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Thursday, March 8, 2012

How much European debt is on (or off) the books at US Banks?

03/06/2012 Spiegel online

The Hundred-Billion-Euro Bomb

Euro-Zone Central Bank System Massively Imbalanced

One economist called his counterpart Hans-Werner Sinn's analysis 'brilliant.' Zoom
Sinn: A brilliant economist with a terrible beard.  DPA

More than a year ago, German economist Hans-Werner Sinn discovered a gigantic risk on the balance sheets of Germany's central bank. Were the euro zone to collapse, Bundesbank losses could be half a trillion euros -- more than one-and-a-half times the size of the country's annual budget.
Hans-Werner Sinn, an economist in Munich, discovered a strange entry in the Bundesbank's statistics: In late 2010, records showed claims on other euro-zone central banks totaling over €300 billion ($400 billion). Curious, Sinn began to dig deeper. What he found exceeded his worst expectations.

"The Bundesbank told me those were irrelevant balances. But that didn't reassure me."

After weeks of detective work, Sinn assembled enough pieces to create a picture that would make any one shudder: Since the 2007 financial crisis, immense imbalances have formed within the otherwise harmless payment system that exists between the central banks of the 17 euro-zone member states. While Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece, all hit hard by the debt crisis, show deficits totaling over €600 billion, the claims owed the Bundesbank have climbed to €498 billion.

'Caught in a Trap'
As long as the monetary union continues to exist, this isn't a catastrophe. The money is virtual, created by central banks, and its existence doesn't mean that an equivalent amount is lacking elsewhere. But as soon as a country leaves the euro zone, or the currency union collapses entirely, things get critical.

"We're caught in a trap," Sinn says. "If the euro breaks apart, we're left with an outstanding balance of nearly €500 billion, owed by a system that no longer exists." That figure, €500 billion, is more than one and a half times Germany's annual federal budget.

This, though, is the worst-case scenario, and would only apply if the euro zone falls apart entirely. A far more realistic possibility is that one country, such as Greece, would leave the monetary union. In this case, all of the other euro-zone central banks would have to bear the Greek central bank's debt together. Germany's Bundesbank, in accordance with its share of the European Central Bank (ECB), would assume about 28 percent. With Greek debt at €108 billion, Germany's share would be approximately €30 billion.

The Bundesbank's claims are set off by massive debts in crisis-stricken euro-zone countries.Zoom
The Bundesbank's claims are set off by massive debts in crisis-stricken euro-zone countries.

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