Cross-Border Deleveraging and the Shifts in Europe’s Bargaining Game

While high-ranking eurozone bureaucrats are ruminating on the appropriate burden-sharing mechanisms of a future Europe, something potentially more momentous has been going at the background: European banks have been cutting back their intra-European exposures… fast!

The numbers are pretty stunning: Between December 2009 and June 2010 (the latest data available from the BIS), German banks cut their eurozone claims by $180bn (more than 5% of German GDP). French banks cut their own exposure by near $280bn (10%of French GDP), of which $130bn were claims on Italy and Spain. And Dutch banks cut their eurozone claims by $170bn (about 20% of Dutch GDP), with cuts across the board, from Spain, Ireland and Greece to Italy, Germany and Belgium. One can only assume that the cutbacks have continued in full force post-June.

This “deleveraging” has important implications for the core-periphery bargaining game and the future of the euro.

First, from the perspective of the stronger, core economies, a meaningful reduction in intra-European exposures means that the threat to the core’s financial stability from an adverse outcome at the periphery is smaller. In turn, this allows the core’s governments to consider a more “sober” crisis resolution framework, ie one that is more discretionary and fundamentals-driven vs. one that is indiscriminate out of fear of a disorderly outcome.

What would “discretionary” really mean? Based on the ERM experience back in 1992/93, it could mean the following:

(a) For countries with no obvious fundamental misalignment (e.g. France): an explicit, large-scale and comprehensive liquidity backstop, aimed at killing any aspiring “self-fulfilling prophets.”

(b) For countries that are small (i.e. not systemic on their own) and in need of a sharp fiscal adjustment (e.g. Greece, Ireland, Portugal): the provision of short-term liquidity-support mechanisms conditional on the maximum possible fiscal effort, before the inevitable correction is forced upon them. (In the same way, many countries were forced to devalue their currencies back in 1992/93 in line with their fundamental misalignments, after Germany did not provide the liquidity support that would be necessary to stem the speculative attacks).

(c) For countries that are larger and, thus, a systemic threat (Spain and Italy): A strategy that buys time to allow the core economies’ private sector to exit before things escalate. This is exactly what has been happening (intentionally or not): By tackling the eurozone crisis in a piecemeal, reactive fashion, core economies have effectively bought time for their private sectors to unwind their positions in a stable environment—i.e. a common currency and an orderly payment process.

In the process, the systemic importance of Spain and Italy is gradually being reduced, improving the core governments’ ability to provide (if and when that time comes) liquidity support under their own terms.

This brings me to the second implication of cross-border deleveraging, which has to do with burden-sharing and the perspective of the peripheral countries themselves. With cross-border exposures cut, the burden of adjustment (be it fiscal consolidation and/or debt restructuring) has been shifting away from external creditors and towards the residents of the weaker peripheral countries.

This poses a natural question: What’s the appeal of eurozone membership for Greece, Ireland or Italy for that matter, in the absence of an acceptable degree of burden-sharing between debtors and creditors? And even more so, when it implies the long-term surrender of fiscal sovereignty to the “troika” of the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission? Instead, exit from the euro (with the inevitable default) would shift part of the burden to the core through an immediate improvement in the periphery’s external competitiveness. It would also shift part of the debt burden to any external creditors are left, private and official (barring the IMF, which has preferred creditor status).

For these reasons, the ongoing cross-border deleveraging, and the resulting “thinning out” of the threads that tie the eurozone countries together, can mean either of two things for the euro: Either the governments of the core will demonstrate their will to share part of the burden of adjustment, in the form of a fiscal transfer rather than just liquidity support; or peripheral countries will find the unilateral assumption of the fiscal adjustment burden unacceptable, economically and politically… in which case they’ll opt out.

Under fresh light, Iceland may no longer feel too unhappy it’s not Ireland.

Originally published at Models & Agents and reproduced here with permission.