As the Euro crisis developed there were a wide range of discussions and disagreements. One of the longest lasting and most polarised was and indeed is the one over the Target2 settlement system. There has been a new outbreak of this which has been triggered by a letter published on Friday by ECB (European Central Bank) President Mario Draghi. Let us cut straight to the chase.
If a country were to leave the Eurosystem, its national central bank’s claims on or liabilities to the ECB would need to be settled in full.
Boom! This opens more than one can of worms and one rather large one is opened if we step bank in time to July 2012 and the emphasis is mine.
And so we view this, and I do not think we are unbiased observers, we think the euro is irreversible. And it’s not an empty word now, because I preceded saying exactly what actions have been made, are being made to make it irreversible.
That speech was also famous for something else which is relevant to the discussion.
Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.
So how can you leave something which is irreversible? Accordingly you will not be settling up partly because Mario will not let it happen. That July 2012 speech was a success for keeping the Euro going forwards although reading it again exposes a fair bit of hot air and boasting about relative economic success of which the clearest critic is the ECB’s 1.5 trillion Euros plus of QE (Quantitative Easing) and -0.4% deposit interest-rate.
But as I read the crucial sentence in the letter to Mr Marco Valli (MEP) and Mr Marco Zanni (MEP) my other thought was that Mario Draghi had just boosted the credibility of those who have argued that Target2 balances matter.
How has this come about?
Ironically this is another side-effect of the QE programme.
the recent increase in TARGET2 balances largely reflects liquidity flows stemming from the ECB’s asset purchase programme (APP).
Oops! Also the change is how can one put it? Geographically concentrated.
Almost 80% of bonds purchased by national central banks under the APP were sold by counterparties that are not resident in the same country as the purchasing national central bank, and roughly half of the purchases were from counterparties located outside the euro area, most of which mainly access the TARGET2 payments system via the Deutsche Bundesbank.
As we note that foreign investors have been selling Euro area bonds to the ECB on a large-scale we see this as a consequence of who they have chosen to sell them too.
This, in turn, resulted in an increase in the Deutsche Bundesbank’s TARGET2 balance vis-à-vis the ECB.
With Germanic accuracy we are told that this amounted to 754,262,914,964.24 Euros as of the end of 2016. It may be hard to believe now but back in the early 2000s there were occasions when the German Bundesbank was a debtor in this system but the amounts back then were far far smaller. You will not be surprised to read it became a creditor as the credit crunch hit and at the end of 2008 that amounted to 115.3 billion Euros. At the time of Mario’s “whatever it takes” speech the balance was 727.2 billion Euros. This of course poses the problem that it we are in so much of a better place now why are we seeing a new record surplus? Here is the official reply.
However, the current increase in TARGET2 balances is not a symptom of increased stress and is therefore inherently different from the previous episodes of rising balances.
Ah, so this time is different!
What is Target2?
It is a settlement system which represents the monetary side of transactions described below by the Bundesbank.
These payment transactions can take a wide variety of forms, such as payment for a goods delivery, the purchase or sale of a security, the granting or repayment of a loan or the depositing of funds at a bank, among many others.
Now this reminds me of the case of the way changes in UK £M3 were represented some 30 years or so ago. This is because back then just because there was an accounting identity we were told there had to be a causal identity as well. Sadly that did not go so well. However the scale of Target2 leads to worries.
An average of around 350,000 payments with a value of just under €2½ trillion are processed using TARGET2 each working day, a figure which is broadly equivalent to the size of Germany’s GDP.
Other central banks have settlement systems but you see where the difference is comes from the fact that the Bank of Japan works in an environment of political and monetary union so nobody worries much about balances between Kobe and Osaka. The problem is created because the Euro is an economic concept which crosses national boundaries. Thus these cash-flows cross national boundaries. But the Target2 balances are not a causal force they are a consequence of financial actions elsewhere. For example back in 2011/12 they built up because of the banking crises seen and now they are building up ironically as part of the ECB’s response to that and the subsequent economic problems.
How could it go wrong?
There are two possibilities. The mildest would be something that cannot be settled under the current structure as described by Beate Resazt here.
in Target2 there is always a danger that one leg of a transaction is paid and the counterparty is not willing or able to fulfil its part of the business. For this eventuality banks have to provide collateral. If collateral turns out to be insufficient to realize the full amount the resulting loss is shared by the euro area NCBs in line with their capital shares.
So a risk but after so many stresses we have avoided that so far meaning it is there as a risk but the ECB has so far kept on top of it. The bigger issue is of course someone leaving the Euro as Mario Draghi stated. This poses all sorts of questions. The current fractious state of Brexit negotiations would presumably be considered to be something of a tea-party compared to this so there are genuine dangers. In such an environment the worst case scenario would be if the departing state refused to settle its deficit as after all it would likely be in deficit. Some argue that there is no deficit only claims and perhaps they have a point when everyone is still in the Euro as you can then argue that in essence this is simply a settlement system run by the ECB. But we return to what if you leave when you are now outside the system and refuse to settle up what would now be a deficit?
As I indicated earlier to my mind rather than being a problem in itself the Target2 issue indicates problems elsewhere. For example the German current account surplus or the way that ECB QE is settled mostly at the German Bundesbank. So when we see headlines like “debt” or “profit and loss” I am not convinced as it is an accounting system telling us about flows of cash. Of course cash flow leads many companies to come a cropper and indeed can do to governments as we are reminded again that this would not be a subject for debate beyond regional policy if there was fiscal and political union.
Somebody leaving seems likely to be an explosive event both politically and economically and in the turmoil lots would happen. For example a new currency for the country concerned and probably an element of default on debts too. This would bounce around the Target2 system but it would be an accounting identity rather than a cause.