Free Markets, Free People

credit swaps

Oh. This can’t be good…

Via Zero Hedge, I’ve acquired this very interesting little chart, that shows the number of margin calls on its credit-extensions to counterparties. Huh. Now, see, I just wrote that, and I have no idea what it means. It’s just lots of economic gobbledy-gook when you write it out in a single sentence like that.  But, here, let’s take a gander at the chart, then I’ll explain, in human terms, what it tells us.


So, the European Central Bank (ECB) had this great idea, which was to implement a European version of Quantitative Easing. They called it the Long-Term Refinancing Operation, or LTRO.

It was actually pretty simple. The banks would go to the ECB and get an LTRO loan by providing collateral of some sort—generally A-rated securities. By which, I mean a security that at least one rating agency has rated as "A". Like, you know, Italian bonds. They don’t actually have to give the collateral to the ECB or anything, just let them know that, "Hey, we’ll just keep it safe, and can hand it over if we really have to." On the strength of those assurances, and the sterling quality of the collateral in question, like Spanish bonds, the ECB then gives the banks a huge hunk of cash. The banks then get to keep the money for up to three years, but are only charged the average overnight rate of interest.

Now, as long as the securities you put up for collateral are good, like Irish bonds, it’s a pretty sweet deal. Alas, if the securities turn out not to be so reliable, the ECB will make a "margin call", that is to say, they will demand the banks come up with additional cash or other assets to cover the collateral.

As you can see from the charts, that is exactly what the ECB is is starting to do. That’s troublesome.  You see, the ECB has a €3 trillion balance sheet. But it only has a bit under €11 billion in actual assets. So the ECB has a leverage ratio of a little under 300:1. So, it really does have to go after better assets from the banks if the initial collateral turns, you know, sucky.

The problem then is, as Tyler at Zero Hedge puts it:

The rapid deterioration in collateral asset quality is extremely worrisome(GGBs? European financial sub debt? Papandreou’s Kebab Shop unsecured 2nd lien notes?) as it forces the banks who took the collateralized loans to come up with more ‘precious’ cash or assets (unwind existing profitable trades such as sovereign carry, delever further by selling assets, or subordinate more of the capital structure via pledging more assets – to cover these collateral shortfalls) or pay-down the loan in part. This could very quickly become a self-fulfilling vicious circle – especially given the leverage in both the ECB and the already-insolvent banks that took LTRO loans that now back the main Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese sovereign bond markets.

Essentially, the LTRO program is beginning to suck higher quality assets out of the banks to meet the margin calls that are issued when the initial collateral’s value starts to go belly up. Sucking those higher-quality assets into the ECB’s LTRO collateral program, mean that they can no longer be used to finance business and consumer credit, and, thus, spending. The banks essentially become bond storage warehouses, that don’t actually do any business.

That slows the economy, of course. Which means that those original A-Rated securities stand e much better chance of defaulting, in which case, they’re worth nothing. As Seeking Alpha explains:

The real menace comes in the event of a further weakening of the Eurozone economy. If the economy were to contract, the collateral that the banks have pledged to the ECB may cease to be "performing" (seemingly the only hard criterion for collateral for the second round of LTRO). The ECB would be at risk–and ultimately so would the banks that pledged the defaulting securities.

Any defaults, be they of collateral or the banks themselves, would be a serious issue for the ECB. The ECB is supporting its EUR 3 trillion balance sheet with EUR 10.76 billion in capital–leverage of nearly 300 to one. With the fiscal situation of European sovereigns already strained to the breaking point, it’s hard to see where the money to cover the defaults could come from. This issue of a ballooning balance sheet, coupled with shaky collateral and the 3-year tenor of the ECB loans, is precisely why Trichet and Weber would not go the Draghi route. They bristled at the risk.

The odds of a calamity of the sort that would endanger the ECB are not great, but nor are they impossibly long.

Well, that huge jump in margin calls may be an indicator that those not "impossibly long" odds are getting shorter and shorter. And I wonder how much exposure US banks have to an LTRO default through credit/FX swaps. Probably…really a lot.

So, we got that goin’ for us.

Dale Franks
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