than their counterparts in other countries,” said Takashi Kudo, Tokyo-based director of foreign-exchange sales at NTT SmartTrade Inc., a unit of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., Japan’s largest fixed-line phone company.

And then there is Kazakhstan to think about:

Kazakhstan’s banks may have their ratings cut as the devaluation of the nation’s currency makes it harder for them to repay foreign debt and “substantially increases” credit risk, Moody’s Investors Service said yesterday.

And Mr Euro, like me, is getting worried:

The widening spreads between the interest rates that different euro-area nations must pay bond investors are “worrying developments,” according to a “speaking note” prepared for Luxembourg Finance Minister Jean-Claude Juncker and obtained by Bloomberg News.

In fact, while there is a growing feeling that the worst phase of the financial-system meltdown may be over in the U.S, unease is mounting that here in Europe the worst may be yet to come. The reason? Europe's commercial banks have more exposure to distressed emerging markets than their U.S. counterparts. By one estimate, European banks provided three-quarters of the $4.7 trillion in cross-border loans to the Baltic countries, Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia. Thus it is quite likely that the emerging-markets exposure of European banks exceeds even that of U.S. lenders to Alt-A and subprime loans.

“People expect that part of these debts were from the European banking system,” said Sebastien Barbe, a strategist at Calyon in Hong Kong, the investment banking unit of France’s Credit Agricole SA. “You already have a very weak banking system in Europe. If you have these Russian issues, the next step would be questions about whether similar problems will come out of other Eastern European countries.”

Dory Wiley, president of Commerce Street Capital, a money-management firm that invests in banking stocks argues that "most of the big banks in Europe are insolvent........That is what made them great - but unpredictable - shorts. They represent major components in those country funds everyone buys." The big danger now is that European governments, since they are the prime backstops for their commercial banks, will see their debt liabilities balloon and steadily be forced, in a domino like contagion process onto the slippery path towards downgrade, rising yield spreads and default.

Unicredit Saved Again By Libya

I think it should now go without saying that Unicredit is deeply involved in many of the most problematic countries from this point of view - Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to name but three. So while, as reported here yesterday, the Italian bank seems to have scraped its way over the latest hurdle thanks largely to the timely intervention of the Libyan central bank, this hardly seems to be a stable situation (links to the posts which give some background on all of this can be found here).

Libya's central bank will fill half of a 500 million euro ($645.5 million) gap in bank UniCredit SpA's 3 billion euro capital raising measures, newspapers reported on Monday. Shareholders Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Torino (CRT) and Carimonte Holding will also take up about 230 million euros of the shortfall, Il Messaggero newspaper said...........La Stampa said Libya's central bank would hold about 7 percent in UniCredit after the capital increase and become the biggest single shareholder.

Making The Punishment Fit The Crime, Or the Crime Fit The Punishment?

Many readers are, unsurprisingly, outraged by the idea that the EU should create bonds to help a distressed Italian (or Austrian, or Irish) banking sector. Typical of many responses is this from an Italian:

I'd favour a liberal approach, but it's only my humble opinion, anyway I think bad banks should have to pay for bad policies, households should have to pay for their reckless borrowing, governments should have to pay for communicating the sunstainability of currency pegs and expantion policies. I'd like to see these kind of attitude, negotiating a volunteer currency convesion and a longer repayment time for forex loans, sharing the losses and extra costs among banks borrowers and government. otherwise the ones who acted properly will not see any advantage in acting the right way.

I think this view is being advanced in a very well meaning way, in the sense that the person voicing it simply wants to see some sort of justice, some sort of sense of responsibility. But as I pointed out in my reply to him, the issues here are systemic ones, and the majority of Germany's citizens are hardly responsible for the bad decisions made by representatives of the Russian subsidiaries of their banks. What I am trying to say is there is no effective mechanism as far as I can see whereby those who took the decisions (many of whom are already bankrupt, and others soon to become so) can be made to pay up and put things right. Meantime innocent parties get trampled on. Being intentionally emotive for a second, think about the one million people who lost their jobs in India in December, and all those millions of other people in poor countries across the globe, what responsibility did they have for the irresponsible lending practices of a limited group of Unicredit managers and employees who caused the financial shock waves they are now receiving?

Take the Latvian case. Looking through the IMF standby loan document, I was amazed to find that as a result of this bailout national debt to GDP will rise from 8% in 2008 to 50% in 2010. The thing is the only "crime" of those Latvian citizens caught up in the Parex problem were those who happened to have their money on deposit there. Now such were the covenants on the syndicated loans contracted by the banks that those who provided them (they certainly knew what they were doing) seem to have first call on any funds the government puts into the bank over and above the needs of the hard pressed depositors. Given the rapid population ageing Latvia now has coming and the serious economic growth problem they face as a result of the boom bust my feeling is that they will be unable to fully recover from the blow and will more than likely have to do some sort of sovereign default at some stage - unless, of course, they are admitted to the eurozone, the debt is "restructured" and some kind of EU institutional support offered. I personally consider the current "sit back and watch" approach to be grossly unfair, especially given that the root of their problem really lies in making it a condition of their EU membership that they join the eurozone, and then withdrawing the possibility when the financial destabilising effects of the original condition send their economy sprialing out of control.

Bad decisions were certainly taken by Latvian politicians, but I have no doubt that the fundamental structural cause of their current problems was the one I have just mentioned. So sending a whole country into bankruptcy because of the decisions and speculation of a few people in a bad bank does not seem to be like using our emotional intelligence, and this is why I think the EU have to help them. We simply cannot continue to perpetuate this kind of injustice in our midst.

I can't help feeling that inflicting significant economic pain on large numbers of innocent people is not a fitting process of retribution. It is more akin to the unfortunate campaign of intensive bombing carried out by the Allied Powers against Dresden, simply to make the German people "pay" for the crimes of Adolf Hitler. It is amazing to me that we are still having the same kinds of argument 60 odd years later.

We live in an imperfect world and the reality principle suggests we accept it as such. When you get hit by a tragedy in your life the best advice, I think, is that you do a bit of psychological counselling, put the issue behind you, and get on with your life. Don't go off on a "fatal attraction" kind of obsessive vendetta to try to make the guilty parties pay. Just do what has to be done, stop Europe's financial system melting down, change the regulations for the future, and let's all go to work and get on with things. A first step in this direction would be - as I argued on Sunday - for the EU Commission to negotiate a substantial EU Bonds issue with the Swedish, Italian and Austrian governments, and stopping the rot on this whole problem before things get further out of hand.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Italy Needs EU Bonds And It Needs Them Now!

You see, this isn’t a brainstorming session — it’s a collision of fundamentally incompatible world views.
Paul Krugman

As a wise man recently said, failure to act effectively risks turning this slump into a catastrophe. Yet there’s a sense, watching the process so far, of low energy. What’s going on?
Paul Krugman

First, focus all attention on reversing the collapse in demand now, rather than on the global architecture. Second, employ overwhelming force. The time for “shock and awe” in economic policymaking is now.
Martin Wolf

OK, I think no regular reader of this blog could seriously suggest I have much sympathy for the sort of views you normally find being propagated by Italy's Finance Minister Guilio Tremonti, but when he starts to send out the kind of red warning light danger signals that he has been doing over recent days, then I think we should all be taking note, and when the republic is in danger, then its all hands to the pumps, regardless of who is sounding the alert. This is not a brainstorming session, it is a real flesh and blood crisis.

Perhaps few of you will have noticed it, but our erstwhile logician has been getting extremely nervous in recent days, and most notably chose his visit to Davos to indicate that he personally would look extraordinarily favourably on any move to inititiate the creation of EU bonds (for a brief explanation of why these are important, see Wolfgang Munchau's argument in favour of such bonds here. (Or the longer version here)

Italy's Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti has said he favoured the issuance of government debt by the European Union. "Now my feeling -- I am speaking of a political issue not an economic issue -- is ... now we need a union bond," Tremonti said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Countries in the euro zone currently issue sovereign debt in their own name, rather than regionally. Bond traders concerned about the mounting public debt of Italy, Greece and Ireland have pushed down the value of their government bonds, sparking speculation they might be driven out of the euro zone.

Now why would he be arguing this? Well the state of Italy's own banking sector would be one part of the explanation, and the fact that the Italian government is in no position to mount a rescue operation on its own given the size of its existing debt to GDP commitment, would be another. In particular, and as I have been arguing, Unicredit - and its Eastern Europe exposure - is a huge worry.

Indeed the situation is now so delicate, that according to this Reuters report last week, Unicredit really doesn't know which government to turn to. The Italian one perhaps, or the Polish one, or "it could consider doing it in Austria".

Italian bank UniCredit is considering requesting state support in Italy and Poland, a source close to the bank told Reuters on Thursday. "The bank does not exclude possible state support in Italy and Poland," the source said on condition of anonymity. In an extract of an interview to be published in Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper on Friday, UniCredit Chief Executive Alessandro Profumo said the bank could consider "state support as insurance against unpredictable events." If the bank does seek state aid, it could consider doing it in Austria, for example, he added.

UniCredit SpA is considering asking for government capital amid the credit crunch, Chief Executive Officer Alessandro Profumo said. “State support as insurance for unforeseeable events” is conceivable, Profumo told Handelsblatt newspaper in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. A UniCredit official confirmed the comments to Bloomberg. Italy’s top bankers met with central bank Governor Mario Draghi last week to discuss the financial crisis, which has caused bankruptcies and government bailouts across the world, while stocks have plunged and credit markets have seized up. UniCredit and some of its rivals have tumbled in Milan since the start of 2008 amid concern about the strength of their finances.
Bloomberg 29 January 2009

The announcement that Unicredit was seeking state aid came on the same day that the bank admitted that investors had placed orders for only 0.5 percent of the shares they were offering in a rights issue. The bank received orders for a mere 14.3 million euros of stock out of a total of 3 billion euros, and the plan was to sell leftover stock in the form of convertible bonds, but even this hit a snag, as

The shares were offered at 3.083 euros apiece, or over twice what they were trading for in Milan at the time (around 1.408 euros). Shareholders, including Allianz SE and the Central Bank of Libya, are among those who agreed to buy the convertible bonds, according to the bank offer document. Shares of UniCredit have dropped 54 percent since October, when the rights offering was announced, amid concern the capital raising won’t be sufficient. But even the bonds issue is running into trouble, since Il Sole 24 Ore reported that Unicredit may raise only 2.5 billion euros rather than the full 3 billion euros because because investor Fondazione CariVerona, which holds a 5 percent stake in the bank, reportedly hasn’t received approval from the government to buy the securities, however, the reason they have not received approval may well be that they have not yet applied since the Italian Treasury, in what is a rather unusual step, said on Thursday announced that they had yet to receive a request from CariVerona to sign up for the bond issue. All this suggests, of course, that Tremonti's warning about an imminent bailout could be a piece of brinksmanship, designed to presssure CariVerona to stop playing "positioning" games and come up with the money, but irrespective of whether or not this is the case, some sort of rescue operation for Unicredit surely cannot be far away at this point.

And the fact that Bulgaria's Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski was running around last week assuring everyone that Bulgaria's banks have not asked for state rescue aid so far, and that the government is not worried about the banking system's health for now, is hardly helping to calm already troubled nerves. About 80 percent of the 29 commercial banks operating in Bulgaria are foreign-owned, with the biggest lenders being run by Italy's UniCredit, Hungary's OTP Bank, Greece's National Bank of Greece and Austria's Raiffeisen.

And only today Tremonti has warned that the announcement of more EU bank bailouts is imminent, and maybe as early as this weekend.

European governments may have to bail out more banks as soon as “this weekend,” Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti said today. “So far in Europe there have been more than 30 bank bailouts and I can’t rule out that there will be more this week- end,” Tremonti said, speaking at a press conference after today’s Cabinet meeting in Rome.

So how should we address this danger, imminent or otherwise? At this point in time I have four proposals:

a) The creation of EU bonds
b) The introduction of quantitative easing by the ECB (quantitative easing is the monetary policy which is currently being applied in both the US and Japan, and probably soon in the UK too).
c) Letting those members of the East who want to join the eurozone immediately do so.
d) A new "pact" - one which would be much, much stronger than the old Stability and Growth Pact - to be signed by all countries who enter the EU bond system, a pact which gives direct fiscal remedies to Brussels in the event of non-compliance together with a substantial dose of effective control over the economies of individual countries - since nothing, Mr Sr. Tremonti, ever comes completely for free.

Obviously all of this is quite radical, and indeed fraught with danger, but these are hardly normal times. In all of this (d) is obviously the most important part, as any protection given to EU member economies by the Union must be credible and serious. So no country could or should be forced in, but it should also be pointed out to those who chose sovereignty and remaining on the fringes to participation that they would run an enormous risk. Since almost all EU economies seem vulnerable at this point, anyone staying outside could rapidly see themselves exposed to the risk of forced default, since lack of protection is simply an invitation to attack. Letting ourselves get picked off one by one is not an appetising prospect (Latvia, Hungary, Greece, Austria, Italy, Spain, Ireland, the UK, Romania, Bulgaria.........).

Clearly those who wish to remain "dissenters" should have the liberty to do so, but they should bear well in mind that should they do so they could very easily end up in a group - possibly lead by Diego Armando Maradona - together with Yulia Timoshenko (Ukraine), Cristina Fernadez (Argentina), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and (possibly) whoever is the new prime minister in Iceland, bankrupt, and without the aid of international financial support to help deal with their mess.

Perhaps readers may think I am being rather shrill here, and perhaps at this point Tremonti (for whom I have no afinity, elective or otherwise, see linked post above) is only playing brinksmanship, but if he isn't, and Unicredit is about to need bailing out, then push does quickly come to shove, since the EU leaders agreed on October 12 in Paris to bail out systemic banks, and Unicredit is a systemic bank. So will will need to know how they plan to stand by their commitment, and if they don't, well then everyone of us stands exposed, since credibility rapidly falls towards zero.

Maybe this is a false alarm situation, and Unicredit will not need bailing out this weekend, or the next one, but one day it will, and one day Spain's huge non performing loan and household debt default problem is going to need sorting out. So I think this is a line in the sand situation, and we are much nearer to having to make up our minds which side of the line we are on than many seem think.

To paraphrase Paul Krugman again, in flirting with the idea of whether the first to default should be Greece, or Hungary, we truly are flirting with disaster.