Friday, July 6, 2012

Target2: The EU's Little Surprise

Well, it seems that if the financially weaker members of the Euro zone were to go belly up, their Target2 liabilities alone might be enough to soak up the entire EU bailout bazooka. Isn't that something?

What are Target2 liabilities, you ask? The Euro zone operates a settlement and clearance system called Target2. Settlement and clearance systems have existed for centuries, serving to provide centralized places where checks and other funds transfers between banks can be netted out and paid. For example, most major European banks have claims on each other for payment of checks, wire transfers and numerous other types of funds transfers. These transactions can be done directly with each bank (highly inefficient), or presented to a centralized clearinghouse, which adds up all claims of and on each bank, nets them, and asks the bank at the end of each business day to make a single payment to (or receive a single payment from) the clearinghouse. The Federal Reserve System operates a humungous settlement and clearance system for American and foreign banks dealing in dollar denominated transactions. Without settlement and clearance systems, modern finance couldn't exist.

The prototypical settlement and clearance system doesn't extend overnight credit. Its job is to make sure there are no unpaid liabilities on the part of member banks and expects each member to completely pay all its obligations at the end of the business day.

But the EU's Target2 system evidently is different. It seems to have a little spigot for overnight credit. And, indeed a fount for some EU member nations. Greece reportedly has a 100 billion EU indebtedness at Target2 (see The total unpaid Target2 liabilities of Greece, Spain, Italy and other troubled Euro zone member nations could be in the range of 700 billion plus Euros, equal to or greater than the 700 billion Euro bailout bazooka. And we haven't counted the formal sovereign debt of these nations, which totals in the trillions of Euros. Target2 requires collateral for intraday credit. But its collateral requirements, if any, for overnight credit are unclear. There may be none.

This is a funny way to run a settlement and clearance operation, with credit available on a continuing, overnight basis. It contravenes the basic purpose of settlement and clearance, which is to balance the books. By allowing member nations to participate on an unbalanced basis, Target2 seems to have bought itself a mission creep problem that it can't solve without blowing up the European Monetary Union. After all, how does Target2 collect from Greece or another nation with an unpaid overnight balance? If it boots that nation out of Target2, it effectively boots that nation out of the Euro zone. That, in turn, precipitates all the dire consequences that Europe's leaders profess to want to avoid.

If a Euro zone member nation--let's randomly pick Greece--is unable or refuses to pay its Target2 liabilities, the losses evidently would be allocated among the central banks in the Euro zone. Most likely, the central banks of the larger nations like Germany and France would bear more liability than, say, Finland's central bank. Hence, the incentive for the EU powerhouses to keep trying to muddle through the crisis even though Greece is trying mightily not to repay its debts and Germany is striving mightily not to pay Greece's debts, either.

How Target2 became a secret sugar daddy for the spendthrift Euro zone members remains unclear. Whatever the explanation, the sudden surfacing of these liabilities only darkens the clouds gathering over the European financial world. Target2 evidently has been quietly carrying these liabilities without forcing repayment. That doesn't promote confidence in its financial solidity. Wary member banks might be inclined to take defensive measures, and those, if extreme enough, could resemble a credit crunch. We just had a credit crunch in 2008 and it made for a lousy party. There's no easy way to reduce these Target2 liabilities since the debtor nations ain't got the moola to pay down the outstanding overnight balances. Which means they'll be barking up any nearby tree for yet another bailout.

But the EU's bailout bazooka appears overwhelmed once Target2 is added into the mix of indebtedness it's supposed to cover. High ranking EU officials will surely issue a comforting sounding press release or two to paper over the Target2 problem. But talk therapy, a favorite EU maneuver, hasn't done squat to resolve the crisis and it won't help much here, either.

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