BEFORE reality TV ruled the airwaves, the Saturday night schedules on the BBC would often feature a variety show with singers, comedians and novelty acts. One favourite was a man spinning plates on top of poles, an act that involved a lot of dashing about to avoid disaster.
Central banks have been performing a version of that act for the past three years. In 2008 they were racing around trying to save one bank after another, and were unable to prevent a few smashes. In 2010 the fragile plates were the sovereign countries of the euro zone. The authorities just managed to keep them intact.
But the loss of just one tiny saucer could result in a lot of broken crockery. The banks are still in a delicate state with many dependent on the European Central Bank (ECB) for finance. The advice of Walter Bagehot, a 19th-century editor of The Economist, was that central banks should lend freely in a liquidity crisis, against good collateral. But this support was supposed to be short-term, not continuous: a central bank should be an emergency room, not a hospice.