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Europe’s Secret Bailout

MUNICH – While the world worries about Donald Trump, Brexit, and the flow of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries, the European Central Bank continues to work persistently and below the public radar on its debt-restructuring plan – also known as quantitative easing (QE) – to ease the burden on over-indebted eurozone countries.

Under the ECB’s QE program, which started in March 2015 (and will likely be extended beyond its scheduled end in March 2017), eurozone members’ central banks buy private market securities for €1.74 trillion ($1.84 trillion), with more than €1.4 trillion to be used to purchase their own countries’ government debt.

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The QE program seems to be symmetrical, because each central bank repurchases its own government debt in proportion to the size of the country. But it does not have a symmetrical effect, because government debt from southern European countries, where the debt binges and current-account deficits of the past occurred, are mostly repurchased abroad.

For example, the Banco de España repurchases Spanish government bonds from all over the world, thereby deleveraging the country vis-à-vis private creditors. To this end, it asks other eurozone members’ central banks, particularly the German Bundesbank and, in some cases, the Dutch central bank, to credit the payment orders to the German and Dutch bond sellers. Frequently, if the sellers of Spanish government bonds are outside the eurozone, it will ask the ECB to credit the payment orders.

In the latter case, this often results in triangular transactions, with the sellers transferring the money to Germany or the Netherlands to invest it in fixed-interest securities, companies, or company shares. Thus, the German Bundesbank and the Dutch central bank must credit not only the direct payment orders from Spain, but also the indirect orders resulting from the Banca de España’s repurchases in third countries.

The payment order credits granted by the Bundesbank and the Dutch central bank are recorded as Target claims against the euro system. At the end of September, these claims amounted to €819.4 billion, with the Bundesbank accounting for €715.7 billion, which was 46% of Germany’s net external assets at midyear. Since the beginning of the year, both countries’ combined claims have increased by €180.4 billion, or €20 billion per month, on average. Conversely, the Target debt of the Southern European countries – Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (GIPS) – amounted to €816.5 billion.

For the GIPS countries, these transactions are a splendid deal. They can exchange interest-bearing government debt with fixed maturities held by private investors for the (currently) non-interest-bearing and never-payable Target book debt of their central banks – institutions that the Maastricht Treaty defines as limited liability companies, because member states do not have to recapitalize them when they are over-indebted.

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If a crash occurs and those countries leave the euro, their national central banks are likely to go bankrupt because much of their debt is denominated in euro, whereas their claims against the respective states and the banks will be converted to the new depreciating currency. The Target claims of the remaining euro system will then vanish into thin air, and the Bundesbank and the Dutch central bank will only be able to hope that other surviving central banks participate in their losses. At that time, German and Dutch asset sellers who now hold central bank money will notice that their stocks are claims against their central banks that are no longer covered.

One should not assume that anyone is actively striving for a crash. But, in view of the negotiations – set to begin in 2018 – on a European fiscal union (implying systematic transfers from the EU’s north to its south), it wouldn’t hurt if Germany and the Netherlands knew what would happen if they did not sign a possible treaty. As it stands, they will presumably agree to a fiscal union, if only because it will enable them to hide the expected write-off losses in a European transfer union, rather than disclosing those losses now.