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The Austerity Play: Euronomics of Speculative Attacks

Karl Smith:

On Bank Runs and Fighting the Folks Who Own a Printing Press « Modeled Behavior: Ultimately bond traders are looking to make money. In the short term you might be looking to support a liquidity position or something, but at the end of the day everyone is looking to increase profitability. If the ECB stands ready to buy bonds at par for example, then how can it possibly be profit maximizing to sell bonds at below par? It doesn’t matter what the fundamentals are or what the long run is or any of that. So long as you are fully confident that tomorrow you can sell your bond to the ECB at par, it is not sensible to sell it below par today.

This means interest rates on Sovereign Debt collapse if the ECB stands ready to trade.

Now, someone could come in and attempt to break the ECB. That is you could say to yourself: I don’t think the ECB really means it. They will fold if they are required to buy more than X bonds.

Then you attempt to short sell them X+1 bonds so that they will break, the price of the bonds will collapse and you can rake in a ton of money. This is a fairly high stakes game and the ECB is very large, so its not clear who will play it.

More importantly, while I definitely see the ECB as the type of institution that would dither while Europe burned and don’t at all see them as the type of institution that would give in to a speculative attack.

I feel pretty confident that they would double down against the speculator and ruin him or her as a matter of principle. Moreover, anyone who is going to loan you the bonds for this attack has got to be worried that the ECB is going to ruin you.

So, I find it unlikely that an attack will be successful.

It used to be that speculative attacks against the currencies of sovereigns were successful in two cases:

  1. When the central bank is trying to keep its currency above its real fundamental value, and is intervening by buying its currency and selling its (limited) supply of harder assets. Then you can break a central bank.

  2. When the central bank is trying to keep its currency above its real fundamental value, and is intervening by selling domestic bonds for cash and so pushing up interest rates to make its currency attractive to hold. Then it is defending the dollar by attacking the economy--creating a recession and boosting unemployment. The central bank's ability to do this is determined by its (limited) politicians' willingness to make their voters poor and unemployed. Then you can break a central bank.

Now we have a third case. Note that it is not a speculative attack on a currency: core eurobond interest rates are very very low. And within the current eurozone, the ECB can print enough euros to peg the europrices of the eurobonds of peripheral eurosovereigns wherever it wants to. Given this power, under what circumstances can a speculative attack succeed?

It's not that the ECB is unwilling to buy bonds for cash because it then creates inflationary pressure. The cash it prints goes straight into the speculative balances of the investors who sold the bonds, not into the transactions balances of the economy as a whole. And when the speculative attack passes, the positions are unwound with a profit to the ECB.

Thus the marginal velocity of money created by eurointervention is highly likely to be very small. It's not as though Italy is running a primary deficit or anything.

I don't understand it. It is, it seems to me, an episode of euri sacri fames: the accursed love for the euro as a--well, not a hard currency, exactly, because a currency that collapses and destroys itself is not "hard". Rather, I would say, it is a love of austerity and unemployment for its own sake.

So those who are betting on the collapse of the euro and the exist of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and now France to a weaker currency are making a very big austerity play. They may be correct to make such a play. But it is not a scenario we have ever seen before...