Tag Archives: Greek banks

For Greece, ECB = End Close, Beware

The European Central Bank’s decision on Friday to stop accepting Greek government bonds as collateral was not the first such move made by Frankfurt but there was something distinctly ominous about the timing and implications of its choice.

“The ECB will assess their potential eligibility following the conclusion of the currently ongoing review, by the European Commission in liaison with the ECB and the IMF, of the progress made by Greece under the second adjustment program,” the central bank said.

The ECB has twice before this year refused Greek banks the ability to use government bonds to draw much-needed liquidity. The first was after the bond restructuring, or PSI, and the other was before the start of the bank recapitalization process. In both cases, Greek banks were excluded and had to rely on Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to gain access to funds. They have reportedly drawn more than 60 billion euros this way.

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A changing tide to lift Greece

A rising tide lifts all boats, they say. The changing tide in Europe produced by the eurozone leaders’ decisions in Brussels on Friday could certainly help give Greece, sinking deeper into trouble over the last three years, the buoyancy it needs to survive.

Although still far from finalized, the outline deal that emerged somewhere around 4 a.m. in the Belgian capital paves the way for banks in eurozone countries to be recapitalized directly from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to which all members contribute money.

If this scheme applies to Greece, there are two key benefits. Firstly, it would reduce the public debt substantially. The current recapitalization of Greek banks involves 48 billion euros being lent to the government via the EFSF and this being distributed to the lenders via a public fund, the HFSF. This means 48 billion euros are being added to the national debt, whereas if the money is lent directly to the banks by the ESM, Greece would avoid this extra burden. Even after the debt restructuring (PSI) in March, Greece is still expected to owe just over 160 percent of its GDP at the end of the year. A direct recapitalization from the ESM would reduce this debt by about 25 percent of GDP. It would also slash the amount Athens pays in interest each year.

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The ties we don’t see but can’t ignore

President Karolos Papoulias was correct to stress to party leaders the unusually large amount of savings being withdrawn from Greek banks over the past few days but this also caused some unnecessary arm-flapping, a practice which always obscures people’s view of what is important.

Papoulias told party leaders on Monday that 700 million euros had been withdrawn from Greek banks on Monday. Banking sources told the Financial Times that about 5 billion euros had been withdrawn since the end of April. Savings disappearing from Greek banks is nothing new. Deposits have fallen from about 240 billion euros in 2009 to some 170 billion now. However, the rate at which money is being withdrawn at the moment is a cause for concern.

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Guaranteed to fail

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement

There are many reasons to be alarmed about the upcoming parliamentary elections. The possibility of eight, nine or even 10 parties entering Parliament after May 6 seems a recipe for a particularly unsatisfying political moussaka. The uncertainty over what the next government may look like or if cooperation will be feasible at all is also a cause for dread. The rise of the neofascist Chrysi Avgi is enough to make one sick to the stomach.

Even more alarming though is that with the elections about two weeks away, the political language is more wooden than the ancient fleet which saw off the Persians at Salamina. While Greek voters have largely been anesthetized to the effect of their politicians’ rhetoric, the fact that party leaders and parliamentary candidates are spending so much time locked in pointless debates means the crucial issues are being ignored.

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ELA: Easy as ABC?

There was an unusual sense of calm among eurozone leaders at last week’s summit in Brussels. The pain from the constant headache of the debt crisis seemed to have been dulled by a 1-trillion-euro aspirin. The European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a second round of longer-term refinancing operations (LTRO), with eurozone banks borrowing more than 500 billion euros to top up their liquidity, appears to have calmed the markets and politicians. So much so that French President Nicolas Sarkozy essentially declared the crisis to be over.

Putting aside the questionable enthusiasm of a president seeking a second term in upcoming elections, the December LTRO, when the ECB also lent more than 500 billion euros, and last week’s liquidity operation have at the very worst bought the eurozone some time. Some of the LTRO money was spent by the banks on snapping up their government’s bonds, which has led to yields dropping for countries like Italy and Spain, which were facing unsustainable borrowing costs.

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A haircut for the bold or the bald?

Illustration by Ilias Makris

Some people will think that the haircut of 50 percent or so being proposed for holders of Greek debt is a get-out-of-jail-free card for Athens and unfair punishment for investors. They would be wrong on all counts.

The writedown, set to be finalized at the European Union leaders’ summit on Wednesday, is the result of failures by both parties. The banks and hedge funds made what they hoped would be a risk-free investment in a country that they knew was the most badly placed of all those standing on the shifting sands of the euro. The market should have factored in the structural problems that plagued both the single currency and Greece, but it didn’t. In accordance with the rules of the game, both sides will pay a price.

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