Vast liabilities are being switched quietly from private banks and investment funds onto the shoulders of taxpayers across southern Europe. It is a variant of the tragic episode in Greece, but this time on a far larger scale, and with systemic global implications.
There has been no democratic decision by any parliament to take on these fiscal debts, rapidly approaching €1 trillion. They are the unintended side-effect of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, which has degenerated into a conduit for capital flight from the Club Med bloc to Germany, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands.
This ‘socialization of risk’ is happening by stealth, a mechanical effect of the ECB’s Target2 payments system. If a political upset in France or Italy triggers an existential euro crisis over coming months, citizens from both the eurozone’s debtor and creditor countries will discover to their horror what has been done to them.
As always, the debt markets are the barometer of stress. Yields on two-year German debt fell to an all-time low of minus 0.92pc on Wednesday, a sign that something very strange is happening. “Alarm bells are starting to ring again. Our flow data is picking up serious capital flight into German safe-haven assets. It feels like the build-up to the eurozone crisis in 2011,” said Simon Derrick from BNY Mellon.
The Target2 system is designed to adjust accounts automatically between the branches of the ECB’s family of central banks, self-correcting with each ebb and flow. In reality, it has become a cloak for chronic one-way capital outflows.
Private investors sell their holdings of Italian or Portuguese sovereign debt to the ECB at a profit, and rotate the proceeds into mutual funds Germany or Luxembourg. “What it basically shows is that monetary union is slowly disintegrating despite the best efforts of Mario Draghi,” said a former ECB governor.
The Banca d’Italia alone now owes a record €364bn to the ECB – 22pc of GDP – and the figure keeps rising.
Spain’s Target2 liabilities are €328bn, almost 30pc of GDP. Portugal and Greece are both at €72bn. All are either insolvent or dangerously close if these debts are crystallized.
On the other side of the ledger, the German Bundesbank has built up Target2 credits of €796bn. Luxembourg has credits of €187bn, reflecting its role as a financial hub. This is roughly 350pc of the tiny Duchy’s GDP, and fourteen times the annual budget.