The euro-nomics groupi,*
Markus Brunnermeier, Luis Garicano, Philip R. Lane, Marco Pagano, Ricardo Reis, Tano Santos, Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, and Dimitri Vayanos
26th of September 2011
The European Union today faces one of the greatest challenges in its existence. The euro-zone, which just at the start of this century was lauded as Europe's great unifying achievement, has given way to states on the verge of default, financial systems that seem as solid as a deck of cards, and a great deal of disappointment with the European institutions. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, most of which fall within the realm of economics. One factor, that is crucial but under-appreciated is that Europe's problems are a consequence of a much wider, world, problem: the lack of safe assets. As a long-term trend, the impressive growth in the developing world during the last two decades has increased the demand for safe assets, as those countries' economic development outpaces their financial development yet they already need to build up reserves to smooth future shocks. As a short-term phenomenon, but one that is here to stay, the financial crisis of 2007–08 showed that financial markets can go through periods of tremendous volatility that have investors plunging towards an asset that is deemed safe.ii.
Modern financial systems rely heavily on safe assets. At the foundation of even the most complex financial securities there is usually a requirement to post as collateral some asset that is deemed safe by the parties involved. Prudent bank regulation, following Basel in its many rounds, requires banks to manage the risk in their assets in proportion to their capital. As a result, a substantial part of any bank's balance sheet must be in safe assets, as defined by the financial regulators. Pension funds are another example of a large class of investors that must hold a significant amount of safe assets, and even the least risk-averse of investors needs, even if only temporarily, to park investments in a safe vehicle. Finally, in conducting conventional monetary policy, the central bank should exchange money for safe bonds.
A safe asset for all of these purposes is one tha is liquid, that has minimal risk of default, and that is denominated in a currency with a stable purchasing power. To meet the large demand we just described, there is very little supply of assets satisfying these three characteristics. As a result, the most used of them, the U.S. Treasury bills and bonds, earn a large "safe haven" premium of as much as 0.7% per year.iii Europe, in spite of the size of its economy and its developed financial markets, and in spite of being home to one of the worlds' reserve currencies, does not supply a safe asset that rivals U.S. Treasuries. This has been noted before. What is less appreciated is that this deficiency is at the heart of the current European crisis.
In the absence of a European safe asset, bank regulators, policymakers, and investors have treated the bonds of all of the sovereign states in the euro-area as safe for the last 12 years. Bank regulators following the Basel criteria give sovereign bonds held by national banks a riskless assessment in calculating capital requirements, even as insuring against the default of some sovereign bonds using credit default swaps costs more than 5% today. The stress tests of European banks rule out, by assumption, the likely default in some of the sovereign assets held by the banks, making it difficult for investors to trust them. European policymakers have treated Greek and Dutch bonds as identically safe, even though they have traded at widely different prices in the market. The ECB accepts sovereign bonds of all its member states in its discounting operations, and while it applies different haircuts to them, they have been generous towards the riskier sovereigns. In turn, national policymakers have persuaded national banks to hold larger amounts of local national debt than prudent diversification would suggest. Finally, investors have been fervently speculating on whether sovereign states will be bailed out or not by their European partners, alternating between seeing the bonds as all equally safe, or seeing some of them as hopelessly doomed.
This situation led to two severe problems. First it created a diabolic loop, illustrated in Figure 1. Encouraged by the absence of any regulatory discrimination among bonds, European banks hold too much of their national debts, which, far from being safe, instead feeds never-ending speculation on the solvency of the banks. Sovereigns, in turn, face a constant risk of having to rescue their banks, which, combined with the uncertainty on what fiscal support they will receive from their European partners, increases the riskiness of their bonds. Finally, European policymakers lack the institutions and own resources to intervene in all of the troubled sovereign debt markets. The ECB ends up holding the riskiest of the sovereign bonds as the ECB becomes the sole source of financing for the troubled banks.
Figure 1: Diabolic Loop between Sovereign Debt Risk and Banking Debt Risk.
Breaking this loop, and giving the euro-zone a chance to survive in the long run, requires creating a European safe asset that banks can hold without being exposed to sovereign risk. However, contrary to what is widely believed, this does not require creating Eurobonds, backed in solidarity by all the European states and their taxing power. Many Europeans are not willing to accept the fiscal integration required by Eurobonds. Moreover, without essential control mechanisms on national public accounts, hastily introduced Eurobonds may lead to a much larger debt crisis in a few years, from which there is no way back. We offer an alternative that creates a safe asset, while eliminating these problems with Eurobonds.
The second severe problem is that, in the absence of a European safe bond, the bonds of some sovereigns at Europe’s center have satisfied the demand for safe assets. In times of crisis, capital flows from the periphery to the center; in boom phases, capital flows from the center to the periphery. These alternating capital flows between searching for “yield” and searching for “safe haven”, generate large capital account imbalances in the Euro area, with associated changes in relative prices and potential disruptions in asset markets.iv
Our proposal is to create European Safe Bonds (ESB), which we will refer to as ESBies for short.v They are European, issued by a European Debt Agency in accord with existing European Treaties, and do not require more fiscal integration than the one we already have. They are Safe, by virtue of being designed to minimize the risk of default, being issued in euros and benefitting from the ECB's anti-inflation commitment, and being liquid as they are issued in large volumes and serve as safe haven for investors seeking a negative correlation with other yields. They are Bonds, freely traded in markets, and held by banks, investors and central banks to satisfy the demand that we described.
Combined with appropriate regulation that gives the correct risk weights to sovereign bonds, ESBies could solve the two problems that we just described. Banks would have an alternative to sovereign bonds, allowing them to become better diversified and less dependent on their country’ public finances. Moreover, the flight of capital to a “safe haven” would no longer be across borders, but across different financial instruments issued at the European level.
This document lays down the details of how ESBies work. The next section explains the proposal. Section 3 lists the main benefits that ESBies would bring. Section 4 to 6 go deeper into the nuts and bolts of ESBies explaining, in turn, how their composition is determined, how their safety is ensured, and how they would be issued. Section 7 compares our proposal with alternatives, the leading one being Eurobonds. Section 8 briefly concludes.
ESBies: THEIR STRUCTURE AND USE
In one sentence, ESBies are securities issued by a European Debt Agency (EDA) composed of the senior tranche on a portfolio of sovereign bonds issued by European states, held by that agency and potentially further guaranteed through a credit enhancement.
In more detail, our proposal is for the EDA to buy the sovereign bonds of member nations according to some fixed weights. The weights would be set by a strict rule, to represent the relative size of the different member States. There would be no room to change the weights by discretion to respond to any crises, perceived or real. Therefore, the EDA cannot bail out a nation having difficulties placing its sovereign debt. It would typically run a boring business that does not make the headlines: It would simply passively hold sovereign bonds as assets in its balance sheet, and use them as collateral to issue two securities.
The first security, ESBies, would grant the right to a senior claim to the payments from the bonds held in the portfolio. If the tranching cut-off is X%, then the first X% lost in the pool of bonds because of potential European sovereign defaults would have no effect on the payment of the ESBies. The remaining 1-X% of revenues from holding the bonds would go to the holders of the ESBies. The number X% is relatively large, so that even in a worst-case scenario (e.g. a partial default by Greece, Portugal and Ireland and a haircut on Italian and Spanish debt), the payment on the ESBies would not be jeopardized. On top of it, the EDA, using some initial capital paid in by the member states, would offer a further guarantee on the payment of Y% of the ESBies, so that it would take losses of more than Y+X% before the ESBies did not offer a perfectly safe payment in euros to its holders. As long as this sum was picked adequately, the ESBies would be effectively safe. European banks, pension funds and the ECB would be a natural starting clientele for the ESBies, but as their reputation grows, they could be as widely used as US Treasuries are used today all over the world. They could also be used as reserve currency assets by countries such as China, Brazil, the OPEC, etc.
The second security, composed of the junior tranche on the portfolio of bonds, would be sold to willing investors in the market. In contrast with the ESBies, this is a risky security, akin to an equity claim on the EDA (but obviously without control rights). Any risk that a sovereign state may fail to honor in full its debts would be reflected in the expected return on this security. Any realized losses would be absorbed by the holders of this junior security, and not by the EDA nor the European Union nor its member States. Investors that want to hedge (or even speculate) on the ability of European member states to repay their debt would be willing to hold and trade this security.
Beyond being correctly designed and issued, the success of the ESBies depends on two regulatory changes. First, the ECB would grant strict preferential treatment to ESBies, accepting them as its main form of collateral in repo and discounting operations. In effect, the ECB would still be holding sovereign bonds as assets, but now indirectly via the ESBies; and, importantly, it would only hold the safest component of these sovereign bonds. Because of the fixed weights in the ESBies, this would be consistent with conventional monetary policy, where open market operations trade money for safe ESBies without creating credit risk for the ECB and ensuring it has a safe balance sheet. Second, banking regulators, including Basel, would give a zero risk weight to ESBies, but not automatically to other sovereign bonds. The new risk weights for European sovereign bonds will reflect their default risk just as risk weights reflect the risk on banks’ holdings of other assets such as corporate bonds or corporate loans.
Figure 2 summarizes the details in this description. There are three parts of the proposal that require further explanation: how to set the weights in the portfolio of sovereign bonds? How to choose the size of the ESBies relative to the junior tranche and the credit enhancement? And how would the EDA operate day-to-day? These are explained in more detail in sections 4 to 6. But, before discussing the details in more depth, we summarize the virtues of the proposal.
Figure 2: Graphical Representation of Tranching with Possible Credit Enhancement.
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*Euro-nomics is a group of concerned European economists, unaffiliated with any of their respective national governments. Their objective is to provide concrete, carefully considered, and politically feasible ideas to address the serious problems currently faced by the Eurozone. Their affiliations can be found at the end of the present document and on www.euro-nomics.com
i. This is an extract from a chapter of a book being produced as a larger project, Project Europe, by the euro-nomics group: www.euro-nomics.com. That project proposes a new institutional framework for the European financial system to overcome the current crisis. European Safe Bonds are one of the legs of that proposal, and are explained in this document. We are not sponsored by any organization or institution and are independent from any country or policy institution.
ii. Farhi, Gourinchas and Rey (2011) go in detail over the many reasons why the demand for safe assets far outstrips supply today.
iii. Krishnamurthy and Vissing-Jorgensen (2010) estimate this premium.
iv.Some empirical evidence for the “flight to safety premium” for German bunds is that their yield sank to an almost record low in August and September, while at the same time the CDS spread for German bunds increased, indicating that even Germany’s default risk was increasing.
v.ESBies has the merit of capturing the sound of two possible initials for the securities, ESB for European Safe Bonds, and ESBBS for European Sovereign Bond-backed Securities.