European Central Bank readies cash bonanza for banks

The European Central Bank is set to flood eurozone banks Wednesday with a new bonanza of cheap cash aimed at averting a credit crunch in the euro area.

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), at a press conference earlier this month. The ECB is set to flood eurozone banks Wednesday with a new bonanza of cheap cash aimed at averting a credit crunch in the euro area. (AFP Photo/Emily Wabitsch)

As part of a series of recent measures, the ECB decided to lend as much as banks wanted at a rock-bottom interest rate of 1.0 per cent for a period of three years so as to keep credit flowing in Europe at a time when the banks are increasingly wary of lending to each other.

At the first long-term refinancing operation (LTRO), affectionately dubbed 'Big Bertha' by ECB chief Mario Draghi in December, some 523 banks lined up to borrow a record 489.2 billion euros ($658 billion).

While some analysts believe the banks could borrow as much as 1.0 trillion euros at the second, and most likely last, three-year LTRO on Wednesday, the majority are more conservative and forecast a similar amount to the first.

The ECB is scheduled to announce the results at around midday Wednesday.

Tensions in the banking system appear to have eased as a result of the first LTRO, suggesting that the 'Big Bertha' approach -- taken by some to be a reference to a massive World War I German artillery piece -- may be working, at least for now.

Borrowing costs for debt-wracked countries such as Spain and Italy have come down, stock markets across Europe have rallied and confidence is on the rise although a final resolution of the eurozone debt crisis seems some way off yet.

The offer Wednesday could be skewed, however, by the ECB's announcement on Tuesday that it will temporarily refuse to accept Greek government bonds as collateral for loans after rating agency Standard & Poor's declared that Greece is in "selective default".

That will make it harder for Greek banks in particular to take advantage of the new ultra-cheap loans because in order to qualify for them, banks must put up collateral, including in the form of sovereign bonds.

Nevertheless, any banks unable to do so because of the suspension of the Greek bonds will still be able to borrow cash from their national central bank under emergency assistance provisions, the ECB said.

Ever since the eruption of the debt crisis, the ECB has come under intense political pressure to step in and save eurozone countries sinking under huge mountains of debt.

But the bank has argued from the very beginning that it is up to overspending governments to get their finances in order and restore the markets' confidence in their ability to repay their debts so as to remedy the underlying cause of the eurozone's current ills.

While ECB chief Draghi said the aim of the new funding was for banks to lend to households and businesses, there have been concerns that banks are simply hoarding the cash instead.

For weeks, the banks have been parking record amounts of cash in the central bank's overnight storage facility, earning paltry returns rather than take the risk of lending the funds on to earn more.

In its regular quarterly bank lending survey, the ECB calculated that growth in loans to the private sector slowed substantially in December, tying in with other data showing the eurozone economy shrank 0.3 per cent in the last quarter.

With the economy forecast to be in mild recession for all this year, shrinking 0.3 per cent in all, the eurozone needs all the help it can get from the ECB.

Source AFP