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Eurozone crisis live: ECB lends €529bn in new liquidity operation

• 800 banks bid in huge cheap loans offer
Analysts feared a LTRO surprise
• Finland and the Netherlands vote on Greece’s rescue package
Today’s agenda

10.45am: City reaction to the ECB’s LTRO operation is coming in. Here’s some of the best:

Martin van Vliet of ING suggested that we could be looking at a “Goldilocks outcome” (ie, take-up of almost €530bn is neither too little, nor too much, but just right):

The short-term market reaction to today’s slightly higher-than-expected LTRO take-up should be positive. In fact, in our view it is a Goldilocks outcome: not overly large as to generate concern about the fragility of the European banking system, but high enough to pre-fund a substantial share of maturing bank debt and spark more buying of Italian and Spanish paper.

Ven Vliet warned, though, that the injection will probably only bring temporary relief. And he wonders how, in the long term, heavy users will manage to wean themselves off…

Michael Symonds of Daiwa Capital Markets was relieved that the LTRO number wasn’t much lower, but warned that Europe will face problems in three year’s time when today’s loans need repaying.

New risks are now raised by the wall of maturity in three years time.

Megan Greene of Roubini Global Economics pointed out on Twittter that the key issue is not how much money the ECB lends the banks, but where the money goes next:

Liquidity for everyone! Now what will banks do with it? That’s the important bit.

— Megan Greene (@economistmeg) February 29, 2012

10.36am: The euro has been flailing around on the foreign exchange markets since the LTRO results were released.

It’s currently down around 0.3 cents against the US dollar, at .343, but there have been some real spikes in the last few minutes, as this image from Reuters shows.

10.30am: The ECB has reported that it received bids from 800 banks in today’s LTRO operation. Every bid was allocated in full, it added.

That’s a big increase on last December’s operation, when 523 banks took part.

10.26am: The results are in — the ECB has loaned €529.531bn to Europe’s banks, for three years, at a rate of 1%.

That’s broadly in the middle of City forecasts, but also even more than last December’s LTRO operation (when the ECB lent €489bn).

More to follow

10.24am: The first details of the ECB’s refinancing programme are in:

• The ECB has loaned €6.5bn banks in a 91-day refinancing tender (ie, loans repayable in three month’s time).

Now for the big one, the three year lending programme…..

10.20am: Sir Mervyn King just offered his support for the ECB’s LTRO (as the City awaits the results with growing impatience….). King told the Treasury Select Committee that the LTRO has removed the possibility of a bank run in the eurozone.

The UK, he added, is also not facing the risk of a bank run.

10.19am: [tick tock] nothing official from the ECB yet….

10.11am: Quick nugget of economic data before the LTRO results are out (in four minutes).

Eurozone inflation for January has been revised down to 2.6%, from 2.7%. Analysts say that’s good news for the region, but warn that the high oil price is likely to lead to ‘stickier’ inflation.

Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight explains:

Stickier inflation would be a blow to Eurozone recovery prospects as it will squeeze consumers’ purchasing power further while high oil prices will pressurize companies’ margins. Stickier inflation is also likely to make the ECB even more reluctant to cut interest rates further in the near term at least.

10.02am: In the UK parliament, MPs are quizzing members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee about the state of the British economy. The Men from the MPC are discussing the impact of the eurocrisis on the UK, and warning that economic conditions remain tough.

My colleague Heather Stewart has this early report:

Three MPC members, deputy governors Paul Tucker and Charlie Bean, and the resolutely doveish American economist Adam Posen, have submitted their “annual report” – a kind of personal statement – to the Treasury select committee, in preparation for their appearances.

Tucker says the UK failed to achieve “escape velocity” in 2011: the point at which economic growth becomes self-sustaining.

Tucket blamed spare capacity in the economy, and the euro market chaos of last August, for the deterioration in the outlook. This prompted him to consider voting for more QE in September, before actually backing it, with the rest of the committee, in October. Alongside the heightened sovereign yields in the euro-area periphery, funding conditions for European banks generally worsened, posing the threat of a renewed tightening in credit availability, and a slowing in demand generally as a result of the heightened uncertainty, he says.

However, Posen makes the point that the euro crisis can’t be blamed for the weak forecast that prompted him to call for an extension of QE at every meeting for a full year before the rest of the MPC joined him.

“To be clear, I believed that my vote was justified on the basis of the UK outlook alone, taking into that forecast the direct impact of euro area activity simply slowing or mildly contracting (but not downside risks there).” He says it will be 2013 before the economy achieves a strong recovery.

9.49am: More gloomy economic news. Slovenia’s economy shrank by 2.8% on a year-on-year basis in the last three months of 2011, data just released showed.

That follows a 0.5% contraction in the previous quarter, making Slovenia one of several eurozone countries in recession (see also Greece, Portugal,the Netherlands….)

9.45am: Here’s a round-up of City comment on the ECB’s Long Term Refinancing Operation (or Loans To Rogue Organisations, as Twitter user Paul Hindle dubbed it.)

Jane Foley of Rabobank:

Our expectation is for an add of €440bn. Since there is the prospect that the credit ratings agencies will be concerned about the health of the banking sector if there is a significantly higher than expected demand for liquidity, such an outcome would raise the chances of a pullback to risk appetite. Similarly a significant lower than expected number could raise concerns about the sustainability of risk appetite.

David Morrison of GFT Markets:

It is far from clear what an unexpectedly small or large take-up by European banks would mean for risk assets. The initial market reaction could reverse quickly as the full implications of the take-up are absorbed by investors.

Gary Jenkins of Swordfish Research:

To some degree it does of course make perfect sense for the likes of Italian and Spanish banks to draw down LTRO money in order to buy bonds of their respective countries as they may as well go all in. After all, if the sovereign were to fail it would take the banks with it so that trade in the short term makes a lot of sense.
The ECB may well have averted a meltdown of the financial system.

9.26am: More protests are expected in Greece today, after new austerity measures were approved last night.

A three-hour stoppage has been called from 12 to 3pm (local time, I believe), which could disrupt services at tax offices and other public agencies.

There’s particular anger that the Athens cabinet formally agreed to make deep cuts to the minimum wage, which will be backdated to February 14.

Not the best Valentine’s Day present, as Yiannis Mouzakis pointed out on Twitter:

And belated Valentine’s present from the #Greece gov to the people, new min wage reductions effective from Feb 14th

— Yiannis Mouzakis (@YiannisMouzakis) February 29, 2012

The Greek parliament also approved new cuts in public sector pensions and government spending. This, like the minimum wage cuts, is the price of Greece’s second rescue package.

9.10am: Just in – the German unemployment rate has risen this month.

The number of people out of work rose to 3.109m in February, from 3.084m in January. That puts the Germany unemployment rate at 7.4%, up from 7.3% (although if you strip out seasonal factors, it comes in at 6.8%, as in January).

But the German statistics body also revealed today that the number of people in employment came in at 41.063 million, the first time that the workforce has been recorded above 41m in a January.

The Federal Statistics Office said:

The positive development in the labour market continued at the beginning of 2012.

9.01am: In the reader comments, Sharkfinn asks three questions, which I’ll have a stab at answering:

Who is ultimately receiving this money?
That depends on the individual banks – they can use this new liquidity in various ways.
One sensible policy would be to take your loan at 1% and buy a higher-yielding bond for a guaranteed profit (unless you pick a country or corpration that defaults. Nicolas Sarkozy actually said banks should do the patriotic thing and purchase sovereign debt with their LTRO funding.
Another option would be to increase lending to small businesses and individuals.
Some of last December’s LTRO was used to pay off existing loans from the ECB.

Who is ultimately paying/financing these loans?
That’s still the ECB, which adds the new loans to its balance sheet.

Will these loans be repaid and who has to fork out if they don’t?
The banks have to hand over ‘collateral’ to the ECB in exchange for the loans. That collateral would be decent quality assets such as sovereign debt (ahem) or mortgage securities (ahem again). If a bank defaults on its LTRO obligations then the ECB would keep the collateral.
Ultimately, the ECB is supported by the members of the eurozone, who have put up capital to back it.

8.48am:Is anyone prepared to stick their necks out and predict how large today’s LTRO will be? City predictions range from €300bn to €1trn.

You’re playing for the glory and admiration of your peers. Might also be able to russle up a small prize – perhaps one of the books about the financial crisis that litter my desk…..

For the record, I’m going for €600bn.

8.37am: We’ve seen disappointing GDP data from Sweden and India this morning, but for different reasons.

The Swedish economy shrank by 1.1% in the last three months of 2011, on a quarterly basis according to data just released. That’s more than analysts had expected. Sweden’s stats office also slashed the growth recorded in the third quarter of last year to just +0.9%, from 1.6% previously.

It means that Sweden grew by 3.9% during 2011. Even though it’s not a member of the euro, its economy has suffered the impact of the euro crisis. Industrial production, business confidence and consumer spending have all been hit.

Earlier, India reported growth of 6.1% in the final quarter of 2011, on a year-on-year basis. That’s the weakest growth in nearly three years. It was blamed on a slowdown in the manufacturing sector (which has suffered from rising raw material costs and high borrowing costs, with interest rates currently at 8.5%)

India is now expected to grow by 7% in the current financial year.

8.18am: So why is the European Central Bank prepared to offer hundreds of billions of euros to the banking sector? Well, as my colleague Ian Traynor explains here, the ECB is hoping to:

stabilise the euro, forestall a new credit crunch and shore up troubled banks.

Loans agreed under the Long Term Refinancing Operation will be made on a three-year basis, at an interest rate of just 1%. Because there is no official upper limit to the amount offered under LTRO, there’s a lot of interest in how much is taken up.

Last time the ECB did this, three months ago, Mario Draghi handed out almost half a trillion euros – much more than expected. The influx of liquidity has been credited with rescuing Europe from another credit crunch. But, as Ian points out, the LTRO has its critics:

The cheap money has overwhelmingly flowed to the eurozone’s weakest corners, feeding a grumbling campaign that is getting louder in the northern, more disciplined creditor countries.

Of the €489bn taken up in December, €325bn was tapped by banks in Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

There are also complaints that the LTRO is just a disguised version of quantitative easing. The ECB may not be buying government bonds itself, but it knows very well that much of the cheap loans will be used to buy up peripheral sovereign debt.

LTRO’s aren’t a new invention, but the ECB has changed the rules by offering the loans over such a long timeframe (rather than the 3 or 6 months that were more common in the past).

8.07am: Most of today’s action should come in the next few hours. The ECB’s loans will dominate the headline, but policymakers and central bankers will be busy, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s the agenda:

• UK Treasury Committee hearing on the Bank of England inflation report – 9.45am
• European Central Bank announces LTRO details – 10.15am GMT
• The Netherlands parliament votes on Greek aid package – from 11am GMT
• Finnish parliament votes on Greek aid package – from noon GMT
• Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke testifies to Congressional Financial Services Committee – 3pm GMT

8.01am: Good morning, and welcome to our rolling coverage of the European debt crisis.

And what a lively day we have ahead. The European Central Bank is about to pump hundreds of billions of euros into the financial system through cheap loans to the regions banks. Today’s Long Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) is unlimited, and City investors and analysts are on tenterhooks to see quite how much money the bankers ask for.

Two more European parliaments will vote on Greece’s new financial package. Having cleared the Bundestag on Monday, the programme will now be considered by Finland and the Netherlands.

And in London, senior members of the Bank of England will be quizzed by MPs. Expect the eurozone crisis to come up.

We’ll also be monitoring events in Ireland, after yesterday’s news that a referendum will be held on the EU fiscal compact.

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