Remember when the infamous Goldman Sachs delivered a thinly-veiled threat to the Greek Parliament in December, warning them to elect a pro-austerity prime minister or risk having central bank liquidity cut off to their banks? (See January 6th post here.) It seems the European Central Bank (headed by Mario Draghi, former managing director of Goldman Sachs International) has now made good on the threat.
The week after the leftwing Syriza candidate Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as prime minister, the ECB announced that it would no longer accept Greek government bonds and government-guaranteed debts as collateral for central bank loans to Greek banks. The banks were reduced to getting their central bank liquidity through “Emergency Liquidity Assistance” (ELA), which is at high interest rates and can also be terminated by the ECB at will.
In an interview reported in the German magazine Der Spiegel on March 6th, Alexis Tsipras said that the ECB was “holding a noose around Greece’s neck.” If the ECB continued its hardball tactics, he warned, “it will be back to the thriller we saw before February” (referring to the market turmoil accompanying negotiations before a four-month bailout extension was finally agreed to).
The noose around Greece’s neck is this: the ECB will not accept Greek bonds as collateral for the central bank liquidity all banks need, until the new Syriza government accepts the very stringent austerity program imposed by the troika (the EU Commission, ECB and IMF). That means selling off public assets (including ports, airports, electric and petroleum companies), slashing salaries and pensions, drastically increasing taxes and dismantling social services, while creating special funds to save the banking system.
These are the mafia-like extortion tactics by which entire economies are yoked into paying off debts to foreign banks – debts that must be paid with the labor, assets and patrimony of people who had nothing to do with incurring them.
Playing Chicken with the People’s Money
Greece is not the first to feel the noose tightening on its neck. As The Economist notes, in 2013 the ECB announced that it would cut off Emergency Lending Assistance to Cypriot banks within days, unless the government agreed to its bailout terms. Similar threats were used to get agreement from the Irish government in 2010.
Likewise, says The Economist, the “Greek banks’ growing dependence on ELA leaves the government at the ECB’s mercy as it tries to renegotiate the bailout.”
Mark Weisbrot commented in the Huffington Post:
We should be clear about what this means. The ECB’s move was completely unnecessary . . . . It looks very much like a deliberate attempt to undermine the new government.
. . . The ECB could . . . stabilize Greek bond yields at low levels, but instead it chose . . . to go to the opposite extreme — and I mean extreme — to promote a run on bank deposits, tank the Greek stock market, and drive up Greek borrowing costs.
Weisbrot observed that the troika had plunged the Eurozone into at least two additional years of unnecessary recession beginning in 2011, because “they were playing a similar game of chicken. . . . [T]he ECB deliberately allowed these market actors to create an existential crisis for the euro, in order to force concessions from the governments of Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.”
The Tourniquet of Central Bank Liquidity
Not just Greek banks but all banks are reliant on central bank liquidity, because they are all technically insolvent. They all lend money they don’t have. They rely on being able to borrow from other banks, the money market, or the central bank as needed to balance their books. The central bank (which has the power to print money) is the ultimate backstop in this sleight of hand. If that source of liquidity dries up, the banks go down.
In the Eurozone, the national central banks of member countries have relinquished this critical credit power to the European Central Bank. And the ECB, like the US Federal Reserve, marches to the drums of large international banks rather than to the democratic will of the people.
Lest there be any doubt, let’s review Goldman’s December memo to the Greek Parliament, reprinted on Zerohedge. Titled “From GRecovery to GRelapse,” it warned:
[H]erein lies the main risk for Greece. The economy needs the only lender of last resort to the banking system to maintain ample provision of liquidity. And this is not just because banks may require resources to help reduce future refinancing risks for the sovereign. But also because banks are already reliant on government issued or government guaranteed securities to maintain the current levels of liquidity constant.
In the event of a severe Greek government clash with international lenders, interruption of liquidity provision to Greek banks by the ECB could potentially even lead to a Cyprus-style prolonged “bank holiday”. And market fears for potential Euro-exit risks could rise at that point. [Emphasis added.]
Why would the ECB have to “interrupt liquidity provision” just because of a “clash with international lenders”? As Mark Weisbrot observed, the move was completely unnecessary. The central bank can flick the credit switch on or off at its whim. Any country that resists going along with the troika’s austerity program may find that its banks have been cut off from this critical liquidity, because the government and the banks are no longer considered “good credit risks.” And that damning judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as is happening in Greece.
“The Icing on the Cake”