(See here for our previous response to the ECB)
Yesterday, the WSJ Real Time Economics blog covered comments by ECB Governing Board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi suggesting that estimates such as ours were based on a "misunderstanding of the Eurosystem and its risk provisions" (we recommend reading the blog in conjunction with this post to make sense of it all).
Bini Smaghi makes three key points, which we try to address here: that the ECB’s revaluation account can actually absorb any losses it faces, that its stream of seigniorage from printing money adds to its financial strength and that only a default would really threaten the ECB’s balance sheet.
Firstly, the revaluation account was set up to help protect against losses on foreign reserves (including gold and dollar denominated holdings) resulting from changes in prices or exchange rates. As the value of these holdings changes any gains or losses are shifted to the revaluation account while the assets themselves remain listed at original prices. The idea is that these changes could be temporary and so it is financially prudent to add in this extra buffer (we agree on this point). Accepted, since the revaluation account is now over €300bn it is unlikely that all of this would be needed to buffer against price or exchange rate risks. However, it is not clear why, after being used for this purpose for over a decade, the ECB would switch to using it to account for broader credit and collateral risks. This also explains why we did not include it in our paper, since it is not defined as part of the capital base and was not created for the purpose now being suggested. Hence we stick by our comment that it would take only a 4.25% decrease in the value of assets to wipe out the ECB’s capital base (defined as capital and reserves, the standard definition).
More importantly though, this means that any money inside the revaluation account is unrealised (meaning it only exists on paper until the underlying assets are sold). Therefore, in order to cover any losses which appear in the ECB’s profit and loss account (realised losses) the ECB would need to sell some of these assets. So, the ECB would essentially be deleveraging to help cover its losses, a process which we’d expect might startle financial markets. This also means that Bini Smaghi is including the potential sale of assets as part of the capital base calculation, which seems far from normal. Including this money in capital and reserve buffers is very confusing since the revaluation account is listed as a liability while the actual holdings are listed as assets. These points seem to make it difficult for the revaluation account to be judged as a real backstop against the potential losses from a Greek default.
Additionally, since these gains are unrealised and the assets would have to be sold off for the revaluation funds to be tapped, the liquidity of the assets must also be considered. Given that demand for gold and dollars remains strong this may not be such a problem. However, these holdings will always be slightly constrained by their liquidity and will involve some transaction costs.
Furthermore, if Greece was to default we’d expect there would be significant turmoil in the financial markets, with money rushing out of the Eurozone and towards the 'safe haven' of the US. This would ultimately cause a massive drop in the value of the euro, likely wiping out a part of the revaluation account.
The ability to control future money production is important, but our point is more that the immediate hit which the ECB and Eurosystem will take from a Greek default would be passed through to taxpayers. Even with a large future potential income from printing money this cannot really be overcome without printing money immediately, which would be inflationary, as we suggest. Furthermore, if the ECB did draw on future incomes it could undermine the future financial strength of the ECB. Ultimately, our point was that the immediate hit which the ECB would take under a Greek default could cause it to need to be recapitalise or ramp up its printing of money (above the point where it is non-inflationary) and these costs would be passed onto taxpayers.
Update 16/06/2011 8pm:
As a keen observer has pointed out, the weakening of the euro would in fact increase the revaluation account. This is because the assets, such as gold or dollars, would be able to be sold or exchanged for a larger amount of euros. There might be an inflationary aspect to this, as with any devaluation, although we doubt that it would be large enough to have much impact. An admitted mistake on our part, though certainly not a vital part of our argument in any case.