Monthly Archives: October 2007

Two announcements have been made during the past couple of days about official support for Northern Rock – one relating to the asset side of its balance sheet and one relating to the liability side. As regards its assets, Northern Rock is now being provided with additional facilities enabling it to borrow through the Bank of England on a secured basis against all of its assets, rather than just against prime mortgage collateral as was the case up to this announcement. As regards its liabilities, the government’s guarantee of its deposits has now been extended to included new deposits.

The asset-side measure makes good sense and brings the Bank of England’s lender of last resort policy closer to what I have advocated for a while. The liability-side measure is likely to compound the earlier mistake.

By accepting the bulk of Northern Rock’s assets as collateral for borrowing from the Bank of England through the Liquidity Support Facility that was purpose-built for the Northern Rock bail-out, the Bank of England is getting close to turning the Liquidity Support Facility into something approximating the Federal Reserve System’s (primary) discount window. The Bank of England’s own discount window, its Standing lending facility, is a pale and anaemic shadow of the Fed’s discount window, because it only accepts extremely high-grade and already utterly liquid securities as collateral. All the Bank of England does at its Standing lending facility is maturity transformation. It exchanges long maturity (duration) liquid assets for very short maturity (duration) liquid assets. It does therefore not provide liquidity in any meaningful sense.

The Fed can, provided it decides that exceptional circumstances prevail, accept at its discount window as collateral absolutely anything it deems fit. When the (private) Bank of New York (back in the 70s I believe) needed to access the discount window of the New York Fed overnight because of some technical glitch (I think they had to borrow $23 bn), they offered as collateral the entire bank, including the building and the furniture.

If an asset can be valued, it should, properly valued and subject to the appropriate haircut, be acceptable as collateral at the discount window. The central bank should insist on sufficient ‘over-collateralisation’ (in addition to the penalty rate it charges for discount window borrowing) to make sure that the tax payer can expect to benefit from the transaction. If the Bank of England had operated a similar sensible policy at its discount window in August and September 2007, there would have been no need to create the Liquidity Support Facility the Bank dreamt up for Northern Rock. The Fed’s (primary) discount window does everything the Liquidity Support Facility does, and it does so ‘on demand’ and on a scale limited only by the available collateral. It also lends at up to 1 month maturity, unlike the Bank of England’s Standing lending facility, which only lends overnight. Of course, the Fed then went and rather spoilt it, by reducing the spread of its discount rate over its policy rate (the Federal Funds target rate) from 100 basis points to 50 basis points; this is pure pandering to the profits of those institutions that are already able and willing to borrow at the discount window; it would have made more sense to raise the discount rate spread over the policy rate by 50bps (to 150 basis points) to underline the Fed’s commitment to a Bagehotian lender of last resort model: lend freely (against collateral that would be good during normal times, but may have become illiquid during turbulent market conditions) but at a penalty rate. While I am happy about the actions of the Bank vis-à-vis the asset side of Northern Rock’s balance sheet, I am appalled at the Chancellor’s decision to extend the deposit guarantee at Northern Rock to new deposits. This encourages Northern Rock to try to attract new deposits using above-market deposits rates, as long as these are below the penalty rate charged on borrowing from the Liquidity Support Facility. What is especially outrageous about both the old and the new guarantee is that it covers not only retail deposits, but also wholesale deposits and most unsecured lending to Northern Rock.[1]

Why should the unsecured wholesale creditors of Northern Rock get any protection at all? There is no social justice (widows and orphans) argument to support this intervention, nor an efficiency argument – the wholesale creditors to Northern Rock should be expected to be able to pay the cost of verifying its financial viability. No public purpose is served by subsidising, through ex-post insurance, the ‘rate whores’ that are likely to make up the bulk of the wholesale creditors of Northern Rock. Municipalities, charities and professional and institutional investors that were happy to pocket the slightly above-market interest rates offered by Northern Rock should not be able to dump the default risk (whose anticipation/perception was the reason for the higher rates) on the tax payer.

In its statement introducing the deposit guarantee, the Treasury said Since it would otherwise be unfair to other banks and building societies, the arrangements would not cover any new accounts set up after 19 September, other than re-opened accounts as set out above.” Apparently, it now is no longer unfair or it does not matter that it is unfair. The Treasury statement says that Northern Rock will pay a fair price for the guarantee.[2] We shall see. No doubt a small army of mathematically gifted Treasury civil servants are busy pricing the contingent claim represented by the deposit guarantee for Northern Rock. If the customary lack of openness and transparency of the Treasury prevail, we will never get the information to judge whether Northern Rock paid a fair price for the guarantees extended by the state to its creditors.



[1] “These arrangements will cover all retail deposits, including future interest payments, movements of funds between accounts and term deposits for the duration of their term.”(Treasury statement on 09/10/2007); and “In the case of wholesale market funding for Northern Rock plc, the Treasury confirmed that the arrangements would cover: existing and renewed wholesale deposits; and existing and renewed wholesale borrowing which is not collateralised. The arrangements would not cover other debt instruments including: covered bonds; securities issued under the “Granite” securitisation programme; and subordinated and other hybrid capital instruments.” (Treasury statement on 20/09/2007)

[2] “Northern Rock plc will pay an appropriate fee for the extension of the arrangements, which is designed to ensure it does not receive a commercial advantage.”, Treasury Statement, 09/10/2007

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I know this is too long. However, the case for the Baltic countries to be admitted forthwith to the Eurozone is overwhelming; and the obtuseness of the ECB and the European Commission – not to mention their disdainful arrogance towards these countries – is so staggering, that I hope some of you may read this to the end.

Introduction

Those EU Member States that already have a fixed exchange rate with the euro (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Bulgaria) could and should enhance the credibility of their exchange rate arrangement and strengthen nominal convergence by adopting the euro as joint legal tender alongside their national currencies. The national currency would be retained, alongside the euro, as joint legal tender until full membership in the EMU is achieved. This treatment of the euro as a parallel currency with equal ‘rights’ to the domestic currency, is a way to achieve most of the benefits of unilateral euroisation without finding oneself in conflict with the Treaty and Protocol governing formal EMU membership requirements and procedures.

While for the four countries under consideration the key criteria for EMU membership are the inflation criterion and the exchange rate criterion, I shall briefly summarise all nominal convergence criteria.

1. The Maastricht convergence criteria

The convergence criteria for EMU membership (the so-called Maastricht criteria) are as follows:

The fiscal criteria

The fiscal requirement for EMU membership is that at the time of the examination the Member State is not the subject of a Council decision under Article 104(6) of the Treaty that an excessive deficit exists. An excessive deficit exists if either the deficit criterion or the debt criterion are not satisfied:

(1) the deficit criterion: the ratio of the general government financial deficit to GDP cannot exceed the reference value of 3 percent unless either the ratio has declined substantially and continuously and reached a level that comes close to the reference value; or, alternatively, – the excess over the reference value is only exceptional and temporary and the ratio remains close to the reference value;

(2) the debt criterion: the ratio of the stock of gross general government debt to GDP cannot exceed the reference value of 60 percent of annual GDP unless the ratio is sufficiently diminishing and approaching the reference value at a satisfactory pace.

The interest rate criterion

For a period of one year before the examination, a Member State has had an average nominal long-term interest rate that does not exceed by more than 2 percentage points that of, at most, the three best performing Member States in terms of price stability.

The exchange rate criterion

The Member State must observe the normal fluctuation margins provided for by the exchange-rate mechanism of the European Monetary System (15 percent on either side of a central rate defined with respect to the euro), without severe tensions for at least two years before the examination, without devaluing its currency’s bilateral central rate against the currency of any other Member State on its own initiative.

The inflation criterion

As it was the inflation criterion that has kept Estonia[1] and Lithuania out of the EMU, it is worthwhile to spell it out in detail, and specifically to bring out where the Treaty and the Protocol speak and where the ECB and the Commission are themselves making up criteria, reference values and benchmarks.

The Treaty and Protocol requirements

Article 121 (1), first indent, of the Treaty requires:

“the achievement of a high degree of price stability; this will be apparent from a rate of inflation which is close to that of, at most, the three best performing Member States in terms of price stability”.

Article 1 of the Protocol on the convergence criteria referred to in Article 121 of the Treaty stipulates that:

“the criterion on price stability referred to in the first indent of Article 121 (1) of this Treaty shall mean that a Member State has a price performance that is sustainable and an average rate of inflation, observed over a period of one year before the examination, that does not exceed by more than 1½ percentage points that of, at most, the three best performing Member States in terms of price stability. Inflation shall be measured by means of the consumer price index on a comparable basis, taking into account differences in national definitions.”

The ECB’s and European Commission’s interpretation and operationalisation of the inflation criterion in the Treaty and Protocol

As stated in the Treaty and Protocol, the inflation criterion is non-operational, as it does not explain what is meant by “… the three best performing Members States in terms of price stability”.

It would seem, however, that this ought not to pose a problem, because the ECB, the European institution whose mandate it is to maintain price stability, has, not surprisingly, developed an operational, numerical definition of what is meant by price stability in the euro area. On its website, the ECB states: The primary objective of the ECB’s monetary policy is to maintain price stability. The ECB aims at inflation rates of below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.”[2] It elaborates on this elsewhere on its website as follows:

“While the Treaty clearly establishes the maintenance of price stability as the primary objective of the ECB, it does not give a precise definition of what is meant by price stability.

Quantitative definition of price stability

The ECB’s Governing Council has defined price stability as “a year-on-year increase in the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) for the euro area of below 2%. Price stability is to be maintained over the medium term”.

The Governing Council has also clarified that, in the pursuit of price stability, it aims to maintain inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term.”[3]

This would seem to carry the logical implication that the three best performing Member States in terms of price stability would be the three Member States whose inflation rates would be closest to but below 2%. The inflation threshold that a Member State wishing to join EMU should not exceed, would therefore be given by 1½ percent plus the average rate of inflation of the three Member States with inflation rates closest to but below 2 percent

Strangely, however, the operational definition of price stability that the ECB uses for itself (that is, for the existing members of the euro area) is not the operational definition the ECB and the Commission impose on Member States wishing to join the EMU. That rate is defined as follows in the ECB’s 2007 Convergence report (ECB (2007)) (similar statements can be found in all earlier Convergence Reports by the ECB and the Commission, e.g. European Monetary Institute (1996; 1998), European Central Bank (2000; 2002; 2004; 2006a,b), European Commission (1998; 2000; 2002; 2004; 2006a,b,c; 2007a,b)).

“…the notion of “at most, the three best performing Member States in terms of price stability”, which is used for the definition of the reference value, has been applied by taking the unweighted arithmetic average of the rate of inflation of the following three EU countries with the lowest inflation rates: Finland (1.3%), Poland (1.5%) and Sweden (1.6%). As a result, the average rate is 1.5% and, adding 1½ percentage points, the reference value is 3.0%.”

To calculate ‘the notion of “at most, the three best performing Member States in terms of price stability”’, the ECB and the Commission therefore take the average of the three lowest (but non-negative) inflation rates among all EU members – those already full members of the EMU, those who are actively trying to meet the EMU membership criteria, and those who are not actively pursuing EMU membership. Not actively pursuing full EMU membership could be legally the case for the two countries with an opt-out, the UK and Denmark. In practice, any country not wishing to join but not in possession of an opt-out, can always choose not to meet one of the criteria for membership. Sweden does this with respect to the exchange rate criterion.

2. ECB and Commission: better consistently wrong than inconsistent but right?

It is clear that it makes no sense to have one concept of price stability for existing Eurozone members (inflation below but close to two percent over the medium term) and a completely different, and in practice much more restrictive, price stability concept for would-be new members (the average of the three lowest inflation rates among all EU Member States, as long as these inflation rates are not negative). Why set a higher standard for candidate members than for existing members?

A further unfortunate feature of the Maastricht inflation criterion, as interpreted by the Commission and the ECB (the Treaty and protocol are rather vague) is that its benchmark is based on the 3 lowest (non-negative) inflation rates among all EU members, (25 at the time of Lithuania’s and Estonia’s unsuccessful first attempts to join the EMU), and not just on the inflation performance of the Eurozone members (12 in number when Lithuania was formally turned down, currently 13 and soon 15, with Cyprus and Malta joining on January 1, 2008). When Lithuania failed the test, two of the three lowest inflation rates used in the calculation of the inflation benchmark were for countries that are in the EU but not in EMU – Poland and Sweden. The inflation rates of countries in the EU but not in the EMU are no more relevant for whether a candidate country should be admitted to the EMU, than would be the inflation rates of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Once can see how and why, historically, these now inane (indeed insane) criteria were put together. What the authors of the Treaty and Protocol were thinking of was the creation ab initio of EMU through the joining in monetary union of a significant number of countries. They wanted not just a monetary union with a common rate of inflation among member states, but one with a common and low rate of inflation. All EU members were expected to be striving actively for EMU membership, so best-performing was naturally measured with respect to the complete set of EU members.

That was then. We now have a functioning EMU with a low EMU-wide rate of inflation. Common sense now calls for the same definition of price stability to be used for candidate members as for the existing EMU members. Actually, as there is only one monetary policy for the entire EMU, even the inflation rates of the individual EMU Member States is irrelevant for the construction of an inflation benchmark. Both the economics and the politics of a monetary union dictate that the benchmark be based on the inflation performance of just the EMU area as a whole.

When one points out to the ECB and the Commission that their inflation criterion and numerical benchmarks make no sense, all they say in reply is, that this is how it was done in the past. Because the ECB and Commission got it wrong before, they are honour-bound to repeat the mistake again today and tomorrow. To do otherwise would violate equity vis-à-vis those who managed to pass the (wrong) tests in the past. The fact that until Lithuania was rejected for membership and Estonia was strongly discouraged from pressing its application, no application for EMU membership had ever been rejected rather undermines the ‘fairness vis-à-vis earlier applicants argument.

For reasons understood only by themselves, the ECB and Commission therefore continue to make these nonsensical demands, even if the Treaty and Protocol do not require it. The Commission and the ECB don’t mind doing things that are illogical, costly and potentially destructive, as long as there is a precedent for it. They would rather be consistently wrong than inconsistent but right.

3. Dirty politics: why is the inflation criterion the only one for which the ECB’s and Commission’s interpretation is rigidly enforced?

In the case of Lithuania and Estonia, the ECB and the Commission have chosen to stick rigidly to their interpretation and quantitative implementation of the inflation criterion, even though this made no economic sense. Strangely enough, the Commission and the ECB have, in the past, forgiven or waved through many clear violations of numerical criteria stated explicitly in the Treaty and the Protocol, rather than just dreamed up by the Commission or the ECB.

To me this suggests either that the ECB’s and Commission’s decision processes as regards the Maastricht criteria being met are deeply political – indeed a dirty game – or that a monumental mistake was made when Lithuania was blackballed and Estonia was pressured into postponing its application for EMU membership.

Forgiving failures to meet the exchange rate criterion

Italy and Finland did not meet the exchange rate criterion for EMU membership.[4] While they had spent 2 years in the exchange-rate mechanism of the European Monetary System when they joined the EMU, they had not observed the normal fluctuation margins provided for by the exchange-rate mechanism of the European Monetary System without severe tensions for at least two years before the examination - as was the requirement of the Treaty. The Commission judged that, by the time of the examination, the currency, despite not having been in the ERM for two years, had displayed sufficient stability for two years. This is a triumph of good sense over the letter of the law and the exact wording of the Treaty and Protocol. Why could this good sense not be called upon when the inflation criterion was being evaluated for Lithuania and Estonia?

Forgiving failures to meet the fiscal criteria

Both Italy and Belgium had debt-to-GDP ratios well above 100 percent when they were admitted to the EMU. While Belgium has consistently reduced its debt ratio since then, Italy’s debt-to-GDP ratio even today is above 100 percent. Allowing it into the EMU violated both the spirit and the letter of the Treaty and Protocol.

Germany did not meet the debt criterion for EMU membership at the time of the examination and should not have been admitted. In 1998 its debt-to-GDP ratio was 60.9 percent and in 1999 it was 61.2 percent. So it was above 60 percent and rising! Despite some attempts to get serious about its public debt, even in 2006 the German debt to GDP ratio still was 67.9 percent.

The most extreme example of a country not meeting the Maastricht fiscal criteria and yet becoming an EMU member is Greece. Greece did not, by any stretch of the imagination, meet the debt criterion for EMU membership. In addition, the Greek authorities fiddled the data for the calculation of the general government deficit. Until this cheating was discovered, it appeared Greece had met the deficit criterion (general government deficit less than 3 percent of GDP), as is clear from Table 2.3 below (Table 2.3 and Table 2.5, including the Table numbers, are taken from the Convergence Report 2000 of the ECB). The convergence programme for Greece when it was admitted to EMU is included as Table 2.5 below, as a reminder of just how out of touch with reality the ECB and European Commission were when they admitted Greece into the EMU.

When the statistical cheating was discovered and the deficit data were revised upwards, it was clear that both on the deficit and the debt criterion, Greece would have failed to qualify for EMU membership starting January 2001. The debt ratios remain above 100 percent of annual GDP even today.

Rather than suspending Greece’s membership in the EMU after the discovery of the irregularities in its qualification for admission, and requiring it to qualify again (which would have required at least a two-year transition period) Greece was allowed to continue as a full member without any sanctions. The integrity of the vetting process for the Maastricht criteria was further compromised through this. The message is clear: “do anything necessary to formally meet the criteria at the time”. Cheat if necessary. If you are found out after you are allowed in as a member, nothing will happen to you.”

Recently, the Greek government has discovered that there is a second way of lowering a ratio that is uncomfortably high: if reducing the numerator is not practicable, then increasing the denominator may be an option. Eurostat are currently reviewing the merits of the Greek statistical authorities’ request for a significant increase in measured GDP, reflecting, according to the Greek authorities, the informal sector and other unrecorded economic activity.

4. The problem: the inflation criterion for countries with a fixed exchange rate with the euro

Countries that have a fixed exchange rate with the euro face special problems meeting the inflation criterion for EMU membership. The inflation criterion makes no sense from an economic perspective for countries wishing to join an already existing monetary union when that monetary union has a price stability objective, operationally expressed as a target for inflation in the medium term. The first-best solution would be for all countries wishing to join the EMU and meeting the fiscal, interest rate and exchange rate criteria to be allowed to do so. This is the only solution that makes sense. However, politics and logic are not often encountered in the same space.

Candidate EMU members on a fixed exchange rate with the euro have to deal with the problem that their efficient, optimal rate of equilibrium inflation may well be higher than the existing EMU average. That is because of the Balassa-Samuelson effect. When transition countries with a lower level of productivity and per capita income than the existing EMU average succeed in converging gradually but effectively to the higher levels of productivity and per capita income of the EMU, productivity in the traded goods sectors typically catches up faster than productivity in the non-traded good sectors. The result is that transition countries achieving successful real convergence will experience an appreciation of their real exchange rates. With a fixed nominal exchange rate, real appreciation means higher inflation in the candidate EMU members than in the EMU.

What are the solutions?

One solution would be to abandon the fixed exchange rate regime (the currency board), float the currency and allow it to appreciate in nominal terms for at least a year to get inflation down to the benchmark level. Once that has been achieved, the exchange rate gets locked in irrevocably. I hope that not even the ECB and the Commission recommend such an extraordinary policy sequence. You have the closest thing to a common currency (a currency board); you have to abandon this currency board to float the exchange rate for a year or longer to meet the inflation criterion; if you succeed you get rewarded by going back to where you started from. This would be insane.

Another solution is to create a reduction in the output gap of sufficient depth and duration to bring down the inflation rate to the level of the inflation benchmark. Fiscal policy or credit controls could be used to reduce the domestic output gap and lower inflation. Unless the economy is overheating (that is, unless in addition to the Balassa-Samuelson inflation premium there is also a cyclical inflation premium), contracting demand would mean deliberately creating a recession: a pointless sacrifice of output and employment. It should be rejected.

5. A partial solution: make the euro joint legal tender with the national currency

One way for an EU member wishing to become a full EMU member to give visible expression to its desire for and commitment to eventual full EMU participation, is for it declare the euro to be joint legal tender for all transactions under the country’s jurisdiction, on the same terms as the national currency. This would also allow the country to achieve effectively all of the benefits of full monetary union, with the exception of (1) a share in the ECB’s seigniorage (profits), (2) access to the ECB/ESCB as lender of last resort, and (3) a seat on the ECB Governing Council (further development and discussion of this proposal can be found in Bratkowski and Rostowski (2002), Schoors (2002), Buiter and Grafe (2002), Buiter (2005) and Buiter and Sibert (2006a,b)).

Legal tender, also called forced tender, is payment that, by law, cannot be refused in settlement of a debt denominated in the same currency. Currently, in Estonia, only the Estonian kroon is legal tender. This is clear from the Currency Law of the Republic of Estonia, some key clauses of which are reproduced below in Box 1.[5] An important part of legal tender status is that taxes and fines payable to the state can be paid in legal tender, and that indeed the state can require this.

Box 1

Extracts from the Currency Law of the Republic of Estonia

Clause 3. Legal tender

The sole legal tender in the Republic of Estonia is Estonian kroon. The legal persons and single individuals located in the Republic of Estonia have no right to use any other legal tender except Estonian kroon in the accountancy between them.

Clause 4. Obligation to accept the legal tender of the Republic of Estonia without restrictions

Eesti Pank, as well as all other banks and credit institutions of the Republic of Estonia are obliged to accept the legal tender of the Republic of Estonia without restrictions. Other legal persons are obliged to accept valid coins up to the amount of 20 Estonian kroons at a time, but banknotes without any restrictions.

Clause 5. Exchangeability of Estonian kroon with other currencies

The exchangeability of Estonian kroon with other currencies will be determined by law. The conditions and procedure of exchanging Eesti kroon into foreign currencies will be determined by Eesti Pank.

Clause 71 Refusal to accept legal tender

(1) Refusal to accept legal tender upon sale of or payment for goods or services is punishable by a fine of up to 200 fine units.

(2) The same act, if committed by a legal person, is punishable by a fine of up to 30,000 kroons.

Box 1

Extracts from the Currency Law of the Republic of Estonia

Clause 3. Legal tender

The sole legal tender in the Republic of Estonia is Estonian kroon. The legal persons and single individuals located in the Republic of Estonia have no right to use any other legal tender except Estonian kroon in the accountancy between them.

Clause 4. Obligation to accept the legal tender of the Republic of Estonia without restrictions

Eesti Pank, as well as all other banks and credit institutions of the Republic of Estonia are obliged to accept the legal tender of the Republic of Estonia without restrictions. Other legal persons are obliged to accept valid coins up to the amount of 20 Estonian kroons at a time, but banknotes without any restrictions.

Clause 5. Exchangeability of Estonian kroon with other currencies

The exchangeability of Estonian kroon with other currencies will be determined by law. The conditions and procedure of exchanging Eesti kroon into foreign currencies will be determined by Eesti Pank.

Clause 71 Refusal to accept legal tender

(1) Refusal to accept legal tender upon sale of or payment for goods or services is punishable by a fine of up to 200 fine units.

(2) The same act, if committed by a legal person, is punishable by a fine of up to 30,000 kroons.

Legally, all that is required to make the Estonian Kroon and the euro joint legal tender in Estonia, is the rewriting the Currency Law of the Republic of Estonia along the lines suggested in Box 2.

Box 2

Proposal for a revised

CURRENCY LAW OF THE REPUBLIC OF ESTONIA

Clause 1. Monetary unit

The monetary units of the Republic of Estonia are the Estonian kroon, which is divided into one hundred cents, and the euro, which is divided into one hundred cents. The cash of the Republic of Estonia is in circulation in the form of banknotes and coins.

Clause 2. Issuing Estonian kroon

The sole right to issue and to remove from circulation the Estonian kroon belongs to Eesti Pank. Eesti Pank determines the denominations of the banknotes and coins as well as their design.

Clause 3. Legal tender

The sole legal tender in the Republic of Estonia are the Estonian kroon and the euro. The legal persons and single individuals located in the Republic of Estonia have no right to use any other legal tender except the Estonian kroon or the euro in the accountancy between them.

Clause 4. Obligation to accept the legal tender of the Republic of Estonia without restrictions

Eesti Pank, as well as all other banks and credit institutions of the Republic of Estonia are obliged to accept the legal tender of the Republic of Estonia without restrictions. Other legal persons are obliged to accept valid coins up to the amount of 20 Estonian kroons at a time or up to the amount of 1.28 euros at a time, but banknotes without any restrictions.

Clause 5. Exchangeability of Estonian kroon with other currencies

The exchangeability of Estonian kroon with other currencies will be determined by law. The conditions and procedure of exchanging Eesti kroon into foreign currencies will be determined by Eesti Pank.

Clause 6. Damaged and spoilt currency

Damaged and spoilt banknotes and coins of the Republic of Estonia will be received and replaced by Eesti Pank and banks authorized by it, in condition that at least half of the banknote is preserved and the serial number is fully legible; on a coin, at least the denomination and time of minting must be legible.

Other legal persons are not obliged to accept damaged and spoilt banknotes and coins.

Clause 7 Refusal to accept legal tender

(1) Refusal to accept legal tender upon sale of or payment for goods or services is punishable by a fine of up to 200 fine units.

(2) The same act, if committed by a legal person, is punishable by a fine of up to 30,000 kroons or 1,917.35 euros.

(3) The provisions of the General Part of the Penal Code (RT I 2001, 61, 364) and of the Code of Misdemeanour Procedure (RT I 2002, 50, 313) apply to the misdemeanours provided for in this section.

(4) Extra-judicial proceedings concerning the misdemeanours provided for in this section shall be conducted by: 1) the Consumer Protection Board; 2) police prefecture.

In principle, a variety of monetary and exchange rate regimes are consistent with having the euro as a parallel currency and joint legal tender. This includes managed and freely floating exchange rate regimes. A fixed exchange rate regime with the euro, and especially a currency board is, however, the natural vehicle for the euro as joint legal tender. It is also a natural waiting room for the eventual full EMU membership.19

Some further refinements

The exchange rate of the Estonian kroon and the euro is 15.64664 Estonian krooni for one euro. That is not a very convenient number. It would make sense to have a currency reform that creates a new Estonian kroon (perhaps called the Estonian eurokroon, or eurokroon for short, whose value is 15.64664 old Estonian krooni. One new Estonian eurokroon would therefore equal one euro – nice and simple.

It would also make sense to make the coins and currency notes of the new Estonian eurokroon sufficiently similar in shape, weight and appearance (without, however, risking accusations of counterfeiting!) that all new vending machines and other electro-mechanical, digital and optical instruments that handle coins and notes can use both euros and eurokrooni interchangeably.

Formally, the exchange rate regime would remain a currency board. In the strict version of a currency board, the entire domestic base money stock (coin and currency and banks’ balances with the central bank) must be backed by international reserves (euros in practice). It would therefore make sense, since there is no opportunity cost involved in replacing domestic coin and currency with euros, to gradually reduce the issuance of krooni coin and currency. Effective complete euroisation of cash could take place without the formal abolition of the domestic currency. The eurokroon would continue to exist, as a numeraire, means of payment/medium of exchange, store of value and legal tender alongside the euro, but you just would not see very many of them.

By encouraging de facto euroisation, that is, the increased use of the euro as the unit of account in contracts (including financial contracts and instruments) and for pricing, as the medium of exchange/means of payment and as store of value, the risk associated with the status of being almost-but-not-quite in the EMU would be much reduced. Exchange rate risk (as regards the exchange rate of the domestic currency vis-à-vis the euro) would cease to be a concern as fewer and fewer contracts and financial instruments are denominated in domestic currency. To avoid giving ammunition to the forces of darkness in Brussels and Frankfurt, however, it is essential that establishing the euro as joint legal tender is not formally and legally the unilateral adoption of the euro as the only legal tender, and the abolition of the domestic currency.

6. The euro as joint legal tender is not unilateral euroisation and is consistent with the provisions and requirements of the Treaty and Protocol for full EMU membership

According to the letter of the Treaty, unilateral euroisation, is not compatible with the Maastricht criteria if it involves the unilateral abolition of the national currency. The argument is that, once the national currency has been abolished, there no longer is any way for the Council of Ministers to determine the irrevocably fixed conversion rate at which the candidate EMU member’s currency eventually joins EMU. The candidate EMU member would have been able to determine its irrevocably fixed euro conversion rate unilaterally. That would be a bridge too far. The ECB and the Commission will have to cross that bridge if and when Montenegro, which has the euro as its sole legal tender today, prior to EU membership, joins the EU and the EMU, but it is too early to speculate about how that conundrum will be resolved.

In addition to Montenegro, the euro plays a key role in the domestic monetary arrangements of a number of small European countries, none of which are formally members of the EU. The euro is legal tender in Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City, which are licensed to issue and use the euro. Like Montenegro, Andorra has the euro as legal tender but is not licensed to issue any euro coins or notes. The same holds for the sub-national entity Kosovo.

There are also some obvious parallels with the pre-Euro Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union (1922-2002); from 1944, the Belgian franck was joint legal tender in Luxembourg with the Luxembourg franc, and the Luxembourg franc was joint legal tender in Belgium with the Belgian franc (although you would not have thought so, if you tried to pay with Luxembourg francs in Brussels!)

The ECB’s position on the issue is the following “Any unilateral adoption of the single currency by means of “euroisation” outside the Treaty framework would run counter to the economic reasoning underlying Economic and Monetary Union, which foresees the eventual adoption of the euro as the end-point of a structured convergence process within a multilateral framework. Unilateral “euroisation” cannot therefore be a way of circumventing the stages foreseen by the Treaty for the adoption of the euro” (European Central Bank (2003)).

This argument is correct only if unilateral euroisation means the unilateral abolition of the domestic currency and its replacement by the euro. Having the euro as a parallel currency and joint legal tender without abolishing the domestic currency, and leaving the Council of Ministers the opportunity to determined the eventual irrevocably fixed conversion rate between the domestic currency and the euro, is quite consistent with the Treaty and Protocol.[6] There is no circumventing of the stages foreseen by the Treaty for the adoption of the euro. The structured convergence process is not encumbered or undermined in any way.

7. What the euro as joint legal tender does not achieve

Adopting the euro as joint legal tender does not achieve three things:

  1. A seat on the Governing Council of the ECB;
  2. A share of the seigniorage (profits) of the ECB;
  3. Access to ECB/ESCB resources by domestic banks for lender of last resort operations.

These continuing lacunae are, of course, the same ones experienced by the would-be euro area members under their current currency board arrangements. They are ‘deficiencies’ only when compared to a situation of full membership in the EMU. Since there is no reason why adopting the euro as joint legal tender would delay full membership in the EMU, the opportunity cost of doing so is really zero.

8. Safety in numbers

The ECB and the European Commission are unlikely to welcome with open arms the adoption of the euro as joint legal tender. It is my view that there is not much they can do about it. Still, there is safety in numbers. If, say, all four currency board countries in the EU, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria, were to take the identical action simultaneously, the odds on even token attempts to interfere with this decision by Brussels or Frankfurt would be negligible.

I also believe that while the official response may be frosty, at best, there is a lot of sympathy for the Baltic countries and a lot of covert support for their ambition to adopt the euro as soon as possible. It is quite likely that the failure of Lithuania and Estonia to become full members in 2007 was just the result of a big error of judgement in Brussels.

I share the view of many observers that those in charge of the EMU convergence assessment in Brussels believed that Lithuania and Estonia would be willing to cheat to achieve membership. The candidate EMU members could have done this by fiddling with VAT or other indirect taxes and by messing with utility tariffs – that’s what Slovenia did, after all, and Slovenia was rewarded for it with EMU membership. They could even have followed the Greek example and simply have doctored the price data. Finally, the great and the good in Brussels and the national capitals probably did not believe it possible that the ECB would produce quite the eruption of self-righteousness and stupidity that it did by denying Lithuania EMU membership when its inflation rate exceeded the benchmark rate by barely one tenth of one percent. There may be a lot of sympathy in Brussels and in many of the EU capitals , and even some surreptitious support for the adoption of the euro as joint legal tender by the currency board countries of Central Europe and the Baltics.

The very creation of EMU was a triumph of political will over technocratic timidity. Distinguished economists (quite a few of them, like Martin Feldstein, from the USA) said it could never happen, and if it happened it would collapse in short order. Perhaps history will repeat itself. Ultimately it is the politicians in the Council of Ministers rather than the technocrats in Frankfurt and Brussels who determine whether a country will be allowed to join the EMU (the ECB and the Commission have only an advisory function). It is therefore possible that a country that starts of by adopting the euro as joint legal tender, may end up with full euroization, not through unilateral euroisation but through consensual euroisation with the blessing of the Council of Ministers. But it is time to press on with joint legal tender regardless.

Conclusion

The frightening financial turmoil of the past few months has provide a stark reminder of the truth that small open economies with unrestricted financial capital mobility have only one sensible monetary option: to join the nearest big currency area/monetary union. This is true not just in Europe. New Zealand is a model of monetary and fiscal rectitude and of deep structural reform. Yet it is a rudderless plaything of the international capital markets. It cannot control its exchange rate. It has to do incredible things to its monetary policy interest rate to keep any kind of control over domestic inflation. It is not surprising that monetary union with Australia is being talked about in responsible policy circles as an option.

For Estonia and the other currency board countries, the earliest possible full membership of EMU is the dominant policy option. To minimize the risk of monetary and financial instability in the period until full membership is achieved, adoption of the euro as joint legal tender is a sensible transitional option. It will not delay the EMU membership process, but it will make the transition less hazardous.

References Bratkowski, A. and Rostowski, J. (2002), ‘Why Unilateral Euroization Makes Sense for (some) Applicant Countries,’ in Beyond Transition eds. M. Dabrowski, J. Neneman and B. Slay, Ashgate

Buiter, Willem H. (2005) “To Purgatory and Beyond; When and how should the accession countries from Central and Eastern Europe become full members of the EMU?”. In Fritz Breuss and Eduard Hochreiter (eds.) Challenges for Central Banks in an Enlarged EMU, Springer Wien New York, pp. 145-186.

Buiter, Willem H. and Clemens Grafe (2002), “Anchor, Float or Abandon Ship: Exchange Rate Regimes for the Accession Countries”, in Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, No. 221, June 2002, pp. 1-32.

Buiter, Willem H. and Anne C. Sibert (2006a), “Eurozone Entry of New EU Member States from Central Europe: Should They? Could They?”, in Development & Transition, UNDP-LSE Newsletter, 4, June, pp. 16 -19.

Buiter, Willem H. and Anne C. Sibert (2006b), “When Should the New Central European Members Join the Eurozone?”, Bankni vestnik – The Journal for Money and Banking of the Bank Association of Slovenia, Special Issue, Small Economies in the euro area: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities, 11/2006, pp. 5-11.

Égert, Balázs, Imed Drine, Kirsten Lommatzsch and Christophe Rault (2003), “The Balassa-

Samuelson Effect in Central and Eastern Europe: Myth or Reality? Journal of Comparative

Economics, vol 31, pp 552–572, in September, 2003.

European Commission (1998), “Convergence Report 1998”,

European Economy, No 65. 1998. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg. 411pp. Tabl. Graph. Bibliogr.. CM-AR-98-001-EN-C; ISSN0379-0991.ISSN 0379-0991 http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/1998/ee65_98en.pdf

European Commission (2000), “Convergence Report 2000”,

European Economy, No 70. 2000. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg. 393pp. Tabl. Graph. Bibliogr.) KC-AR-00-001-EN-C; ISBN 92-828-9708-7; ISSN0379-0991

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/

convergencereports_en.htm

European Commission (2002), 2002 Convergence Report on Sweden, http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/

convergence/report2002_en.htm

European Commission (2004), “Convergence Report 2004”, European Economy, Special Report 2/2004. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/2004/cr2004_en.pdf

European Commission (2006a), “2006 Convergence Report on Slovenia”, European Economy, Special Report. No. 2. 2006. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg. 104pp. Tables, Graphs, Bibliog.) KC-AF-06-002-EN-C; ISBN 92-79-01218-5; ISSN 1684-033X.

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/2006/eesp206en.pdf

European Commission (2006b), “2006 Convergence Report on Lithuania”, European Economy, Special Report. No. 2. 2006. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg. 104pp. Tables, Graphs, Bibliog.) KC-AF-06-002-EN-C; ISBN 92-79-01218-5; ISSN 1684-033X.

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/2006/eesp206en.pdf

European Commission (2006c) “2006 Convergence report”. European Economy No. 1. 2006. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg. 184pp. Tables, Graphs, Bibliog., KC-AR-06-001-EN-C; ISBN 92-79-01202-9; ISSN 0379-0991., http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/2006/ee106en.pdf

European Commission (2007a), “2007 Convergence report on Malta”, European Economy,. No. 6/2007. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg.

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/2007/ee0607_en.pdf

European Commission (2007b), “2007 Convergence report on Cyprus”, European Economy. No. 6/2007. Office for Official Publications of the EC. Luxembourg.)

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/european_economy

/2007/ee0607_en.pdf

European Central Bank (2000), Convergence Report 2000, May, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 92-9181-061-4 http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr2000en.pdf

European Central Bank (2002), Convergence Report 2002, May, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 92-9181-282-X, http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr2002en.pdf

European Central Bank (2004), Convergence Report 2004, May, Frankfurt am Main, November, ISSN 1725-9312 (print), ISSN 1725-9525 (online), http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr2004en.pdf

European Central Bank (2006a), Convergence Report May 2006, Frankfurt am Main, May, ISSN 1725-9312 (print), ISSN 1725-9525 (online)

http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr2006en.pdf

European Central Bank (2006b), Convergence Report December 2006, Frankfurt am Main, December, ISSN 1725-9312 (print); ISSN 1725-9525 (online), http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr200612en.pdf

European Central Bank (2007), Convergence Report May 2007, Frankfurt am Main, May, ISSN 1725-9312 (print), ISSN 1725-9525 (online), http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr200705en.pdf

European Monetary Institute (1996), Progress towards convergence, November. Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 92-9166-011-6, http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr1996en.pdf

European Monetary Institute (1998), Convergence Report; Report required by Article 109 j of the Treaty establishing the European Community, March, Frankfurt am Main, ISBN 92-9166-057-4, http://www.ecb.int/pub/pdf/conrep/cr1998en.pdf

Schoors, Koen (2002), “Should the Central and Eastern European Accession Countries Adopt the Euro before or after Accession?” Economics of Planning, Springer, vol. 35(1), pages 47-77.


* © Willem H. Buiter 2007[1] Only Lithuania had its application for membership to start on January 1, 2007 officially rejected. Estonia had decided before the ECB and Commission made a formal, public recommendation, to withdraw its application for membership to start on January 1, 2007.[2] http://www.ecb.int/mopo/html/index.en.html

[3] http://www.ecb.int/mopo/intro/html/benefits.en.html

[4] Italy and Finland joined EMU at its start, on January 1, 1999, even though at the time the decision to admit these two countries was made, they had not yet spent two years in the ERM. This tension is clearly reflected in the language used in the Commission’s Convergence Report. “Although the lira has participated in the ERM only since November 1996, it has not experienced severe tensions during the review period and has thus, in the view of the Commission, displayed sufficient stability in the last two years.” (European Commission (1998, p24). This assessment was made, that is, the examination took place, in March 1998.

As regards Finland, the Commission writes as follows: “Finland has been a member of the ERM since October 1996; in the per iod from March 1996 to October 1996 the Finnish markka (FIM) appreciated vis-à-vis the ERM currencies; since it entered the ERM the FIM has not been subject to severe tensions and Finland has not devalued, on its own initiative, the FIM bilateral central rate against any other Member State’s currency;…” and “as regards the convergence criterion mentioned in the third indent of Article 109j(1), the currency of Finland, although having entered the ERM only in October 1996, has displayed sufficient stability in the last two years.” European Commission (1998, p. 20). In both the Italian and the Finnish case, the statement of the Commission clearly violates the requirement of the Treaty that the candidate country be a member of the ERM for at least two years before the examination.

[5] See Eesti Pank http://www.bankofestonia.info/pub/en/dokumendid/dokumendid/ oigusaktid/seadused/_4.html

[6] Note that it might be possible to respect the letter of the Treaty in this regard, while violating its spirit. Consider the case where the euro is made joint legal tender with the national currency, and the candidate EMU member’s own currency is not formally abolished and remains joint legal tender with the euro. The use of the local currency as a means of payment, numéraire and store of value could be discouraged in a variety of ways. In the limit, the last domestic banknote could lead a perfunctory existence, hanging framed on the wall of the office of the Governor of the central bank. The conversion rate ultimately decided by the EU Council of Ministers would be irrelevant if the local currency had de facto if not de jure become defunct.

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Joint blog by Willem H. Buiter and Anne C. Sibert

An earlier version of this blob appeard in the Financial Adviser, 27 September 2007, under the title: “Walking the line, not chalking it”.

A brief history of securitisation and off-balance sheet finance

Once upon a time banks dominated the financial landscape. They raised funds through deposits that could be withdrawn on demand on a first-come-first-served basis. Their assets consisted mainly of loans, both secured and unsecured, to businesses and households. Specialised mortgage lenders (called building societies in the UK) made long-term loans to homeowners secured against property. Northern Rock was one of these. It was a mutual society, not a public limited company. The home loans were non-marketable and therefore illiquid. Its other assets were typically safe and liquid government securities

With liquid liabilities and mostly illiquid assets, banks, including mortgage banks, were vulnerable to ‘runs’. If enough depositors believed their money was safe, they would all keep their money in the bank. If enough depositors believed that enough other depositors wanted to withdraw their money, there would be run and the bank would fail. When there was a run on a solvent, but illiquid, bank, the central bank, acting as lender of last resort (LOLR) stood ready to provide that bank with liquidity by lending to it freely, but at a penalty rate of interest and against collateral that would be good in normal times. The government provided or mandated deposit insurance, at some cost to the banks; government-imposed capital requirements forced banks to hold more capital than they liked. There were restrictions on what banks could do with their assets; serious reporting obligations and thorough independent audits were the rule.

Banks, however, did not like holding illiquid assets. Thus, in the 1970s securitisation was invented and pools of previously illiquid asset were sold to ‘off-balance-sheet’ special purpose vehicles (SPVs) that sliced and diced them, mixed them with other assets, enhanced them in various ways and issued tranched securities backed by the entire asset pool. We got ‘multi-layered securitisation’ as securitised assets themselves became the underlying assets for the next level of securitisation.

There are good aspects to this, pooling assets reduces risk and making non-traded assets tradable enhances opportunities for risk trading. But, securitisation destroys information: the orginator of the loan (often the party that continued to monitor the original mortgage borrower on behalf of the SPV) was now the agent rather than the principal in the investment relationship. Incentives for acquiring information and for monitoring inevitably decline when these activities are delegated. The information that was acquired ended up in the wrong place because it remained with the originators of the loans. By the time a conduit of a German Landesbank bought some tranche of the securitized home loans from a Paris-based hedge fund, neither the buyer nor the seller knew much about the risk associated with the underlying assets.

In came the rating agencies to solve this information problem. How they would acquire the information dispersed among myriad individual originators of the underlying loans was a question no one asked. Moreover, there were conflicts of interest as the rating agencies were paid by the issuers of the products they were rating. They often advised those whose structured investment products they would rate on how to engineer the product to obtain the best rating! The result was a ratings inflation for structured instruments. In the US, triple A silk purses were made out of the pigs ears of subprime-mortgage-backed securities. Regulators could not keep up and central bank warnings about excesses in credit markets were ignored.

Banks also did not like the restrictions, such as capital requirements and reporting obligations, that were the quid pro quo for access to the lender of last resort. Many of them (although not Northern Rock) outsourced their riskier activities to off-balance sheet vehicles and other less regulated or unregulated entities, including conduits or other structured investment vehicles (SIVs), hedge funds and private equity funds. The banks often remained exposed to these entities through credit lines or reputation considerations, but did not pay much attention to this. More information vanished; nobody knew any longer who owned what and who owed what and to whom.

Banks, including Northern Rock, disliked having to raise funds by attracting depositors and found capital markets to be an obvious alternative. Northern Rock de-mutualised and became a regular public limited company. Asset-backed securities (including covered bonds) and unsecured corporate loans permitted a faster expansion of business than the pedestrian process of attracting depositors.

The securitisation and disintermediation boom caused many market players to believe that risk had not only been repackaged, but that it had disappeared. After 2003, credit risk spreads of all kinds shrunk to miniscule proportions, assisted by unduly expansionary monetary policies in the US, Japan and the Eurozone. Low long-term real interest rates further boosted the leverage frenzy in the new financial sector.

Then it happened. In 2006 default rates on US subprime mortgages rose to levels inconsistent with the ratings of the securities they backed. By July 2007, many asset-backed securities markets were becoming illiquid, and de-securitisation was beginning. In August, interbank markets and asset-backed corporate paper markets began to seize up in the US, the Eurozone and the UK. The first victims were hedge funds (in the US and in France) and small banks in Germany that had been directly exposed to the US subprime and other risky mortgage markets. On September 13, Northern Rock had to seek emergency funding from the Bank of England, not because it had any significant exposure to the US subprime sector, but because it was unable to fund itself in the wholesale markets.

Although the bail out of Northern Rock was a joint decision of the UK Treasury, the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England, these parties’ Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) makes it clear that ultimately the decision belonged to the Treasury: Ultimate responsibility for authorisation of support operations in exceptional circumstances rests with the Chancellor”. This makes sense, because ultimately the tax payer funds the losses when public resources are put at risk. The reputational damage of this debacle, however, affects mainly the Bank: it had to provide the line of credit within days of taking a strong public line against bail outs.

Northern Rock engaged in reckless borrowing. It could not survive without external assistance not because its assets were bad (its exposure to the US subprime market is tiny) but because it used a high-risk funding policy to finance its breakneck expansion, with three quarters of its funds coming from the wholesale markets rather than from depositors. It gambled and lost and it urgently needs a buyer with deeper pockets and a more sensible funding strategy.

Northern Rock’s bail-out cannot be justified on systemic financial stability grounds: as the UK’s fifth largest mortgage lender it is just too small to be a threat to financial and economic stability. A bail out should only be undertaken if there is, in the words of the MOU, “… a genuine threat to the stability of the financial system to avoid a serious disturbance in the UK economy.”

Ironically, the Liquidity Support Facility failed to restore confidence and a run on the deposits of Northern Rock developed. Calm was restored only when the Chancellor guaranteed in full all deposits of Northern Rock and of any other bank that might be granted recourse to a Liquidity Support Facility in the future. Instead of this socialisation of UK-wide depositor risk, it would have been preferable to take Northern Rock into public ownership. It could have resumed operations immediately in support of its existing commitments and could have been re-privatized at some later date.

Getting the monetary authority out of the Lender of Last Resort business and into the Market Maker of Last Resort business

We believe that the Bank’s understanding of the distinction between its Lender of Last Resort (LOLR) role for individual banks and its responsibility for providing broad liquidity support for financial markets, and specifically for the longer-term money markets (see e.g. the Governor’s Paper submitted to the Treasury Committee on12 September 2007), is flawed. The Bank should support key financial markets and other institutions such as the payments system and the clearing and settlement systems. The Bank should leave bailing out individual banks to the FSA, which has the institution-specific knowledge, and the Treasury, which can call on tax payers for funding. Ending the active role of the monetary authority as LOLR would require the FSA to have a credit line or overdraft facility with the Bank, guaranteed by the Treasury and would require a change in the MOU. The Bank would take no part in the decision as to whether some bank should be bailed out, and the Bank’s role in funding any bail-out decided by the Treasury and the FSA would be entirely passive.

Bank intervention in longer-term money markets

The Bank has made a mistake in its unwillingness to intervene at longer maturities than the overnight market. The Bank’s own primary money market objective is for “Overnight market interest rates to be in line with the official Bank Rate, so that there is a flat money market yield curve, consistent with the official Bank Rate, out to the next MPC decision date ….”. This means that, following the last MPC meeting on 6th September 2007, when there was a month to go till the next scheduled MPC meeting, the one-month interbank rate on unsecured lending (LIBOR) should have been close to the Bank’s policy rate of 5.75%. In fact it was only just below the three-month LIBOR rate of 6.68% (see Chart 1).

There are four explanations for the sizable spread of three-month LIBOR over the Bank Rate. The first is an expectation that the Bank Rate will rise over the next three months, but this highly unlikely. Second, there could be a pure term premium, but this must be tiny over such a short horizon. Third, there is a risk that borrowers will default. This is clearly not zero, but it is difficult to believe that there is a one percent probability that a typical UK money centre bank will default with a zero recovery rate during the next three months. Finally, there is a liquidity risk and we attribute the lion’s share of the recent spread of three-month LIBOR over Bank Rate to liquidity factors.

Currently liquid banks may be reluctant to make three month loans, not because they are afraid that their borrowers will be insolvent in three months, but because they are afraid that both they and their borrowers will be illiquid in three months. If enough banks have these fears, an interbank ‘lending strike’ results.

Banks everywhere are gearing up to take on their balance sheets the illiquid assets of conduits, other SIVs and other off-balance sheet SPVs that they are exposed to through credit lines or reputational considerations. Fear of future illiquidity is widespread and banks are hoarding excess liquidity rather than lending it out in the interbank market, even at nearly seven percent. The Bank could address this unfortunate situation by injecting liquidity, through repos with, say, a three-month maturity to eliminate the liquidity premium. Such repos are likely to be more effective if they are against a wider range of eligible collateral that what the Bank currently accepts, including illiquid assets.

It is true that the ECB’s massive injections of three-month have not prevented significant spreads (albeit lower than in the UK) of Euribor over the policy rate in the Eurozone (see Chart 2). But, in the United States, the spread on three-month LIBOR has fallen to less than 50 basis points since the Fed lowered its discount rate by 50 basis points on 17 Aug 2007, in addition to more modest open market and discount window operations (see Chart 3). However, what is most important is not the spread, but the amount of lending taking place. In the UK 3-month LIBOR has become the rate at which banks will not lend to each other.

The Bank as Market Maker of Last Resort

We have proposed (Willem H. Buiter and Anne C. Sibert “Three Steps to Calm the Storm”, Financial Times Comment, 5 Sept 2007) that the Bank should accept a wider range of collateral, including lower-rated illiquid private assets, as long as it is punitively priced, and subject to a suitable ‘haircut’ (discount) as well. The Bank should ‘make market’ for such illiquid securities, by holding auctions in which it purchases these securities; it should then hold them on its books, taking the credit risk, until they can be sold off again under more orderly market conditions, preferably at a profit for the tax payer. To encourage participation by investors who do not want to mark-to-market their securities, the Bank and FSA could require that all similar securities not priced at the auction be marked-to-market at the price established in the auction.

There would probably have been no need for a bail-out of Northern Rock if the Bank of England had had a sensible collateral policy for its regular open market operations. Unlike the ECB and the Fed, the Bank only accepts European Economic Area sovereign debt instruments, high quality debt issued by a few international organisations and, exceptionally, US Treasury debt. More sensibly, the ECB also accepts private securities rated at least A-, including asset-backed securities. If Northern Rock had a Eurozone subsidiary, it could have funded itself through the eurozone three-month repos conducted by the ECB last week, using its high-grade mortgages (or securities backed by them) as collateral. The Fed can, in an emergency, accept anything it deems appropriate as collateral at its discount window, not only from banks, but from individuals, corporations and non-bank financial institutions as well.

On September 19, the Bank suddenly had a double change of heart: it announced it would initiate repurchase operations at 3-month maturity and would accept as collateral private assets, including mortgages.

Secrecy

We know that the Chancellor authorised the Bank to “provide a liquidity support facility to Northern Rock against appropriate collateral and at an interest rate premium.” But, this is not sufficient information. Is the support uncapped and open-ended, as Northern Rock informs us? What is the premium charged for the use of the facility? What is the arrangement fee for the facility? Exactly what collateral will be offered, how will it be valued and what ‘haircut’ will it be subject to? The public are funding this risky venture and they are entitled to know. There is no commercial confidentiality argument for keeping any of this information secret. The accountability of the Bank and the Treasury are at stake. The Chancellor should provide this information forthwith, and if he does not, Parliament should insist.

Credibility

The Chancellor, and possibly also the FSA and the Bank, do not want even a systemically insignificant mortgage lender to fail on their watch, regardless of the moral hazard created by the bail-out. The Chancellor is willing to risk tax payer money to prevent it. The Bank, however, should not be directly involved in the decision making; nor should it play an active role in the funding of the liquidity support facility. Depositor protection is the job of the FSA and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Redistribution of income belongs to the Treasury. If the Bank remains an active participant in an inherently political bailout process for individual banks, the Bank’s independence in the realm of monetary policy could be compromised.

Charts Source: Bank of England

Source: European Central Bank

Source: Federal Reserve Board

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Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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