The Euro Crisis Monitor (above) shows the increasing imbalances in the TARGET2 settlement system between all its members: the ECB (itself with a €145bn deficit) and the national central banks in the Eurozone. Other than minor differences reflecting net cross-border trade not matched by investment flows going the other way, these imbalances should not exist. But following the Lehman crisis and as the Eurozone developed its own series of crises, imbalances arose. Commentators have grown used to them, so have more or less given up pointing them out. But in the last few months, the apparent flight into the Bundesbank (€995,083m surplus) has gathered pace, as have the deficits for Italy (€536,722m) and Spain (€451,798m). It is time to take these rising imbalances seriously again.
Target2 — the ECB’s flexible friend
Target2 is the settlement system for transfers between the national central banks. The way it works, in theory, is as follows. A German manufacturer sells goods to an Italian business. The Italian business pays by bank transfer drawn on its Italian bank via the Italian central bank through the Target2 system, crediting the German manufacturer’s German bank through Germany’s central bank.
But since the Lehman crisis, and more noticeably the last eurozone crisis, capital flows appear to have gravitated from Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (the PIGS — remember them?) to principally Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Finland in that order. Before 2008, the balance was maintained by trade deficits in Greece, for example, being offset by capital inflows as residents elsewhere in the eurozone bought Greek bonds, other investments in Greece and the tourist trade collected net cash revenues.
In this sense, it would be wrong to suggest that trade imbalances have led to Target2 imbalances. But part of the problem must be put down to the failure of private sector investment flows to recycle.
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