NEW YORK – Far from abating, the euro crisis has taken a turn for the worse in recent months. The European Central Bank managed to relieve an incipient credit crunch through its long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), which lent over a trillion euros to eurozone banks at one percent. This brought considerable relief to financial markets, and the resulting rally obscured underlying deterioration; but that is unlikely to last much longer.
The fundamental problems have not been resolved; indeed, the gap between creditor and debtor countries continues to widen. The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but potentially more lethal phase.
At the onset of the crisis, the eurozone’s breakup was inconceivable: the assets and liabilities denominated in the common currency were so intermingled that a breakup would cause an uncontrollable meltdown. But, as the crisis has progressed, the eurozone financial system has been progressively reoriented along national lines.
This trend has gathered momentum in recent months. The LTRO enabled Spanish and Italian banks to engage in very profitable and low-risk arbitrage in their own countries’ bonds. And the preferential treatment received by the ECB on its Greek bonds will discourage other investors from holding sovereign debt. If this continues for a few more years, a eurozone breakup would become possible without a meltdown – the omelet could be unscrambled – but it would leave the creditor countries’ central banks holding large, difficult-to-enforce claims against the debtor countries’ central banks.