In all the excitement over the December 21 LTRO, Europe forgot one small thing: since it is the functional equivalent of banks using the Discount Window (and at 3 years at that, not overnight), it implies that a recipient bank is in a near-death condition. As such, the incentive for good banks to dump on bad ones is huge, which means that everyone must agree to be stigmatized equally, or else a split occurs whereby the market praises the “good banks” and punishes the “bad ones” (think Lehman). As a reminder, this is what Hank Paulson did back in 2008 when he forced all recently converted Bank Holding Companies to accept bail outs, whether they needed them or not, something that Jamie Dimon takes every opportunity to remind us of nowadays saying he never needed the money but that it was shoved down his throat. Be that as it may, the reason why there has been no borrowings on the Fed’s discount window in years, in addition to the $1.6 trillion in excess fungible reserves floating in the system, is that banks know that even the faintest hint they are resorting to Fed largesse is equivalent to signing one’s death sentence, and in many ways is the reason why the Fed keeps pumping cash into the system via QE instead of overnight borrowings. Yet what happened in Europe, when a few hundred banks borrowed just shy of €500 billion is in no way different than a mass bailout via a discount window. Still, over the past month, Europe which was on the edge equally and ratably, and in which every bank was known to be insolvent, has managed to stage a modest recovery, and now we are back to that most precarious of states – where there is explicit stigma associated with bailout fund usage. And unfortunately, it could not have come at a worse time for the struggling continent: with a new “firewall” LTRO on deck in three weeks, one which may be trillions of euros in size, ostensibly merely to shore up bank capital ahead of a Greek default, suddenly the question of who is solvent and who is insolvent is back with a vengeance, as the precarious Nash equilibrium of the past month collapses, and suddenly a two-tier banking system forms – the banks which the market will not short, and those which it will go after with a vengeance.
The WSJ has more on this very subtle but so very critical shift in the European bailout game theory equilibrium: