Economist James Galbraith explains the critical role of the ECB in this shutdown:

“A central bank is supposed to protect the financial stability of solvent banks. But from early February, the ECB cut off direct financing of Greek banks, instead drip-feeding them expensive liquidity on special “emergency” terms. This promoted a slow run on the banks and paralyzed economic activity. When the negotiations broke down, the ECB capped the assistance, prompting a fast bank run and giving them an excuse to impose capital controls and effectively shut them down.”

In December 2014, when the Greek Parliament was threatening to reject the pro-austerity presidential candidate, Goldman Sachs warned in a memo:

“In the event of a severe Greek government clash with international lenders, interruption of liquidity provision to Greek banks by the ECB could potentially even lead to a Cyprus-style prolonged “bank holiday”.

And that is exactly what happened after the anti-austerity Syriza Party was elected in January. Why would the ECB have to “interrupt liquidity provision” just because of a “clash with international lenders”? As noted by Mark Weisbrot, the move was completely unnecessary.

The crisis to which it has led was described by Evans-Pritchard on July 7th:

Events are now spinning out of control. The banks remain shut. The ECB has maintained its liquidity freeze, and through its inaction is asphyxiating the banking system.

Factories are shutting down across the country as stocks of raw materials run out and containers full of vitally-needed imports clog up Greek ports. Companies cannot pay their suppliers because external transfers are blocked. Private scrip currencies are starting to appear as firms retreat to semi-barter outside the banking system.”

The Tourniquet of the Central Bank

It is not just Greek banks but all banks that are dependent on central bank liquidity, because they are all technically insolvent. They all lend money they don’t have. As the Bank of England recently acknowledged, banks do not actually lend their deposits. Rather, they create deposits when they make loans. They do this simply with accounting entries. There is no real limit to how much money they can create, so long as they can find creditworthy customers willing to borrow it.

The catch is that the bank still has to balance its books at the end of the day. If it comes up short, it can borrow from the banks into which its deposits (whether “real” or newly created) have migrated. Banks can borrow from each other at very low rates (in the US, the Fed funds rate is 0.25%). They keep the difference in rates as their profit.

The central bank, which has the power to print money, is the ultimate backstop in this money-creating scheme. If there is leakage in the system from cash withdrawals or transfers to foreign banks, the central bank supplies the liquidity, again at very low bankers’ rates.

That is the way the system should work. But in the Eurozone, the national central banks of member countries have relinquished their critical credit power to the European Central Bank. And the ECB, like the US Federal Reserve, marches to the drums of large international banks. The central bank can flick the credit switch on or off at its whim. Any country that resists going along with the creditors’ austerity program may find that its banks have been cut off from this critical liquidity, being branded no longer “good credit risks.” That damning judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as is now happening in Greece.

Turning the Credit Spigots Back On

The problem now for Greece is how to restore bank liquidity without the help of the ECB. One way would be to leave the Eurozone and return to its own national currency, as many pundits have urged. Its central bank could then issue all the drachmas needed to fund the government and provide cash for the banks.

But that alternative comes with other major downsides, including that the drachma would probably plummet against the euro. Greek leaders have therefore sought to stay in the Eurozone, but that means dealing with the bank runs that are bleeding the banks of euros. It also means bowing to ECB regulation, something the ECB is attempting to impose on all Eurozone banks.

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