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Euro leaders in a funk

The pretence that the eurozone banking system is safe must now end

The cat is out of the bag. Eurozone leaders, in various states of denial about the need for their banks to raise more capital, now have to face some hard facts, courtesy of the International Monetary Fund. The sovereign debt risk to European banks has risen since the start of 2010 by about €200bn, with a total spillover effect of €300bn, estimates the Fund.

These are staggering figures. They are not, it should be said (and as the IMF emphasises), the size of the black hole in the collective balance sheets of European banks, since there’s a very significant difference between a risk and an estimated loss. All the same, €200bn, or €300bn, has to be prepared for.

The IMF’s analysis explains why the funding climate for many European banks has become icy. When huge losses are guaranteed, but their precise size and location is unknown, the rational response is to play safe by reining in lines of credit. And when everybody wants to retreat, the flow of money slows, thereby exaggerating the crisis by choking lending to economies.

There really is only one remedy – get capital into the banks, raise the buffers and generate confidence that losses, however large they turn out to be, can be absorbed. Now that the IMF itself is recommending recapitalisation of the European banking system, there is a greater chance it might happen.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is no guarantee that the eurozone leaders will act in time to prevent an avoidable crisis turning into a catastrophe. Many flew into a funk when the IMF’s new managing director, Christine Lagarde, emphasised the need for recapitalisations a few weeks ago. Some screeching U-turns are required.

It is extraordinary that the Greek crisis, where the risk of sudden default is rising as Greeks face a more severe version of austerity, has been allowed to run without a back-up plan to support the eurozone banking system. The pretence that the system is safe must now end. The “political stage” of the crisis, as the IMF terms it, is the most dangerous. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds