Let’s hope the stoic optimism about Europe from groups such as the OECD overnight proves to be right and governments do manage to scrape together a last-minute deal to backstop the eurozone, otherwise all the cutting by Treasurer Wayne Swan in the 2011-12 budget, revealed at noon, will be overtaken and made redundant.

As we found in 2008, there’s nothing governments can do when crisis hits, and a mighty big one is gathering in Europe; everyone can see it and preparations are being made. Lawyers, banks and companies in Europe and the US are reportedly looking at what happens if the eurozone falls apart. Central banks are preparing for every eventuality and in Australia, questions about whether banks and others are running contingency plans for a possible blow up in the euro, go unanswered.

But regulators, being prudent by nature, would have to be telling banks and other financial groups to have contingency plans in place for every eventuality, from a mild recession and credit freeze in Europe (which is more likely, still, at this stage), to the shutdown of the eurozone by Italy being unable to fund itself, day-to-day, or the collapse of the euro after defaults by countries such as Greece.

If the worst happens, then the Reserve Bank is the primary back-up, along with other regulators, such as APRA, ASIC and Federal Treasury.

Despite what is happening offshore, Australia is better placed than we were in 2008, despite the higher Commonwealth debt and deficit. That is despite the alarmist nonsense from people such as departing Future Fund chairman David Murray.

The banking system is sounder, all the bad loans to dogs such as ABC Learning, Allco, Babcock and Brown and a host of financial engineers, dud investment and property groups, are out of the system. Companies raised more than $100 billion in fresh capital, especially the banks and real estate investment trusts. Only groups such as BlueScope Steel, which is financial stretched at the moment, are concerns, along with the odd retailer.

And the banks still have huge liquidity backstops in the event that offshore markets close, as they did in late 2008 and early 2009. After the Reserve Bank supported the financial system in the final quarter of 2008 and early 2009 to the tune of more than $80 billion in various measures, the banks have strengthened their capital bases, improved their liquidity holdings and lifted their dependence on deposits as individuals and companies have boosted their savings (about 10% at the moment). The surge in saving and bank deposit growth has meant the banks depend far less on offshore funding now than they did in 2008. Deposit growth grew at 11% in the three months to September, and loan growth was 5%, meaning the banks are holding more liquidity than they did three years ago.

In 2008, the RBA and other regulators told the banks to self-securitise billions of dollars of their highest quality home loan mortgages in the event of a reduction in liquidity as the GFC deepened. The big banks used those to sell to the RBA in late 2008 in what are called re-purchase agreements to raise enough cash to keep themselves and clients afloat for more than a month.

Those structure remain in place and the big four banks have more than $100 billion in self-securitised mortgages held to sell to the RBA if need be.

For example, the ANZ said in its annual report: “At 30 September 2011, the volume of eligible securities available, post any repurchase (i.e. ‘repo’) discounts applied by the applicable central bank, was $71.4 billion.” That’s for all the markets it operates in, especially NZ. In Australia, the ANZ said: “Internal Residential Mortgage Backed Securities (Australia) $26,831 (billion) at September 30, 2011 against $26,657 (billion) a year earlier.”

And Westpac said in its 2011 annual report: “Own assets securitised by the Parent Entity include internal mortgage backed securitisation of $34,235 million (2010 $33,325 million) which are available for external issuance and qualifies for repurchase with the RBA.”

That’s about $60 billion. The Commonwealth and NAB have similar aggregate holdings on their balance sheets, designed in all cases to provide a minimum of 30 days of liquidity for the banks and the Australian financial system. The banks also have tens of billions of other liquid assets, such as Commonwealth and state government bonds and high grade corporate securities that they can sell to each other to raise funds before approaching the RBA.

But all eyes are on Europe. Euro Group finance ministers meet tonight and their expected agreement on the nitty gritty detail of the stabilisation fund (which helped trigger the global rebound on financial markets overnight) will have to include hard data on the amount of money already raised to finance this ambitious idea.While the IMF denied that it was talking to Italy about an $US800 million backstop in the event of the country being frozen out of credit markets, something like that will have to emerge very quickly if market confidence is not to be lost, again. The involvement of the European Central Bank in a grand backstop role, signed off by Germany and other countries, with IMF support, is the sort of “Big Bazooka” that will impress markets and curtail the slide into a black hole.

PS: Greece has slipped from view in the past couple of weeks, but that country’s capacity for self-harm has again emerged with a possible criminal action against the head of the country’s statistics organisation for daring to reveal the true state of the country’s deficit (15.4%) and debt position, over the wishes of politicians, unions and rivals at the organisation. The Financial Times has great coverage:

“The head of Elstat, Greece’s new independent statistics agency, faces an official criminal investigation for allegedly inflating the scale of the country’s fiscal crisis and acting against the Greek national interest.

“Andreas Georgiou, who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 20 years, was appointed in 2010 by agreement with the fund and the European Commission to clean up Greek statistics after years of official fudging by the finance ministry.

“I am being prosecuted for not cooking the books,” Georgiou told the Financial Times. “We would like to be a good, boring institution doing its job. Unfortunately, in Greece statistics is a combat sport.”

Yes, Greece’s €8 billion, which worried us last month, has still to be paid over. If this brawl causes a delay or no payment, could Greece sneak along the rails with a quick default and drag the rest of the eurozone down with it? And those Euro Group finance ministers were expected to approve the Greek payment tonight.

A country that stupid to allow this sort of legal action to be pursued in the name of revenge shouldn’t be saved, should it?

Peter Fray

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