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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.