Alarm Bells Ringing: Behind The Smoke And Mirrors Of The European Banking System

 Erico Matias Tavares of Sinclair & Co.

Alarm bells in the European banking system have been ringing for quite a while but nobody seems to be listening. The roaring capital markets are just too loud.

But we have been keeping track of a few things.

Private sector lending is dropping sharply in the Eurozone. The latest figures have just been released and the picture is not at all encouraging. Total private sector credit by Eurozone monetary financial institutions has accentuated its negative trajectory last June, with lending to households seeing the largest monthly decline since the height of the great financial crisis in late 2008. Uh-oh.

Periphery back in play? Very recently the second largest private bank in Portugal was caught in the bankruptcy of the Espirito Santo conglomerate, reporting the largest ever corporate loss in the country’s history just last Wednesday, and raising the specter that all might not be well in the Eurozone’s periphery. Now the Portuguese government may be forced to intervene, possibly using a very large chunk of the financial sector stabilization funds set aside during the country’s recent bailout.

BIS issues a(nother) warning. This should not be a surprise. In its 2014 annual report, released at the end of June, the Bank of International Settlements (“BIS”) warned that “banks that have failed to adjust post-crisis face lingering balance sheet weaknesses from direct exposure to overindebted borrowers and the drag of debt overhang on economic recovery”, with this situation being the most acute in Europe. It also stated that increases in government debt ratios in several cases appear to be on an unsustainable path. It appears that debt levels matter for (some) economists after all.

Bad loans rising. Before we had Fitch, the ratings agency, stating last May that in a sample of 124 Eurozone banks which participated in the latest stress test impaired loans increased by an average of 8% in 2013, with no less than 30 banks seeing an increase of 20%. This could have certainly contributed to the massive contraction in private sector credit that we are now seeing on its own. But there’s more.

Emerging dangers. Trillions more in fact. In February Reuters reported that European banks have loaned in excess of $3 trillion to emerging markets – a little less than the entire GDP of Germany, and more than four times the exposure of US lenders to those countries. Fitch chimed in saying that “a handful of large EU banks are materially exposed to more fragile emerging markets.” While direct risks might be manageable for these banks, any contagion might be another story. Is an Argentinean default truly contained? Are Turkey’s problems solved? What happens if the latest EU/US sanctions hit Russian banks or companies hard?

Where’s the capital? Another eye-opener came over a year ago. In April 2013, Jakob Vestergaard and María Retana at the Danish Institute for International Studies published "Smoke and Mirrors: On the Alleged Recapitalization of European Banks", a report partially funded by the World Bank. The title says it all. According to the authors, by using broad capital measures based on risk-weighted assets European banking regulators have overstated the banks’ soundness and resilience in their stress assessments. Accordingly, “recent increases in risk weighted capital ratios have been little more than a smokescreen.”

By focusing on leverage ratios instead, the authors reached some interesting conclusions. The least well-capitalized banking sector among the larger Eurozone countries is not the Spanish or Italian… but the German, closely followed by the French! According to their estimates, a five-fold increase in equity capital is needed in order to reach “adequate” levels of soundness. It is well worth reading the entire report, including the discussion on why regulators seem to be consistently behind the ball on bank recapitalization.

Figure 1: Eurozone Government Debt-to-GDP (Maastricht Definition)
Source: European Central Bank

Sovereign debt jumps. But alarm bells should have been ringing even before that. In the third quarter of 2012, the overall government debt-to-GDP in the Eurozone surpassed 90% for the first time ever, as shown in the graph above. Why is this number important? In “Growth in a Time of Debt”, after analyzing 3,700 annual country data points going back centuries under the most varied macroeconomic conditions (and the occasional spreadsheet error ;), Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff found that in countries which are above that 90% threshold GDP growth is generally weak. In other words, from that point on the odds are firmly stacked against us seeing the growth rates necessary to smoothly reduce debt loads that even the BIS agrees are problematic. And several Eurozone countries are way past that level now.

And who were the buyers of bonds in some of the most indebted periphery countries? In April 2012 Bloomberg reported that Spanish, Italian and Portuguese banks increased their holdings of domestic sovereign debt by very significant double digits, mostly financed by the ECB. Much to the chagrin of bond vigilantes, the ensuing decline in the bond yields of these countries virtually up until today might not be a sign of strength and stability – but rather an impressive feat of financial engineering.

That Minsky moment. Over two decades ago, Hyman Minsky described in his “Financial Instability Hypothesis” the interplay between the financial markets and the wider economy, which according to him is at the heart of the business cycle in a capitalist economy with a sophisticated financial system. During the good times increases in asset values often lead to investment and speculative excesses financed through debt. At some point the resulting cash flows can no longer cover those debts, impairing loans and prompting banks to tighten credit availability, even to companies with good credit ratings. This in turn leads to a contraction in asset values and economic activity in general.

And where are we now in the Eurozone? We have already seen the general increase in asset values, so check. And now we can also check bad debts rising and private sector credit contracting. If Minsky was right, what follows is not pretty.

Whether governments and central banks have the power to push back or avoid that fateful moment remains to be seen. But equity markets in Europe are already smelling a rat.

Figure 2: Ratio of Developed Europe Financial Services Stocks to FTSE Developed Europe Stock Index (Monthly)

The share prices of financial services companies in developed European countries have been lagging the general index for developed Europe for some months now, with the ratio dipping below its 10-month (simple) moving average last May – typically a bad omen for the sector and the markets in general.

With so many concerning signs developing since the last financial flare-up in the Eurozone, we can make the case that European banks should have been taking much more proactive steps in recapitalizing their balance sheets, especially with such robust equity markets. But it seems nobody likes to spoil a good party.

Alarm bells should not be dismissed so easily. They are there for a reason. Regulators, politicians, bank managers and investors should all be paying attention.

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