Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Does the Federal Reserve Have a Secret Bailout Plan For Europe?

Today's announcement of a coordinated monetary easing program led by the U.S. Federal Reserve, providing currency swap lines to the central banks of other major nations, was the news the stock market wanted to here: a walloping big dose of moral hazard that infused dollar-denominated liquidity into an increasingly stressed European banking system. The Dow Jones Industrial Average blasted upward 490 points, the largest move in two and a half years. Markets always love it when a governmental body reduces their risks. Recall, however, that there is no such thing as the elimination of financial risk. It can only be transferred. If risk is transferred away from market participants by a government program, you know who just got the short end of the stick. (Hint: look in the mirror.)

The Fed's move came when the EU was wobbling precariously at the edge of the precipice. The recent spasms and convulsions of EU member governments has accomplished nothing except prove that the EU's governance process couldn't hold together a neighborhood book club. The absence of action by elected officials has led many to urge that the European Central Bank monetize the EU's sovereign debt by buying it up. But the ECB, hewing to its charter purpose of maintaining price stability, has only dipped a toe or two in the shark infested waters of the EU sovereign debt markets. Even as it buys a distressed nation's debt, it sells debt of stronger nations in order to keep the supply of Euros stable. This, however, doesn't monetize debt.

The Fed, by contrast, has promised with its currency swap program, to print dollars early, often and in bulk. The swap lines are priced to provide Black Friday discounts, except for the next 14 months. The Fed provides to other central banks dollars in exchange for Euros (or Canadian, British, Japanese or Swiss currency), with the other central bank obligated to return the dollars at the same exchange rate as existed when the swap was entered into. Thus, the Fed nominally has no risk.

Consider, however, what might happen when the Fed is dealing with the ECB. The latter won't print money; and consequently has available only so many Euros to swap with the Fed. If the ECB needs more dollars than it has Euros to offer in swap, it's out of luck under the currency swap program. But the Bernanke Fed is clearly hellbent on delivering liquidity, and the delivery process used would only be a technicality. If one process isn't enough, they'd use another. This is the approach the Fed took in the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it expanded the scope of its quantitative easing to buy mortgage-backed securities, commercial paper, business loans, car loans, and other consumer loans. Had the crisis worsened, the Fed probably would have bought the kitchen sink and Uncle Arnie's old lawnmower.

The Fed has its thumb in the European dike. Its currency swap program has bought a little time for Europe's politicians to get their act together. But let's be real. Even though the politicians fervently claim that they will now give the crisis their full attention, experience teaches that they will fail. The EU has a herd of cats dynamics, and true European fiscal discipline and reform is less likely than Bernie Madoff being paroled.

What if the ECB needs more dollars than the currency swap program could provide? This may be a possibility. European banks may experience yet more difficulty getting dollars to fund their dollar-denominated loans as the EU crisis metastasizes. To prevent a credit crunch, the Fed may decide that it would buy EU sovereign debt. The Fed has wide latitude to decide how to implement monetary policy. While buying sovereign debt denominated in a foreign currency would be a first, one suspects that the Fed would, as it has in the past, liberally interpret its mandate in order to do what it considers necessary.

Buying EU sovereign debt would set the Fed on the slippery slope. If there were losses, where would the losses land? (Hint: look in the mirror.) And what if the Fed's money printing were inflationary? Where would the burden of inflation land? (Hint: don't shift your gaze.)

Of course, high ranking government officials in the U.S. and Europe would decry such a scenario as preposterous. But consider that Europe is deadlocked in a death spiral. The politicians can't function and the ECB firmly believes it is legally precluded from monetizing the EU's sovereign debt. The one governmental body in the world that has the resources and willingness to step in is the Fed. Today's action takes the heat off Europe's politicians, if only momentarily. They will probably take it as an excuse to stall and delay instead of impose harsh conditions on all of their electorates (which would be austerity for the spendthrift nations and payment of the bailout costs by the wealthier nations). They'd probably figure they could get away with inaction because the Fed would surely step in with more moral hazard.

If the Fed monetized EU sovereign debt using dollars, that would likely signal the demise of the Euro, with the dollar substituting as Europe's common currency while European nations again issued local currencies. This was the way Europe worked in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In such scenario now, the Euro bloc might be able to disentangle itself from the crisis, albeit painfully, without triggering a worldwide credit crunch. Maybe that's the Fed's secret plan.

The Fed's not above acting dramatically if quietly. We've recently discovered that it loaned over a trillion dollars to distressed banks during the 2008-09 financial crisis, far more than it had previously acknowledged. Ben Bernanke demonstrated that he would act when it looked like no one else could or would. The eyes of the world may again turn to him, and we shouldn't expect inaction.

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