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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left