The cost to borrow in euros through the end of the year plunged after the European Central Bank added an unprecedented $500 billion to the banking system as part of a global effort to ease credit-market gridlock.

The amount banks charge each other for two-week loans in euros dropped a record 50 basis points to 4.45 percent, the European Banking Federation said today. The rate had soared 83 basis points in the past two weeks as banks anticipated a squeeze on credit through year-end.

“These are strong-arm tactics intended to show the market they’re seriously committed to breaking the deadlock,” said Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Insinger De Beaufort SA in London. “The ECB is helping to bankroll banks out of a problem that they themselves created.”

The Bank of England held the first of two special operations today, offering 10 billion pounds ($20 billion) of three-month cash. The cost of borrowing pounds for three months dropped 4 basis points to 6.39 percent, the fourth straight decline. That’s still 89 basis points higher than the central bank’s benchmark interest rate.

Minyan Peter had this to say:

“$500 billion is an enormous amount of money. To put it into perspective, $500 bln is 5% of total US banking system assets. My eyes are on LIBOR. If $500 bln doesn’t move the rate…

Furthermore, everyone should remember that the $500 bln is funding just through year end. Come January this will need to be refinanced or rolled over.”

Big Yawn In US

So while there was a whopping reaction in Europe, there was a big yawn in the US and UK. Curve watchers anonymous offers this chart to consider.

US LIBOR as of December 18

click on chart for sharper image

A casual look shows LIBOR to be 40 basis points lower than it was a year ago. But that is not what everyone should be watching. The important factor is where LIBOR is in relation to the Fed Funds Rate. In this case it is a whopping 70 basis points higher than it was a year ago. A normal spread would be closer to 10 basis points.

LIBOR was sitting at 5.25 right before the last rate cut by the Fed so it merely dropped with the cut plus another 5 basis points. It has not budged today.

Yield Curve as of December 18

click on chart for a sharper image

US Banks Continue To Hoard Cash

Impact of the ECB’s move on the US yield curve was negligible. The short end of the curve actually rose a couple of basis points. Banks in the US are continuing to hoard cash. Who can blame them? The Bloomberg article above offers a possible explanation:

“U.S. corporate defaults probably will quadruple next year after the number of companies that lost their investment-grade credit ratings rose at the fastest pace since 2003, according to Moody’s Investors Service.”

Note that 10-year rates are sitting at 4.10.
Say what you want but that is anything but an “inflation concern”.

Headed For The Front Page

  • Corporate defaults are not front page news yet.
  • Commercial real estate woes are not front page news yet.
  • Credit card issues are not front page news yet.
  • Rapidly rising unemployment is not front page news yet.

The key word in all for point above is “yet”. News about housing, subprime lending, SIVs, and other related stories are what dominate the headlines now. However, second, third, and fourth waves of the economic tsunami are coming. Right now, most of those stories have not hit the front page yet, certainly not day after day. They will.

If this $500 billion “emergency funding” was just a year-end phenomenon, that would be one thing. But this is not a liquidity issue this a solvency issue and a growing solvency issue as well. See Missing the Boat on Monetary Easing for more on this topic.

You can’t cure drug addicts by giving them more drugs nor can you cure insolvent credit junkies by dramatically increasing the size of the loans. I suspect the “emergency” is going to last a lot longer than the ECB thinks.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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