Ben Chu: Germany is not bailing out Europe, it is rescuing itself

Huge transfers are still required. Without more honesty from Germany this crisis will not end well

Poor Germany, forced to provide massive guarantees for its profligate European neighbours. The Federal Republic did everything right – pushing its domestic labour costs down, keeping public borrowing low. And its neighbours did everything wrong – letting wages spiral and running up big public debt piles. But now prudent Germany is being forced to foot the entire bill.

Click HERE to view graphic

And even without the additional costs of bailing out Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, Berlin is facing a catastrophic bill thanks to the European Central Bank's (ECB) provision of liquidity life support for the eurozone's banking system. The Bundesbank has racked up vast claims against other central banks through the monetary clearing system known as "Target 2".

That's the standard narrative from Germany. And it's largely false. The guarantees that Germany has extended – and the huge liquidity operations of the ECB – have indeed been used to assist the struggling nations of the eurozone periphery. But they have also, as new research from Goldman Sachs show, been used to bail out German banks.

Germany ran persistent current account surpluses through much of the last decade, as Chart 1 above shows, meaning that its households and businesses, in aggregate, earned more than they spent. That means, inevitably, that Germany accumulated huge foreign claims. As Chart 2 shows, these reached €1trn (£803bn) by 2011.

How does this work? German households and businesses deposited their financial surpluses at German banks and fund managers. Those institutions then used these savings to buy assets abroad. Most of them were invested across the eurozone. These included all manner of assets, ranging from the debt of Irish banks, to Spanish real estate firms, to Greek equities. That's correct: German banks helped inflate the bubbles that have now exploded across the eurozone with such disastrous consequences

Here's where it gets interesting. German banks have been steadily extricating themselves from their exposure to southern Europe since 2007, as Chart 3 shows. German banks' gross credit claims against the nations of the eurozone periphery have fallen by 50 per cent, down to €300bn. They have been busily off-loading eurozone assets to reduce the risks to their balance sheets.

And that has been taking place as the ECB has been extending its own balance sheet by providing cheap lending for banks across the continent to prevent them from running out of money. Here's how that works:German banks have stopped lending to eurozone periphery banks. And those banks have been forced to fund themselves, instead, by tapping the ECB for cash.

But the risks return. Eurozone periphery nations are still running trade deficits with Germany. Those deficits that were previously financed by private German banks are now financed by the ECB. And thanks to the mechanics of the European monetary system that has resulted in the ballooning of the Bundesbank's claims against other eurozone central banks.

"It is no coincidence that the increase in net foreign assets on the Bundesbank's balance sheet roughly matches the decline seen on banks' balance sheets," said Dirk Schumacher of Goldman. "The Target 2 imbalances … have mainly replaced financial risk that was previously sitting on private-sector balance sheets."

What this means is that the ECB and eurozone governments, as well as bailing out other members states, have quietly been rescuing German banks and, by extension, German savers. Without these emergency operations, the eurozone would have broken up, German banks would have gone bust and the savings of many ordinary Germans might have been wiped out. More likely the German taxpayer would have had been forced to bail out those banks.

So, as the German people distribute blame for the situation in which they find themselves, they should not ignore their own bankers. If those institutions had not made these investments and financed the current account deficits of Germany's neighbours for so many years, their country would not be on the hook for hundreds of billions of euros of bad debts.

Yet this is something German politicians refuse to acknowledge. Jorg Asmussen, a former German finance ministry official and now a member of the ECB board made a trip to Ireland in April, where he rejected calls for the costs that the former Celtic Tiger incurred in bailing out its own banks in 2008 to be shared with the rest of the eurozone.

He said: "I frequently hear in the Irish debate that the debt resulting from the bank rescue is not Ireland's debt… But... in the run-up to the crisis, insufficient domestic policies (banking supervision and economic policies) played a major role in excessive credit growth."

Sheer hypocrisy. No one denies Irish banks and regulators were incompetent and corrupt. But what about the European banks – including German financial institutions – that lent to them? Ireland's banks could not have perpetrated their idiocy without them. For every profligate borrower there is a profligate lender. And Germany in the 2000s, thanks to its current account surplus, was the biggest profligate lender in the eurozone.

Mr Asmussen said the Irish people should bear the consequences of their politicians' failure to supervise their banks. But what about the failure of German politicians, such as him, to supervise German banks?

In fairness, German rhetoric has begun to diverge from policy. In Brussels last week Ms Merkel approved a plan to allow the European bailout funds to recapitalise bust European banks directly, without heaping the burden onto nation states.

Yet without more honesty from Germany this crisis will not end well. Huge transfers are still required from Germany to the periphery if the single currency is to survive. Those are likely to be politically impossible unless German politicians start to explain to their people that Germany is not only bailing out its neighbours, but bailing out itself.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager / Financial Services

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 1999, a highly r...

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower