Tag Archives: Bailout

German Federal Constitutional Court vs. European Central Bank

In the FT, Claire Jones reports about the German Federal Constitutional Court’s decision to refer a case against the European Central Bank’s PSPP program to the European Court of Justice.

“In the view of the [court] significant reasons indicate that the ECB decisions governing the asset purchase programme violate the prohibition of monetary financing and exceed the monetary policy mandate of the European Central Bank.” …

While Germany’s constitutional court said the OMT programme was legal, it stipulated, based on an earlier ECJ judgment, that bond purchases had to meet a number of requirements. On Tuesday the Karlsruhe-based court said there were “several factors” to indicate that one of these requirements — that bonds must be purchased on secondary markets and not directly from governments — was being violated under QE.

From the court’s statement:

… any programme relating to the purchase of government bonds on the secondary market must provide sufficient guarantees to effectively ensure observance of the prohibition of monetary financing. The Senate presumes that the Court of Justice of the European Union deems the conditions which it developed, and which limit the scope of the ECB policy decision on the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme of 6 September 2012, to be legally binding criteria. Against that background, the Senate further presumes that contempt of these criteria would amount to a violation of competences also with regard to other programmes relating to the purchases of government bonds.

… several factors indicate that the PSPP decision nevertheless violates Art. 123 AEUV, namely the fact that details of the purchases are announced in a manner that could create a de facto certainty on the markets that issued government bonds will, indeed, be purchased by the Eurosystem; that it is not possible to verify compliance with certain minimum periods between the issuing of debt securities on the primary market and the purchase of the relevant securities on the secondary market; that to date all purchased bonds were – without exception – held until maturity; and furthermore that the purchases include bonds that carry a negative yield from the outset.

… the PSPP decision can no longer be qualified as a monetary policy measure but instead must be deemed to constitute a measure that is primarily of an economic policy nature.

… the ECB Governing Council may be able to modify the rules on risk sharing within the Eurosystem in a way that would result in risks for the profit and loss accounts of the national central banks and also threaten the overall budgetary responsibility of national parliaments. Against that background, the question arises whether an unlimited distribution of risks between the national central banks of the Eurosystem regarding bonds in default where such bonds were issued by central governments or by issuers of equivalent status would violate Art. 123 and Art. 125 TFEU as well as Art. 4(2) TEU (in conjunction with Art. 79(3) GG).

Previous, related post.

Monte dei Paschi Bail-X

The Economist reports about plans for Monte dei Paschi’s future:

… retail investors in the bank’s junior bonds, many of them ordinary customers. European state-aid rules say that they should lose their money along with shareholders. Technically, they will. In fact, to preserve their savings and avoid a political outcry, they will be deemed to have been “mis-sold” the bonds: they will receive shares which will in turn be swapped for new, safer bonds.

Italy has to come up with a restructuring plan, likely to involve job losses and branch closures, for the commission’s approval. (The ECB must also certify the bank’s solvency.) Bosses’ pay will be capped at ten times the staff average. And Monte dei Paschi must sell its sofferenze, the worst category of non-performing exposures, which in March amounted to 24% of all its loans. A state guarantee will cover senior tranches of these securitised debts. Atlante 2, a fund backed by Italian financial institutions, and others are negotiating with the bank over more junior slices.

Could the Fed have Rescued Lehman Brothers?

In a paper, Larry Ball argues that

inadequate collateral and lack of legal authority were not the reasons that the Fed let Lehman fail. …

… the primary decision maker was Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson–even though he had no legal authority over the Fed’s lending decisions. … evidence supports the common theory that Paulson was influenced by the strong political opposition to financial rescues. … Another factor is that both Paulson and Fed officials, although worried about the effects of a Lehman failure, did not fully anticipate the damage that it would cause.

James Stewart comments in the New York Times.

“Elektronisches Notenbankgeld ja, Vollgeld nein (Reserves for All, But no Sovereign Money),” NZZ, 2016

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, June 16, 2016. PDF, HTML. Ökonomenstimme, June 17, 2016. HTML.

  • Vollgeld seems attractive because it decouples the supply of money from intermediation. By enabling everyone to use legal tender for electronic payments, electronic base money would satisfy a need.
  • Vollgeld would prevent bank runs, at least partly; render deposit insurance unnecessary and reduce moral hazard; could help stabilize the credit cycle; and would redistribute seignorage to the central bank.
  • But these objectives can be obtained with less intrusive means.
  • Moreover, a Vollgeld system would be hard to enforce. Banks and their clients would establish new means of payment to circumvent the regulation. And in times of crisis, the central bank would feel obliged to provide liquidity assistance and bail outs.
  • The central problem is not that private money is used for transactions; it rather is that the money’s users rely on the central bank to guarantee the substitutability of private money and base money. In a democracy, the central bank cannot credibly let large parts of the payment system go under.
  • A sudden, forceful change of regime does not offer a credible way out of this trap.
  • But letting the general public access central bank reserves without abolishing private money from one day to the other may open a path towards a new arrangement where the public learns to distinguish between private and base money and where only the latter is publicly guaranteed.

Report on the Irish Banking Crisis (And the ECB’s Role)

In the Irish Times, Colin Gleeson summarizes the findings and recommendations of the main Report of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry. They are:

  • Incentives were distorted.
  • Banks and the property sector ran out of control.
  • Regulators were too optimistic.
  • “IMF favoured imposing losses on senior bond holders in October/November 2010.”
  • “No Troika programme agreed in November 2010 if Government burned senior bond holders.”
  • “ECB position contributed to inappropriate placing of significant banking debts on Irish citizens.”

Did Greece or “Germany” Surrender?

Social networks blame the German negotiators at the recent Euro summit for trying to humiliate Greece and dictating policy. This does not make any sense if one views the agreement as a loan contract between parties that are free to choose. But does it make any sense from a broader, political perspective?

According to Open Europe,

Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan told Il Sole 24 Ore, “Almost all [Eurozone countries] were against a new [bailout] programme. Only the French, tiny Cyprus and we were in favour of a compromise. Maybe this isn’t well understood.”

In the FT, Gideon Rachman writes:

What nonsense. If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to.

German taxpayers seem to agree. According to Open Europe,

a snap Infratest Dimap poll for ARD found that 52% of respondents supported the agreement and 44% opposed it, while 62% said they want Greece to remain within the Eurozone compared to 32% who want it to leave. However, 78% of respondents said they did not trust the Greek government to fully implement the agreement.


The Economist’s Buttonwood column: “Even More on Debt and Democracy.”

Lars Feld’s comment in the FT.

Lee Jong-Wha’s comment on Project Syndicate.


Major IMF-Internal Disagreement Preceded the First Greek Bailout

At the 9 May 2010 meeting at which the IMF board approved the first bailout program for Greece, not all members approved. In fact, many members, including the Executive Director representing Switzerland, challenged the proposal, suggested less optimistic scenarios and asked for modifications. The Wall Street Journal published excerpts of the minutes in October 2013, see below.

Sebastian Bräuer in the NZZ am Sonntag also reports on the issue. He points out that the Swiss Executive Director asked what would happen if the Greek government were not to implement the agreed reforms; and if IMF and European commission were to disagree. Bräuer also reports that some European banks would have been prepared to bear losses resulting from their Greek exposure, see below.

The WSJ writes:

Swiss executive director Rene Weber in a prepared statement to the board for the May 9, 2010 meeting: We have “considerable doubts about the feasibility of the program…We have doubts on the growth assumptions, which seem to be overly benign. Even a small negative deviation from the baseline growth projections would make the debt level unsustainable over the longer term…Why has debt restructuring and the involvement of the private sector in the rescue package not been considered so far?”

“The exceptionally high risks of the program were recognized by staff itself, in particular in its assessment of debt sustainability.”

“Several chairs (Argentina, Brazil, India, Russia, and Switzerland) lamented that the program has a missing element: it should have included debt restructuring and Private Sector Involvement (PSI) to avoid, according to the Brazilian ED, ‘a bailout of Greece’s private sector bondholders, mainly European financial institutions.’ The Argentine ED was very critical at the program, as it seems to replicate the mistakes (i.e., unsustainable fiscal tightening) made in the run up to the Argentina’s crisis of 2001. Much to the ‘surprise’ of the other European EDs, the Swiss ED forcefully echoed the above concerns about the lack of debt restructuring in the program, and pointed to the need for resuming the discussions on a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism.”

“The Swiss ED (supported by Australia, Brazil, Iran) noted that staff had ‘silently’ changed in the paper (i.e., without a prior approval by the board) the criterion No.2 of the exceptional access policy, by extending it to cases where there is a ‘high risk of international systemic spillover effects.’”

The NZZ writes:

[Swiss ED Weber asked:] “Wie reagiert der Fonds, wenn die Behörden die Sparmassnahmen und Strukturreformen nicht umsetzen?”

[IMF-deputy John Lipsky said:] “Es gibt keinen Plan B. Es gibt einen Plan A und die Absicht, dass Plan A erfolgreich ist.”

“Ich kann die Direktoren informieren, dass deutsche Banken Unterstützung für Griechenland erwägen”, sagte der deutsche IMF-Direktor Klaus Stein. Sein französischer Kollege Ambroise Fayolle ergänzte, auch die Banken seines Landes würden ihren Job tun.

Greece vs Eurozone vs IMF

Peter Spiegel reports in the FT that

Greece is so far off course on its $172bn bailout programme that it faces losing vital International Monetary Fund support unless European lenders write off significant amounts of its sovereign debt, the fund has warned Athens’ eurozone creditors.

Update (May 6, 2015)

According to other reports the IMF downplays disagreement among lenders. Peter Spiegel and Stefan Wagstyl report in the FT:

Officials involved in the talks said the IMF was not seeking large-scale debt relief immediately. Instead, it was warning that any concessions to Athens that allowed the government to post lower budget surpluses — the likely trajectory of the current talks — would require debt relief to make up the difference.

And Ht reports in the NZZ: According to an IMF spokesperson

Poul Thomsen, der Chef der Europaabteilung des Fonds, [hat] in jener Sitzung darauf hingewiesen, dass der Bedarf an zusätzlicher Finanzierung und an Schuldenerleichterungen zur Sicherstellung der Schuldentragfähigkeit umso grösser werde, je mehr man in den Verhandlungen von den ursprünglichen, 2012 vereinbarten Massnahmen und Zielen (des zweiten Hilfspakets) abweiche.

… Doch Moscovici betonte am Dienstag, über die Schulden werde man erst nach einer Einigung über das Reformpaket reden können. Es ist ein offenes Geheimnis, dass dannzumal auch über ein drittes Hilfspaket gesprochen werden muss.

Richtig ist laut Verhandlungskreisen, dass der IMF an den Treffen der «Brussels Group» eine besonders harte Haltung gegenüber Athen einnimmt. Er muss seine eigenen Regeln unter anderem bezüglich der Schuldentragfähigkeit einhalten, um weitere Gelder auszahlen zu können. Am anderen Ende des Spektrums der beteiligten Institutionen steht die EU-Kommission, die ein Auseinanderbrechen der Euro-Zone um fast jeden Preis verhindern will. Werde deren Irreversibilität angetastet, komme sofort die Frage auf, wer der Nächste sei, sagte Moscovici.

In the meantime, the Greek government argues that disagreement among “institutions” makes it impossible to find a compromise. Panagis Galiatsatos reports in the NZZ:

… der Internationale Währungsfonds (IMF) bestehe mit Vehemenz auf strukturellen Reformen (Rentenreform, Liberalisierung des Arbeitsmarkts) und mehr Flexibilität bei der Bestimmung der Primärüberschusses, weil er von einem weiteren Schuldenschnitt ausgehe. Im Gegensatz dazu verlange die EU-Kommission, die einen Schuldenschnitt partout nicht wolle, hohe Primärüberschüsse. Das beweise, dass die Gläubiger in keinem Verhandlungsfeld kompromissbereit seien, während die griechische Regierung Kompromissbereitschaft signalisiert habe.

Hypo Group Alpe Adria

The “Independent Commission of Inquiry for the Transparent Investigation of the Events Surrounding the Hypo Group Alpe‐Adria” published its report in December 2014. The summary of the abstract:

The events surrounding HGAA are characterised by undesirable developments and mistakes on the level of the Land and of the Federation. The quick expansion of the bank was only possible due to the liability of the Land of Carinthia, without the latter having been able to fulfil the respective obligations. When the crisis became obvious, the responsible decision‐makers refrained from adequately processing the necessary information, from examining the legal framework to a sufficient degree and from proceeding in a strategic way by developing alternative scenarios and making decisions based on those scenarios.

This began with the Land of Carinthia maintaining its liability for the debts of HBInt and HBA in spite of the rapid expansion abroad. The Land was responsible for a bank whose management tried to exploit the business opportunities in South Eastern Europe without being equipped with the necessary risk management systems and control mechanisms. It is not apparent that the auditors, the bank supervision and the Land of Carinthia (Kärntner Landesholding) made sufficient use of the opportunities open to them in order to work towards limiting the risks.

This continued with the decision of the Republic of Austria to purchase all shares of HBInt without sufficiently examining alternative scenarios and implementing them into a negotiating strategy.

And it ended ‐ in relation to the investigation period ‐ with the lack of a strategy for the time after the nationalisation: The State aid proceedings were not conducted with the necessary commitment; the decision on the establishment of a bad bank was delayed based on extraneous motives; the reappraisal of the past became an end in itself.

Against this background, the Land of Carinthia must be blamed for maintaining its liability thereby enabling the bank to expand abroad despite a lack of sufficient control systems. As regards the Federation, it must be held that the nationalisation cannot be referred to as „emergency nationalisation”, because it was – at least as regards its embodiment – not the only alternative. And it cannot be conceded that as the sole owner of HBInt the Republic of Austria took its decisions for the benefit of the bank and of the public.

“The Federal Reserve’s Role: Actions Before, During, and After the 2008 Panic in the Historical Context of the Great Contraction”

In chapter six of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” Michael Bordo argues that the Fed misinterpreted the experience of the Great Depression when acting during the financial crisis. Insolvency rather than illiquidity fears were central to the great recession.

“Causes of the Financial Crisis and the Slow Recovery”

In the third chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” John Taylor argues that monetary policy, regulatory policy, and an ad hoc bailout policy caused the financial crisis:

  • Monetary policy was too loose before the crisis.
  • “[R]egulators permitted violations from existing safety and soundness rules.”
  • An “on-again, off-again bailout policy … created more instability.”

The policy responses during the crisis saw more—counter productive—temporary and discretionary measures. Taylor argues that the Reinhart-Rogoff “weak recovery is normal” and the Summers “secular stagnation” views are inconsistent with the data.

The ECB and Ireland: Bailout But no Bail-In

Vincent Boland and Peter Spiegel suggest in the FT that the ECB coerced Ireland into applying for a bailout in 2010, based on letters recently released by the ECB. The ECB, in contrast, argues that the bailout was unavoidable anyway, and that the Irish Minister for Finance shared this view. In a Q&A section on its website the ECB writes:

While the ECB always acted within its remit and in line with rules established for the whole of the euro area, there are limits to the support that the Eurosystem can provide to banks in the Member States. … First, collateral has to be adequate; and second, counterparts have to be financially sound and solvent. The letter dated 15 October 2010 from the former ECB President recalled these rules and their implications for Ireland. … [Another letter dated 19 November 2010] explained the conditions under which further provisions of ELA to Irish financial institutions could be authorised. In his already public reply of 21 November 2010, the Irish Minister for Finance stated that he fully understood the concerns raised by the ECB Governing Council.

The ECB also addresses the question why it opposed the bail-in of bondholders in 2010:

As regards the possible bailing-in of senior debt in late 2010, it is important to recall the words of EU leaders in a European Union statement of 29 October 2010 and during the G20 meeting in South Korea on 12 November, according to which burden-sharing of senior debt would not be applied until mid-2013. … Furthermore, the necessary EU governance tools to address the bail-in of creditors, which were set out in the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) and have been fully endorsed by the ECB, were not available in late 2010. … any potential burden-sharing of senior debt in the immediate aftermath would first and foremost have had negative spillover effects on the financial stability of Ireland, as well as on other European countries.



Conference on “Law and Economics” with Focus Session on “Bank Resolution” at the Study Center Gerzensee

Joint with CEPR, the Study Center Gerzensee organised a conference on law and economics. The program can be viewed here and papers can be downloaded from CEPR’s website. The focus session on bank resolution featured contributions by

  • Patrick Bolton and Jeffrey Gordon (paper)
  • Martin Hellwig (paper, slides)
  • Mathias Dewatripont (slides)
  • Gerard Hertig
  • Wolf-Georg Ringe (paper)
  • Paul Tucker (paper)

In his talk, Jeff Gordon explained how Dodd-Frank extends the FDIC’s resolution technology from the 1930s to “non-banks” that engage in banking business. Dodd-Frank establishes an “Orderly Liquidation Authority” and in title II a “Single Point of Entry” by putting a holding company (topco) into receivership. The objective is to minimise disruption costs for large institutions, to preserve the going-concern value of the company and to avoid collateral damage. Single point of entry also helps resolve cross-border issues. No comparable institutional framework is available in the EU. In the crisis, US authorities implemented ad-hoc alternatives to bankruptcy: Mergers (which require the approval of shareholders and therefore make it hard to wipe out the target’s shareholders) worked for Bear Stearns (JPMorgan Chase, Maiden Lane, Fed) but not for Lehman Brothers (Barclays, Fed) because the UK authorities refused to waive Barclays shareholder approval, fearing fiscal implications. Recapitalisation with third party funds (Fed) in the case of AIG also required shareholder approval and protected creditors and counter-party claims.

Patrick Bolton cautioned that the rules for the topco are still not clear and discussed alternatives to Dodd-Frank in the bankruptcy code. He emphasised the role of qualified financial contracts and debtor-in-possession interventions.

Martin Hellwig argued that the government rescue of Hypo Real Estate reflected the political will to help influential creditors rather than systemic importance. He questioned the viability of single-point-of-entry arrangements in cross-border resolution, pointing to lack of trust among national regulators. He questioned whether internationally active banks can ever be resolved in an efficient manner and asked whether, in that light, they are socially valuable.

Mathias Dewatripont warned that excessive emphasis on bail-in arrangements can undermine financial stability, for example by having the expectation of a small haircut applied to senior debt tranches trigger a run on all senior debt. To avoid such an outcome, he favoured a clearly identified seniority structure with a significant balance-sheet share of “bail-inable” liabilities. He questioned the usefulness of higher capital requirements, arguing that “prompt corrective action” is politically infeasible unless the equity ratio has fallen below a very low value, 2 percent say.

Wolf-Georg Ringe favoured holding-company structures with sufficient “bail-inable” debt.

Paul Tucker discussed potential problems with the holding-company/single-point-of-entry strategy, related to centralised operations (IT). He raised the issue of accountability and the potential lack thereof if companies are resolved by regulators rather than judges, and he wondered whether national regulators can commit to collaborate across borders if need be. He favoured “bail-inable” debt over equity because the former gives incentives to monitor without the incentive to speculate on the upside.

Gerard Hertig warned that regulatory incentives lead to bank mergers rather than resolution, in particular because authorities tend to be more lenient in crisis times. He argued that because of deposit insurance, resolution worked well in Japan until recently.

Patrick Bolton argued that cocos are badly designed as their triggers are too low and they refer to accounting equity. Instead, he favoured reverse convertible bonds that can be converted by the issuer.

Oliver Hart argued that resolution has the advantage over cocos that the management gets replaced.

Many panelists voiced scepticism towards narrow banking proposals. They feared that control over the money supply might turn into control over credit, referring to the discussion in the US during the 1930s.

IMF Policy Vis-a-vis Greece

Christoph Eisenring reports in the NZZ about a critical internal assessment of the IMF’s recent policy vis-a-vis Greece. The relaxation of the “medium term solvency” requirement for IMF lending in a situation of acute contagion risk should be reconsidered; contagion should be addressed with different instruments; debt should be restructured earlier than happened in the Greek case; and bail-ins should be favoured.