More questions than answers after EU summit

Markets have welcomed the latest agreements between European leaders, but it's still unclear how the proposed measures will actually work.

In the wake of yet another summit, we need to ask our usual question: is this the eurozone’s game changer, or in football parlance the "Balotelli moment”? Clearly, there have been some late night concessions from Germany, which could turn out to be very significant in the long term. Spanish and Irish debt ratios will markedly benefit as the costs of their bank bailouts are removed from the sovereign balance sheets and absorbed by the eurozone.

The markets have welcomed these developments, and rightly so. In particular, the opening sentence of the statement, which says boldly and simply that "we affirm that it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns”, could prove to be a major breakthrough. Some think it might be the beginning of a Euro-tarp.

But my fear is that, as so often in the past, the devil will prove to be in the detail. The more carefully one examines the text of the statement, the more questions are raised about how the proposed measures will actually work.

In particular, it is debatable whether there are any terms for direct eurozone recapitalisation of Spanish banks which will be acceptable both to the Spanish government and to the German Bundestag. (The latter will be empowered to "monitor” the new arrangement, according to Merkel’s spokesman.) And the shortage of remaining funds in the EFSF/ESM, which I discussed last week, has certainly not been solved.

I would like to discuss each of the key points raised by the summit separately.

1. Direct bank recapitalisation by the ESM

This is clearly the critical new development which potentially allows the costs of recapitalising troubled banks to fall on the eurozone as a whole, rather than on an individual sovereign country. It could therefore represent a very large step towards debt mutualisation, and it directly addresses the point which the markets so disliked in the Spanish bank deal two weeks ago. The statement says that this can only be done after the eurozone’s new bank supervisor is "established”, and that this should only be "considered” by the Council before the end of the year. In view of the disputes which could arise over this thorny issue, the risks of slippage are considerable.

The ESM will need to negotiate precise terms for each of the bank injections, and these terms will in effect determine the extent of any transfer of funds across national boundaries. Germany will have an incentive to wipe out existing shareholders and bondholders in Spanish banks so that they will obtain greater ownership for each euro of rescue money expended. The incentives on Spain will be the exact opposite. So this could prove very contentious indeed.

Furthermore, the statement says that conditions will be set for these bank injections, including "economy wide” conditions. This is mysterious but could mean that conditions will be required from the sovereign, for example that the ESM would be compensated if there are any losses on the capital injected into the Spanish banks. That would seem to meet Merkel’s pre-summit demand that sovereigns can only deal with sovereigns, not with foreign banks.

I understand that such conditions would obviously eliminate the whole principle of breaking the link between the sovereign debt crisis and the banking crisis, but I suspect that Germany will be quite demanding is setting these terms. Otherwise, there could be great problems with the constitutional court in Karlsruhe.

2. Seniority of debt

The markets initially became excited by this, but should not have done. There is very little change here. The statement "reaffirms” (a word which in effect implies "this is not new”) that the Spanish bank injection, made by the EFSF and then transferred to the ESM, will not gain seniority status over private debt holders. Careful observers knew that already, since it has always been the intention, stated in the preamble to the ESM treaty. The key point is that there is no general change intended for the seniority of ESM debt, so this problem is not alleviated.

3. ESM support for the Spanish and Italian bond markets

The final paragraph of the statement gives the strong impression that the ESM will in future be able to stabilise these bond markets in a "flexible and efficient” manner. This appears to be a major victory for Mario Monti, but actually it does not contain anything really different from the status quo. Ever since last year, the EFSF/ESM has been empowered to buy both primary and secondary market debt, on a request from a member state, which then has to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. This memorandum involves less onerous conditions than a full Troika programme.

There is also an emergency procedure available, which can be triggered by the ECB. It has always been a bit obscure whether this requires a formal request from a member state. Today’s statement reminds everyone that there should be conditions written into a Memorandum, so the basic principle appears to be unchanged.

Another point to bear in mind is that any bond buying by the ESM may result in less bond purchases by the ECB under the Securities Markets Programme. This is a key objective of the ECB, and it means that net support for the bond markets may not increase very much.

4. The availability of funds for the ESM

German Finance Minister Schauble emphatically said yesterday to the Wall Street Journal that there would be no increase in the size of the ESM, and that position has been maintained by Germany at the summit. Furthermore, Merkel has repeatedly stated that there will be no "joint financing” of eurozone debt (ie eurobonds, or eurobills) before full fiscal union has taken effect. Again, there is no change in that position. Indeed, that is the basis for the German government’s insistence that they have not taken on any extra "joint liabilities” as a result of this summit.

In summary, the summit has given the ESM some new tasks, but no new money with which to discharge these tasks.  And many details are obscure. To quote the lyrics of the great Johnny Nash:

There are more questions than answers
Pictures in my mind that will not show
There are more questions than answers
And the more I find out the less I know
Yeah, the more I find out the less I know.

Copyright The Financial Times 2012.

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