Another credit crunch looms

The threads holding up the balance sheets of the banks are growing perilously thin.

The finance sector is signalling alarm, and our politicians are once again asleep at the wheel. Another "credit crunch" may be looming. The most significant evidence emerged from the ECB's second Long Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) on Thursday last week.

The LTRO is simply language intended to disguise the "printing of money" by the ECB for lending to private European banks at a very low rate of interest - 1 per cent. (In fact, the money is not even printed: it is created by entering digits into an ECB computer, and then transferring hundreds of billions of euros as 'bank money' to private banks.)

The fact that British banks rushed to drink from this punch bowl, tells you something about the state of their balance sheets.

For reasons that I suspect are largely ideological, the British government and HM Opposition refuse to face the reality that our private banking system and large parts of the corporate and household sectors are effectively bankrupt. Given this context - and the grave threat posed by an insolvent private finance sector - the joint and somewhat myopic focus by all political parties on the public debt is surely irrational.

Many households, firms and banks in the private sector are only kept from liquidation by a) "forbearance" - bankers hanging on in the hope that e.g. defaulting mortgage debtors will eventually repay; and b) injections of 'liquidity' by publicly-backed central banks.

But the threads of forbearance and liquidity holding up the balance sheets of the private banking system are growing perilously thin.

The ECB is by law (the Lisbon Treaty) prevented from making low-cost finance directly available to sovereign governments of the Eurozone. Whereas the Bank of England has effectively financed the government's deficit by buying government bonds at very low rates of interest from private banks, Greece and Portugal cannot rely on the ECB to purchase their bonds at low rates. Instead they have to turn to private bankers/financiers - who charge much higher rates of interest. (Readers are free to speculate as to who may have had a hand in drafting the Lisbon Treaty and the ECB's mandate.)

To avert Armageddon in the global financial system last December, the ECB turned the cheap money spigot on - in the vain hope that private banks would lend on low-cost ECB loans to governments. And that they would do so at a rate of interest a little nearer to the 1 per cent the ECB had charged them.

So much for wishful thinking.

This onlending - borrowing cheap and lending dear - is called 'the carry trade', and extremely profitable it is too. Take Portuguese 10-year bonds: private banks are using their 1 per cenr ECB loans to buy these at 14 per cent - a nice, effortless little earner. The case of Greece is of course, worse: the rate of interest the 'carry trade' extracts from Greece for short-term loans is frankly, criminal. Indeed the ECB's easy, cheap money can be said to be helping bankrupt the very governments it purports to help in its roundabout way.

But I digress. Last week big banks as well as many small banks, rushed to suck on the teat of cheap central bank funding. Our very own Lloyds Bank, already largely government-owned, borrowed €13.6bn from the ECB while Barclays, which claims it never relied on public funds, borrowed €8.2bn; RBS borrowed €18bn. In total 800 European banks rushed for help from the ECB.

This is a worrying development.

But even more disturbing are signs that banks no longer lend to each other. Just as the credit crunch of August, 2007 was heralded by a freezing up of inter-bank-lending, so history appears to be repeating itself. According to the FT, banks deposited a record €777bn overnight with the ECB last week, up nearly two thirds from the previous day.

In other words, banks were borrowing from the ECB at 1 per cent and then re-depositing funds with the ECB for less - 25 per cent.

Banks could earn a great deal more in the inter-bank market - but that market scares the hell out of them. They know a lot more about their fellow bankers' solvency than our politicians do. Which is why they are parking their (our) money with a bank that cannot go bust: the taxpayer-backed ECB.

Given that our politicians are looking the other way, this should scare us too.

Ann Pettifor is director of PRIME - Policy Research in Macroeconomics.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.