Today’s note, “The Red King“, looks at recent events in the European banking system through one of my favorite Alice in Wonderland stories. Europe is once again nearing a potential Red King moment, something last seen in the summer of 2012. Then the wake-up call was a series of national elections, particularly in Greece. Today it’s a restructuring of the European financial system, a process started in 2012 with the recapitalization of Spanish banks, continued with the depositor bail-in of Cypriot banks, and now at a tipping point with the imminent ECB regulatory control over all large EU banks.
“The Red King”
“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee, “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?”
Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”
“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”
“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.
“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”
“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”
– Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass” (1871)
Never trust the storyteller. Only trust the story.
– Neil Gaiman, “The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections” (1994)
He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream, and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.
– Douglas Adams “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1979)
In dreams begin responsibilities.
– W.B. Yeats “Responsibilities” (1914)
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
– Langston Hughes, “Dream Deferred” (1951)
We’re all familiar with the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, less so with the Red King. He’s sleeping all the while, and when Alice goes to wake him up she’s warned off by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who tell her that everything in Wonderland – including Alice herself – is perhaps just the dream of the Red King. Wake him up and maybe, just maybe, everything goes … poof!
Europe is once again nearing a potential Red King moment, something last seen in the summer of 2012. Then the wake-up call was a series of national elections, particularly in Greece. Today it’s a restructuring of the European financial system, a process started in 2012 with the recapitalization of Spanish banks, continued with the depositor bail-in of Cypriot banks, and now at a tipping point with the imminent ECB regulatory control over all large EU banks.
Mario Draghi is Alice, and the dream is a unified European identity triumphant over individual national identities, symbolized and crystalized in a single currency, the Euro.
The Red King? Well, that’s us.
A quick recap of our story so far. The European sovereign debt crisis of both the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2012 was also a banking system crisis. In fact, you really can’t separate the two. European sovereigns in the South and the periphery are, as a general rule, poorly capitalized and highly levered, and so are their banks. The massive spike in sovereign rates we all witnessed in countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece was exactly like a run on the bank, just on a national scale. It’s a collapse in confidence in the solvency of the sovereign, manifested as a liquidity crisis. This is the Red King having a nightmare.
Front and center in this nightmare are the actual banks in countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, which suffer actual runs and massive deposit outflows. These banks must be recapitalized to survive, but who exactly should be on the hook for this recapitalization if it ultimately fails? It’s all well and good to say that Europe as a whole should create a common fund to accomplish these recapitalizations, but is it really fair for German taxpayers to pay the price for a Spanish bank’s insolvency, particularly when those taxpayers (or their representatives) have zero insight into how bad the mess really is and zero oversight over efforts to get out of the mess? But if you make the Spanish government a guarantor of the Spanish bank’s recapitalization, all you’re doing is adding to the debt burden of the Spanish sovereign, which just makes the nightmare worse.
Everyone agrees on the best recapitalization solution – an EU banking union, where all the big banks, regardless of nationality, are guaranteed by the entire EU – but you can’t just go straight to a banking union in one fell swoop. First you need an EU banking regulator, someone who the German taxpayer trusts to take a hard look at the Spanish bank’s books, to force changes in the Spanish bank’s management and balance sheet if warranted, and to watch the Spanish bank like a hawk to make sure that this new German money doesn’t fall into the old Spanish rat hole of bad loans and highly questionable banking practices. This super-regulator is the ECB, or at least that’s what Draghi promised as part of his “whatever it takes” pledge in 2012, and now here we are, two years later, and it’s time for Draghi to make good on that promise.
So what makes the summer of 2014 different from the summer of 2012? If Draghi sang a lullaby to the fitful Red King two years ago with his “whatever it takes” pledge, why won’t he do the same today by following through with a no-muss-no-fuss ECB regulatory take-over of major EU banks?
Odds are he will. But what’s different today is that it’s his own institution on the line. What’s different today is that a heartfelt speech and a mythical OMT program – pure Narratives, in other words – are not sufficient. The ECB actually has to assume responsibility for these banks if Draghi is to move forward with the next step of the Grand Plan, and there’s nothing intangible or mythic about that.
I think that the best way to understand the recent spate of write-downs and default notifications from European banks (Erste Bank on July 4th, Espirito Santo on July 10th) is in the context of this regulatory unification of big EU banks. For the first time in decades these banks are being examined for real. No more patsy national regulators with their revolving doors and inherited culpability, but a highly professional independent banking bureaucracy looking carefully at every bottle and tin in the pantry because they’re scared to death of swallowing some poisonous balance sheet.
The problem for the ECB, of course, is that Espirito Santo and Erste are not isolated incidents, any more than Laiki and Fortis and Anglo Irish and WestLB and BMPS and … should I go on? … were isolated incidents. The problem is that no amount of public scrubbing and show trials can change the fact that the entire European banking system has been an enthusiastic accomplice to domestic political interests for the past 30+ years, stuffing their collective balance sheets to the gills with loans in direct or indirect service to domestic political demands. What? You mean that 6 billion euros lent to politically-connected business