Spain's bank balance starts heading in the right direction

Some good news from Europe.

This chart, from JP Morgan via FT Alphaville's David Keohane, is quietly rather good news:

 

TARGET2 (Trans-European Automated Real-Time Gross Settlement System – yes, it's not a particularly good acronym) is the European inter-bank lending system, used for settling cross-border transactions throughout the eurozone.

If a Spanish supermarket buys beer from a German brewer and pays with a bank transfer, then the euros aren't just sent directly from one account to the other. Instead, they are channeled through the countries' central banks. The German brewer gets money from their bank, which gets the money from the Bundesbank, while the Spanish supermarket owes money to their local bank, which owes money to the Banco de España. The two central banks then settle those debts with the ECB, and that's the where TARGET2 comes in. Over the long-term, these debts and credits don't always even out, and so countries end up with balances with the ECB.

The chart above shows that the long-running trend for Germany to have ever-increasing credit, and Spain ever-increasing debt, may now be reversing. This is a good thing, because one of the few silver-linings of the crippling austerity the Spanish people have experienced over the last year is that the so-called "internal devaluation" – the reduction of wages in the country – is supposed to increase the strength of exports.

The TARGET2 trend also indicates that fears of a Spanish bank run are unfounded. While it doesn't leave the country in the all-clear – if people are taking money from banks in cash, it wouldn't show up on this account – it bodes well for the health of the banking sector.

But the most important aspect of TARGET2 for the eurocrisis as a whole is that it provides a mechanism for mechanical exit of the euro. We wrote about this in May with regards to Greece, but the short version is that if the debt gets too big, the ECB can decide to simply stop lending to the country. If that happens, the state is all but ejected from the euro in a stroke.

Greece may not be out of the water yet, but the knowledge that Spain is, for the time being, perfectly safe in the eurozone will help the country get its bearing. It still leaves Rajoy with the tough decision as to whether or not to officially request a bailout, but his hand is no longer as forced as it was.

Symbolic. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.