A lot of politicians in Germany, but also in other countries, issue zingers about a Greek exit from the Eurozone and the end of their patience. Yet those with decision-making power play for time. They want someone else to do the job. Suddenly Greece is out of money again. It would default on everything, from bonds held by central banks to internal obligations. On August 20. The day a €3.2 billion bond that had landed on the balance sheet of the European Central Bank would mature. Europe would be on vacation. It would be mayhem. And somebody would get blamed.
So who the heck had turned off the dang spigot? At first, it was the Troika—the austerity and bailout gang from the ECB, the EU, and the IMF. It was supposed to send Greece €31.2 billion in June. But during the election chaos, Greek politicians threatened to abandon structural reforms, reverse austerity measures already implemented, rehire laid-off workers….
The Troika got cold feet. Instead of sending the payment, it promised to send its inspectors. It would drag its feet and write reports. It would take till September—knowing that Greece wouldn’t make it past August 20. Then it let the firebrand politicians stew in their own juices.
It’s easy to blame the Troika, and it can take the heat. History searches for the person who is responsible. But the Troika doesn’t have one. It was designed that way: a combo of multi-layered, undemocratic structures. And the Troika inspectors, though despised in Greece, are career technocrats, not decision makers.
So Chancellor Angela Merkel became a substitute. Greek tabloids treated her like a Nazi heir, with Hitler mustache and all. But she’s not the decision maker in the Troika, though she is a contributor. And she—though still unwilling to water down the bailout memorandum—consistently stated that Greece should remain in the Eurozone. She doesn’t want to be blamed.
In early July, the inspectors returned to Athens to chat with the new coalition government and check on progress in implementing the agreed-upon structural reforms. Soon it seeped out that their report would paint an “awful picture.”
In late July, the inspectors returned to Athens yet again and left on Sunday. After another visit at the end of August, they’ll release their final report in September. A big faceless document on which people of different nationalities labored for months; a lot of politicians can hide behind it. Even Merkel. And the Bundestag, which gets to have a say each time the EFSF disburses bailout funds.
Alas, August 20 is the out-of-money date. September is irrelevant. Because someone else turned off the spigot. Um, the ECB. Two weeks ago, it stopped accepting Greek government bonds as collateral for its repurchase operations, thus cutting Greek banks off their lifeline. Greece asked for a bridge loan to get through the summer, which the ECB rejected. Greece asked for a delay in repaying the €3.2 billion bond maturing on August 20, which the ECB also rejected though the bond was decomposing on its balance sheet. It would kick Greece into default. And the ECB would be blamed.
But the ECB has a public face, President Mario Draghi. He didn’t want history books pointing at him. So the ECB switched gears. It allowed Greece to sell worthless treasury bills with maturities of three and six months to its own bankrupt and bailed out banks. Under the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), the banks would hand these T-bills to the Bank of Greece (central bank) as collateral in exchange for real euros, which the banks would then pass to the government. Thus, the Bank of Greece would fund the Greek government.
Precisely what is prohibited under the treaties that govern the ECB and the Eurosystem of central banks. But voila. Out-of-money Greece now prints its own euros! The ECB approved it. The ever so vigilant Bundesbank acquiesced. No one wanted to get blamed for Greece’s default.
If Greece defaults in September, these T-bills in the hands of the Bank of Greece will remain in the Eurosystem, and all remaining Eurozone countries will get to eat the loss. €3.5 billion or more may be printed in this manner. The cost of keeping Greece in the Eurozone a few more weeks. And on Tuesday, Greece “sold” the first batch, €812.5 million of 6-month T-bills with a yield of 4.68%. Hallelujah.