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.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.