By Kindred Winecoff
First, the ECB is quarreling with Berlin:
The cold war between Berlin and Frankfurt reached a new high last week. Should Germany implement its plans, the ECB would have to cut off funding for Greece, the monetary watchdogs warned. The consequences for Europe's banks and the Greek economy would be devastating.
The mere suggestion of what the Financial Times called the "central bank equivalent of nuclear deterrence" was enough to prompt German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to withdraw the German proposal immediately. A debt restructuring, Schäuble admitted sheepishly, could lead to a repeat of the events triggered by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
In addition to revealing how serious the euro's problems are, the slugfest proves how much of its reputation the Frankfurt-based ECB has lost in the euro zone's strongest economy.
In the past, the central bank was seen as the undisputed economic authority in Germany. Anyone who opposed the monetary policy experts was quickly marginalized. Today, however, the central bank must threaten with the most drastic of measures just to force the German government to toe the line. A majority of German economic politicians and economists see the ECB's crisis strategy as unrealistic and contradictory.
But would a Greek restructuring really be so devastating for Germany? It would have some costs, but at this point these would be manageable:
A debt reduction -- known as a "haircut" -- of as much as 50 percent would be an expensive proposition for Greece's creditors. With around €330 billion ($467 billion) in loans, that would mean cutting as much as €165 billion. Most of Greece's debt is with foreign creditors, and so foreign banks and governments would have to take massive hits over the loans Athens is unable to repay in full.
But what would this mean in reality for Germany? ...
The answer to all of these questions is reassuring -- at least at first glance. The consequences of a debt write-off against the government in Athens would be manageable for Germany. At the moment, some €25 billion in Greek debt is held by Germany's commercial banks and the so-called "bad banks" set up to take on toxic assets. This debt takes the form of either Greek sovereign bonds in their portfolios or loans made to the Greek government. ...
With a 50-percent haircut, the two bad [government-backed] banks would lose around €4.4 billion in total. Taxpayers would end up indirectly footing the bill. ...
Of mild comfort is the fact that the state would probably not have to come to the rescue of any private institutions. Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank and the DZ Bank, which acts as the central bank for Germany's roughly 1,200 partly state-owned co-operative banks, are (once again) in a position to be able to cope with possible shortfalls by themselves.
But that's just the banks. The taxpayers have already loaned Greece a lot of money, either directly or via the ECB:
But the situation looks different for the German government and the federal states. At the very least, the large exposure of KfW and the bad banks of Hypo Real Estate and WestLB could end up being expensive. Taxpayers might need to step in, as might the savings banks that are owned by municipalities.
In addition, the European Central Bank (ECB) has bought up tens of billions of euros of Greek sovereign bonds. Because the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank, holds more than a quarter of the ECB's capital, it would have to take its share of losses accordingly.
However the Irish and Portuguese banking sectors are still exposed to Greece, and are much weaker than Germany's banking sector. Still, the fact that the Germany financial system has largely healed since 2008, and has already taken many steps to lessen their exposure to Greece, gives Germany a lot of negotiating leverage in the EU. And, as EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Ollie Rehn says, political will for continued aid is running low in northern Europe.
In Brussels, we Finns are referred to as "English-speaking Germans," because we pursue the same economic policy principles: stability, sustainable growth and fiscal responsibility. The Germans aren't the only ones who are concerned. There is a certain aid fatigue in all of northern Europe. And we are experiencing a certain reform fatigue in southern Europe. As monetary commissioner, I feel this schizophrenia every day. We must try to build a bridge between these two camps.
Put it all together? Time is running out for Greece.