End of the Marathon: The Meaning of Greece's 'Bank Jog'

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The country's slow-motion bank run could end the euro -- if the ECB lets it.

GreekBank.jpg
(Reuters)

Bank runs usually have one speed: all-out-sprinting. But today, the Greeks are jogging.

There's been a quiet bank run in Greece the past three years. Since 2009, Greek banks have lost somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of their deposits. That's actually surprisingly low considering that a euro in a Greek bank doesn't look like it's worth as much as a euro in a German bank. The calculus is simple. Greece might turn its euros into cheaper drachmas and Germany won't. Why wouldn't more Greek people move their money to be safe? 

Increasingly, they are. On Monday and Tuesday alone, Greeks withdrew over €1.2 billion ($1.53 billion). That's roughly 0.75 percent of remaining Greek deposits. This still-gradual bank run -- what FT Alphaville's Joseph Cotterill calls a "bank jog" -- is accelerating because Greek politics is making a Greek exit look more imminent. 

It is a classic case of self-fulfilling economic expectations. Greeks are nervous about leaving the euro. The nervousness leads to a bank run. A bank run increases the chance that Greece will have to leave the euro. Which makes people more nervous. And around we go.

GOOD NIGHT, EURO

As Greek banks lose deposits, they need new sources of funding. But they can't raise money from markets. That leaves the ECB. The ECB has so far been a reluctant lender-of-last-resort, but it has been a lender-of-last-resort -- for banks, if not countries. The Cliff Notes version is that the ECB has kept Greek banks afloat by giving them money in exchange for collateral.* Warning bells might be going off. If Greek banks have good collateral, why can't they use it to get private loans? The answer is that they don't have good collateral. In other words, if Greece defaults and exits, the ECB will be stuck holding a bag of mostly worthless pieces of paper.

How big is the problem? Let's take a look under the hood of the ECB. The below chart courtesy of Scotty Barber shows so-called TARGET2 balances. It's a bit technical, but TARGET2 shows how much countries owe or are owed by the ECB. That's more or less a decent proxy for where deposits are moving from and to within the euro zone.
  
TARGET2.jpg

A Greek default would effectively cost the ECB roughly €100 billion ($127 billion), to be split between the remaining euro zone members.

Here's how this could push Greek out of the euro zone. Greek banks are running out of collateral. Even bad collateral. All they have is really bad collateral. As the bank jog speeds up, they need to get more and more money from the ECB. But they might not have good enough collateral to get it. The ECB can change its rules and accept dodgier collateral -- but that would open the ECB up to even bigger losses down the line, assuming a Greek exit is inevitable.

If the ECB says no, then the jig would be up for Greece. Its banks would run out of money. That's when the bank jog would turn into a full-fledged run and then a sprint -- if it hadn't already. Of course, when banks don't have money, nobody has money. The Greek government wouldn't have a choice: It would have to start printing new drachmas. Good night, euro.

AFTER GREECE ...

The damage won't stop there. Take a look at the TARGET2 balances again. Italian and Spanish banks are even more dependent on ECB funding than Greece. Already, there are signs of a bank racewalk going on among them. If the ECB cut the cord on Greece, Italian and Spanish depositors would frantically move their euros to German banks to protect themselves against the same fate. This deposit drain would eventually push them into the same collateral bind. The ECB would have to dramatically reverse itself to save the common currency.

Let's take a step back for a minute. The world of TARGET2 balances can be something of a rabbit hole, but there are two big takeaways here. First, the Greek bank jog will put more pressure on the ECB to do more. It will have to decide again whether or not to boot Greece from the euro zone. And second, a Greek exit would be a mess for Italy and Spain regardless of whether Greek politicians or the ECB makes the move.

It's hard to imagine the ECB pulling the plug on Greece anytime soon. Europe doesn't have anywhere near the bailout fund it needs ready, nor a consensus on euro bonds, nor on more aggressive ECB action. But the longer the ECB keeps Greek, Italian, and Spanish banks on life support, the greater the final cost if one of them exits -- and the greater the panic will hit the other countries in that event. The danger is that the ECB will lose its nerve -- that it will worry about potential future losses. That's what Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann fretted over a few months back. That could become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The biggest thing Europe has to fear is ECB fear of a euro breakup.

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* It's a bit more complicated than that. There are two ways banks effectively get money from the ECB. They can either pledge collateral to the ECB directly, or pledge collateral to their national central banks. The benefit of the latter option -- so-called Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) -- is that banks can use worse collateral. Still, the ECB has to okay the collateral. ELA are technically liabilities of each individual country, but if a country defaulted and left the euro zone, the ECB would be on the hook. Joseph Cotterill has a good summary of ECB versus ELA liquidity in Greece.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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