Thursday's ECB Announcement: Standby for More Euphoria

Seven hours from now, we will have the press release from the ECB board meeting, and then Draghi’s press conference. The markets wait with bated breath.

My expectation is that the ECB will announce three things:
1. A cut in the overnight rate from 0.75% to 0.50%.
2. Another LTRO (cheap money for three years) for the banks in the range of EUR 400-500B.
3. Revival of the SMP (bond buying) for “monetary reasons” in an unstated amount.

Another tranche of LTRO would be very helpful for Spain, coupled with the simultaneous EFSF recapitalization of its banks so that they are “solvent” for ECB lending purposes. That way, instead of the EFSF having to bail out Spain, the ECB can do it via the banks, which will use the funds to buy government bonds. The government can use the proceeds to pay its bills and fund the regions. This could keep Spain afloat pending the eventual startup of the ESM.

Reviving the SMP could have substantial influence on market sentiment as it hints at an eventual ECB rescue of Spain and Italy. But it will be purely symbolic.

Thus, the ECB can throw up enough dust and confusion to convince the markets that it will do “whatever it takes”, and thus redeem Draghi’s exigent promise. Audible relief all around, and then everyone in Frankfurt and Brussels can go off on their August holidays. There should be sufficient confusion and misdirection for the bullish to declare victory as they are wont to do whenever the sun rises in the morning.

However, what will be missing in this excitement is the fact that no part of the Troika has visited Spain to conduct an on-site examination of its banks or its regions. All we have today are two consulting firms’ estimates of the size of the banks’ asset quality problem. I sincerely doubt that they provided in any way for the impairment of the banks’ loans to the autonomous regions, all of which have lost market access and all of which are running operating deficits. I also doubt that a bunch of European consultants (no offense) have the slightest ability to do the down-and-dirty on the banks’ commercial real estate portfolios.

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Those who haven’t lived through a real estate disaster may have trouble understanding that many such loans are worth not 85% or 75% or 70% or 50%, but nothing as in nothing. Raw land and unleased (or half-built) structures can be worth nothing. All those half-built condos on the Costa del Sol? They are probably worth less than nothing. They will stand as monuments to what might have been.

The regions have big deficits and can’t borrow in the markets, which means that their debt should be consolidated with the government, along with the gaping hole in the banking system. The cost of a full bailout of Spain will be much more than currently anticipated, and it will manifest itself over the next few months. But it will take a few weeks for that to sink in, after everyone is back at work in September.;
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