Peter Boone and Simon Johnson explain:
This may not be obvious, but, creating money in a currency union is no simple task. In any single country, central banks usually restrict themselves to buying government bonds, and making loans to regulated commercial banks. Net purchases of these securities by central banks creates what is called “high-powered money”; this feeds into the financial system and results in the creation of what we all use to make payments and store value, i.e., money, plain and simple.
However in the European Monetary Union there are now 17 nations and a plethora of banks. So, to put it crudely, there is sure to be a fight to decide who gets the newly printed funds. The ECB resolved this by what seemed like a fair rule: All commercial banks can borrow from the ECB if they provide collateral, in the form of highly rated government and other securities, to the ECB. So, for example, a Greek bank can gain liquidity by depositing Greek government bonds with the ECB – as long as those bonds are “investment grade”, i.e., highly rated.
This simple and seemingly reasonable rule created great dangers for the eurozone, which have come back to haunt Mr. Trichet. The commercial banks in the zone are able to buy government bonds, which “paid” 3-6% long term interest rates (for all the sovereign bonds of members) over the last decade, and then deposit them at the ECB. They could then borrow from the ECB at the ECB financing rate, which today is 1%, against this collateral so pocketing a profit – and then buy more sovereign bonds with the funds. Mr. Trichet recognized this system had inherent dangers of turning into a new Ponzi game: if nations spent too much, and built up too much debt, eventually the system would collapse. So at the foundation of the eurozone, Mr. Trichet led a contingent within the EU that demanded all nations live by a “Growth and Stability Pact”, whereby each nation could only run deficits of 3% of GDP, and they had to keep their debt/GDP ratio below 60% of GDP.
Of course, politics trumped Mr. Trichet – as it always must – and the Greeks, along with the Portuguese, used their new found cheap lending system to run large deficits and build up debt. The cheap access to money also helped feed the real estate booms in Ireland and Spain.
There is much more of interest in their post, none of it good news for Greece or the ECB.