The problem this time is bigger. It is not only about banks, it is about the essence of the eurozone, and the political survival of all the public figures responsible. If Mr. Trichet and Mr. Strauss-Kahn were honest, they would admit to Ms. Merkel “we messed up – more than a decade ago, when we were governor of the Banque de France and French finance minister, respectively”. These two founders of the European unity dream helped set rules for the eurozone which, by their nature, have caused small flaws to turn into great dangers.
The underlying problem is the rule for printing money: in the eurozone, any government can finance itself by issuing bonds directly (or indirectly) to commercial banks, and then having those banks “repo” them (i.e., borrow using these bonds as collateral) at the ECB in return for fresh euros. The commercial banks make a profit because the ECB charges them very little for those loans, while the governments get the money – and can thus finance larger budget deficits. The problem is that eventually that government has to pay back its debt or, more modestly, at least stabilize its public debt levels.
This same structure directly distorts the incentives of commercial banks: they have a backstop at the ECB, which is the “lender of last resort”; and the ECB and European Union (EU) put a great deal of pressure on each nation to bail out commercial banks in trouble. When a country joins the eurozone, its banks win access to a large amount of cheap financing, along with the expectation they will be bailed out when they make mistakes. This, in turn, enables the banks to greatly expand their balance sheets, ploughing into domestic real estate, overseas expansion, or crazy junk products issued by Goldman Sachs. Just think of Ireland and Spain, where the banks took on massive loans that are now sinking the country.
Given the eurozone provides easy access to cheap money, it is no wonder that many more nations want to join. No wonder also that it blew up. Nations with profligate governments or weak financial systems had a bonanza. They essentially borrowed funds from the less profligate elsewhere in the eurozone, backed by the ECB. The Germans were relatively austere; the periphery enjoyed the boom. But now we have moved past the boom, and someone in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and perhaps Italy has to repay something – or at least stop borrowing without constraint. So Mr. Trichet and Mr. Strauss-Kahn go, cap in hand, to ask Germany for further assistance."