Around a black hole there is what is called an event horizon. It is the point beyond which you can no longer turn back. In Hollywood films the event is often made rather dramatic with lots of shaking and sirens, as if it was like the lip of an approaching waterfall. It isn’t. In reality there would be nothing to mark it, no sign or apparent change. The Event Horizon would be hard to notice, much like a Tsunami out at sea. Just a small ripple you might not notice until it was passed.
And so it is in debt as well. In even quite large quantities debt can be fairly harmless. But beyond a certain accumulated mass it changes. There is now, I think, enough debt in the Fed, the Bank of Japan and the ECB that each of them is in the process of becoming a debt black hole. That is, the debt in them is so massive that it is gravitational, sucking at any and all of the debt and finance around it pulling more and more in to itself.
The problem is this. The Central banks have chosen to lend to insolvent private banks and to the nations that already bankrupted themselves trying to bail out their unbailable banks. In an attempt to make their lunacy seem sensible, the central banks assured everyone that they would only accept as collateral for the money they were lending out, the best assets the banks possessed. So the best of the insolvent banks’ assets were sucked in and cheap central bank loans flooded out.
The central banks said that ‘now the banks were stabilized’ they hoped the banks would lend to the market and to each other thus allowing the broader economy and the banks themselves to be funded ‘by the market’. Neither happened. Why? Well the banks continued not to trust the quality of the assets they were offering each other as collateral. Not entirely surprising since the banks had already pledged the best of them to the central banks. Without trust-able assets as collateral – no loans.
So the banks were forced back to the ECB and the Fed for more loans. Of course they had already pledged their best assets. So began the gradual but inexorable loosening of criteria for what the ECB would accept as collateral. At first it was only AAA rated. Then it was bonds from ailing nations. Then it was anything that came to hand. Which made the ‘market’, AKA other banks, even less keen on accepting as collateral whatever was left. And so on round and round. We have long since reached the point where the central banks like the ECB, either directly or washed first through a national bank such as The bank of Greece or Spain, has begun to accept almost anything as collateral.
When I say washed what I mean is the national bank in Spain or Greece or Ireland may accept some asset which is thoroughly sub-prime in return for a sovereign bond. That bond is then acceptable to the ECB as collateral because it is a Sovereign bond, which as we all know are AAA rated, for sure, for sure never going to default. However the more sub-prime, stinky, slimy paper the national banks are stuffed with, the more the sovereign debt is backed by a national bank which resembles a sewer of rotting rubbish, a nation in the grip of austerity and a contracting economy. Whatever pretty prime-time fictions you get hosed with each evening, this is the reality that dare not be reported. And we all know it. Ireland is in recession, Spain’s economy is contracting and so is Portugal’s. That is why ‘the market’ keeps hiking the interest it insists upon for lending to National banks.
The result is that the private banks have already pledged anything good they had. They will not therefore lend to each other because they know none of them has any assets left which are worth anything. Thus they are forced to go back to the ECB and Fed for more money and those institutions are forced to take even more ropey assets in return for issuing even more loans. Each time round, each new QE and new lot of money, sucks in more bad assets and makes any possiblity of private funding even more remote. The Central banks have swallowed the market. All debt and debtors are being drawn into ever tighter orbit. None will escape.
Now you might object that I have simply missed the point of the official policy. Certainly the National banks and the Central Banks have removed huge amounts of the toxic loan/assets from the private banks… and this we are assured is a good thing. This is called ‘cleaning up’ the banks. The rubbish is removed and in its place ‘good’ national and central bank bonds are put in their place, giving the private banks lots of good assets. And it does sound possibly OK when you hear it put that way and don’t think too hard about it.
But we have to remember a couple of things. First the bad assets have not ‘gone’. They still exist. They are still money which was lent out, which itself was often borrowed and thus has to be repaid, but which is not now bringing in any profit. Those losses are still warm and moistly rotting, just doing it in National and Central bank vaults now. Second, for all that the banks do now have sovereign and Central bank bonds to pledge, they are still, all of them, coming back to the ECB and the Fed for more QE easy money loans. This is because even though the banks have used that QE money to speculate on commodities and currencies to try to make a fast and out-sized profit – still chasing high risk and return – they still have huge liabilities (money they owe) not being paid for from income which is not coming in from yet more bad assets which are nevertheless still being held at imaginary values so as to make the assets side of the balance sheet look like it might balance out those liabilities. Imagine a very long turd tied into a knot.
But I digress. My main point is that the banks, despite 4 years of never-quite-materializing recovery, still need loans from the central banks and still need to pledge assets to get them. How many more assets do they have? Probably many hundreds of billions. But they are increasingly awful. Which means we have an alleged recovery that must increasingly be fueled by the very debts and worthless dross it is trying to recover from.
Now just for fun imagine how many times any assets were re-hypothecated before they got to the ECB and how many times the ECB bond issued in return for those assets will itself be re-hypothecated. And then feel good about the solidity of the banks, the system and the recovery.
My guess is that as this year progresses banks will quietly bring rubbish back on to their balance sheets from off-balance sheet vehicles just so they can be slipped into the ECB. These would be assets that were declared worthless and written off for a tax rebate in the country of origin, before being moved to an SIV in Ireland where they would be declared at face value so as to be written down again and then pledged to the ECB at far above their real market value in return for an ECB bond which can be used to speculate against various nations and their debts.