What on earth is the ECB up to?


The ECB has abruptly announced withdrawal of the “waiver” under which it was prepared to accept Greek sovereign bonds as collateral for liquidity. This created a considerable Twitter storm, with lots of angry people saying the ECB’s action was beyond its mandate and far too precipitate: it should at least have waited for the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to meet his German counterpart, and it should not be acting as if the bailout programme was ended when negotiations were still proceeding. I admit, I was one of those people.

And I stand by my views. The ECB is acting far beyond its mandate in seeking to influence negotiations between Eurozone member states regarding the terms and conditions under which member states lend to their distressed partners. It has no business interfering in fiscal policy: if the Greek government decides to run 1.5% fiscal surpluses instead of 4.5%, hike minimum wages and create lots of government jobs, it is none of the ECB’s business. The ECB’s monetary policy failures are legion: it should put its own house in order, rather than interfering with the conduct of fiscal policy. And worse, its persistent interference in fiscal policy is a clear conflict of interest, as the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice noted in relation to the OMT programme. It should not be a member of the Troika at all, and certainly should not use changes in fiscal policy by a democratically-elected sovereign government – even one that has inherited an economy in tatters with a massive debt burden – as justification for limiting liquidity to that country’s banking system. Monetary policy should never be used to serve fiscal or political ends. Not ever.

OK, rant over. I’ve thought about this a bit more now. Something doesn’t quite add up.

Firstly, there is the timing. The Syriza government has now been in power for ten days. Why did the ECB wait until now to pull the plug on the waiver? It might simply be that today was the first planned meeting of the Governing Council. But that doesn’t exactly suggest that this is an urgent problem – so why is the ECB doing this now, given that the bailout extension is not until 28th February and Greece has already asked for time to come up with an alternative plan?

Secondly, there is the timing. (Yes, I mean that). Varoufakis met ECB chief Mario Draghi yesterday and he meets German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble today. In between those two meetings the ECB pulled the waiver. Why? Well, Schäuble is openly hostile to Varoufakis’s ideas of debt relief and an end to austerity, while Draghi has so far kept very quiet (though his deputy Vitor Constancio has been more forthright). Schäuble will no doubt be looking for explicit backing from the ECB. Should this action be taken as the ECB’s governing council signalling whose side it is on?

And thirdly, there is this:
Note the date. Yes, you read right. Over 6 months ago, Varoufakis predicted that the ECB would attempt to pull funding from the Greek banks.

Of course, today’s action is not pulling funding from Greek banks, since they can still pledge other assets at the ECB. But all funding using any form of Greek sovereign debt must, from 11 February, be obtained from the Hellenic Central Bank under the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) scheme. And the ELA scheme itself is under the control of the ECB and reviewed bi-weekly. The ECB could pull it at any moment.

Varoufakis’s comment is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that pulling ELA from Greek banks would cause their sudden disorderly collapse. The ECB has used this trick before: it threatened to pull ELA from Irish banks in 2010, and it actually pulled ELA from Cyprus’s Laiki Bank and the Bank of Cyprus, forcing immediate closure and restructuring. This second piece of brinkmanship resulted in the worst bank bailout decision in the history of the planet, which was (fortunately) subsequently overturned by the Cypriot legislature. Undermining deposit insurance is almost criminally insane.

But pulling ELA from Greek banks would have a much larger impact. Germans fantasise that ELA can be pulled without systemic impact, but this is not remotely credible. The impact would be smaller than it would have been in 2010, but it would still be highly destabilising to the global financial system. Such an action would greatly enhance the ECB’s reputation for incompetence and probably end the careers of its senior officials.

If the collapse of the Greek banks precipitated the disorderly exit of Greece from the Euro, there would be significant losses for the ECB itself, the other Eurozone governments and probably the IMF. The impact on the European economy would be devastating and it would send shock waves around the world. And it would set an important precedent. If one member state can leave, so can others. How can the ECB have any credibility as guardian of the Euro if it is seen to be actively forcing out member states?

If the ECB forced a banking collapse by pulling ELA, Greece might try to limp on within the Eurozone as Cyprus did, using capital controls to prevent capital flight. But this would be the worst possible situation for Greece and it seems highly unlikely that the Greek government would even consider it. Greece’s economy is already in worse shape than Cyprus’s was at the time of its banking collapse, and Cyprus’s banking system was crippled but not destroyed by the restructuring. Greece’s banking system would be wrecked beyond repair. Greece would have no choice but to create a completely new currency and reflate its economy directly via the central bank. That means leaving the Euro, at least temporarily.

So as Varoufakis said, the ECB’s threat to pull ELA appears to be empty. I said on Twitter that I thought the ECB’s action was sabre-rattling. Karl Whelan, it seems, thinks so too. “Relax, it’s no big deal. Just some muscles being flexed.” he says at the start of this blogpost. But whose feathers is the ECB trying to ruffle? Lorcan thinks the target is Greece:
So, all together, the move from the ECB should have very little immediate effect on the Greek banks, provided there is not a complete loss of confidence in the Greek banking system in the coming days, and should be viewed as what it is: The ECB is pressuring the Greek government.

Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has been agitating for Greek debt relief since his appointment after January’s election. Today the ECB gave its answer to his moves. If the Greek government does not agree to reenter a program, the ECB will not allow its debt to be used as collateral.
I don’t believe it. If this is the ECB’s intention, it is playing right into Varoufakis’s hands. It’s as if a chess player deliberately chose to adopt the exact game strategy that his opponent, six months before, had published in a chess magazine. Draghi is every bit as good a game theorist as Varoufakis, and the two men met before the ECB’s decision. It’s just not credible that Draghi would unintentionally adopt Varoufakis’s game strategy.

Charles Forelle observed that the ECB’s action doesn’t just pressure Greece:
Is it possible that this is not an antagonistic move at all, from Greece’s point of view? Could it be that far from kicking Greece, the ECB’s real target is Germany? For some time now, it has been evident that Draghi is no fan of Germany’s “Austerity Forever” stance. Pressuring Germany into negotiating might be his intention. But if so, it is a highly risky strategy. Pulling the waiver is likely to increase capital flight from Greece and raise Greek bond yields still further, putting further pressure on Greece’s fragile finances. How exactly would this help Greece?

Alessandro Del Prete helpfully sent me this piece by Jacques Sapir which explains how weakening Greece’s position could actually strengthen its hand (my emphasis):
In this strategic game, it is clear that Greece has deliberately chosen the strategy qualified by Thomas Schelling, one of the founders of game theory, but also of nuclear dissuasion, as « coercive deficiency »[5]. In fact, this term of « coercive deficiency » was imagined by L. Wilmerding in 1943 in order to describe a situation where agencies enter into expenses without prior financing, knowing that morally the government will not be able to refuse funding them [6]. Schelling’s contribution consists in showing that this situation can be generalized and that a situation of weakness can reveal itself to be an instrument of coercion upon others. He also showed how it can be rational for an actor knowing himself to be in a position of weakness from the start, to increase his weakness in order to use it in negotiation. Reversing Jack London, one can speak in this instance of a “strength of the weak.” [7]. It is in this context that we must understand the renunciation by the Greek government of the last slice of aid promised by the so-called « Troïka, » amounting to 7 billion euros. Of course, having rejected the legitimacy of said “Troïka, » it could not logically accept to take advantage of it. But, in a more subtle way, this gesture is putting Greece voluntarily at the edge of the abyss and demonstrates all at once its resolve to go the bitter end (like Cortez burning his ships before moving up to Mexico) and to increase the pressure on Germany. We are here in a full blown exercise of « coercive deficiency ».
This explains Varoufakis’s “Do ahead” (he probably meant “Go ahead”). He stands at the edge of the cliff, and the ECB says “Do what we want or we will push you over”. His response: “Go on then, push”.

It must be remembered that this game is being played on a global stage. The US President, Barack Obama, has openly sided with the Greeks, warning that “You cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of a depression. At some point there has to be a growth strategy in order for them to pay off their debts and eliminate some of their deficits”. And the UK’s George Osborne, while calling for the Greek finance minister to “act responsibly”, also criticised the Eurozone for its lack of a coherent plan for jobs and growth. Calling for the two sides to strike a deal, he warned that the standoff between Greece and the Eurozone is the “greatest risk facing the global economy”. This seems like hyperbole to me, given the continuing crisis in Ukraine and military game-playing in the South China Sea, not to mention the Islamic insanity in the Middle East. But it all helps the Greek cause.

Varoufakis is gambling that the Eurozone, and more particularly Germany, will not dare to push him off the cliff because of the consequences for international political relations. If Germany was seen to force Greece out of the Euro by refusing to negotiate, it would become an international pariah. There are already voices reminding Germany of its own debt forgiveness in 1953, and anti-austerity movements in many other Eurozone countries would only be encouraged by Germany and/or the ECB looking like bullies. Forcing Greece out of the Euro could result in the disorderly unravelling of the whole thing.

I may be completely wrong, but this looks far more plausible to me than a simple explanation that fails to take account of the signals given by both Varoufakis and Draghi. In which case, Schäuble should beware. His position is nowhere near as strong as he thinks. He is dangerously close to the cliff edge himself. If Germany pushes Greece over the edge, Greece may well take Germany down with it.

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