Monday, September 6, 2010

EU banks are still wobbly

The EU banking system is in big trouble. That's why European Central Bank (ECB) head Jean-Claude Trichet continues to purchase government bonds and provide "unlimited funds" for underwater banks. It's an effort to prevent a financial system meltdown that could plunge the eurozone back into recession.

This is from Bloomberg News: "Banks led stocks lower (on Tuesday) on concern they’ll require more capital to compensate for holdings of bonds in Europe’s weakest economies. Germany’s banking association said yesterday that the nation’s lenders need to raise $135 billion....“Banks still face problems in regards to their capital ratios,” said Michael Koehler, head of strategy at Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg in Mainz, Germany. “Investors will keep worrying about a possible double dip in the next few weeks.” ("Stocks, U.S. Futures Fall, Bonds Rally on Europe Debt Concern", Stephen Kirkland, Bloomberg)

EU banks and other financial institutions presently hold nearly 1 trillion euros of public and private debt from Greece, Spain and Portugal. (although estimates vary) All three countries are in deep distress and face sharp downgrades on their sovereign debt. The potential losses put large parts of the EU banking system at risk. Trichet knows this, which is why he continues to support the teetering system with "unlimited funds". Trichet's emergency assistance has nothing to do with restoring "the monetary-policy transmission mechanism", as he says. That's deliberately misleading. The ECB's actions are a straightforward bailout of the banks and bondholders.

From Bloomberg again:



"Even after a 750 billion euro ($960 billion) bailout for the weaker economies in the euro zone, investors are skittish about sovereign debt -- and about the banks that hold the region’s government bonds.


A default by Greece could trigger the collapse of banks with large sovereign-bond holdings, says Konrad Becker, a financial analyst at Merck Finck & Co. in Munich. “A default by one EU country would lead to an evaporation of trust in banks,” he says. “If investors aren’t willing to invest in banks anymore, then many banks will go bust in months, not years.” ("Europe's Banks Stressed By Sovereign Debts Regulators Ducked", Bloomberg)



The ECB provides billions of euros per week to maintain the illusion that the market is wrong about the true value of the sovereign bonds. But the market is not wrong, the ECB is wrong. The value of Greek bonds (for example) has dropped precipitously. They are worth less, which means the banks need to take a haircut and write down the losses. More liquidity merely hides the problem.

This is from Reuters:

"Despite the open-arms approach, outstanding ECB lending has fallen more than a third since the start of July to 592 billion euros.... Liquidity remains abundant though. Over 120 billion euros was deposited back at the ECB overnight, the latest figures show."

So, overnight deposits are increasing because the wholesale funding market is on the fritz, while--at the same time--the ECB has had to lend more than half a trillion euros to stabilize the wobbly and under-capitalized banking system. This is progress?

Interbank lending has been falling, but bond yields in the distressed countries continue to rise. That means there's more trouble ahead. It also means Trichet's plan is not working. Time for another bailout.

Trichet has kept the ECB's benchmark lending rate at rock bottom (1%) for 17 months, depriving savers of desperately needed interest income. The policy is designed to increase the yield-curve so the banks can make more money. The low interest rates are not passed on to workers or households (who still pay 18% on their credit cards), but to banks that borrow money at nearly-zero rates. It's another cash giveaway. The policy curtails spending and depresses demand. When savers slash spending, GDP shrinks, and the economy goes into recession. The real economy is being savaged to help the banks pull themselves out of the red.

Trichet has recently joined the Austerians in calling for more belt tightening. Here's a quote:

"With hindsight, we see how unfortunate was the oversimplified message of fiscal stimulus given to all industrial economies under the motto: “stimulate”, “activate”, “spend”! … there is little doubt that the need to implement a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation strategy is valid for all countries now."


Sure, austerity for workers and welfare for the banks. If Trichet is really worried about fiscal deterioration, he should stop diverting capital into broken financial institutions. He should force the banks to seek funding in the markets and stop allowing them to use the ECB as a crutch. That's how the system is supposed to work.


This is from Calculated Risk:

"Was there much sovereign stress in the European bank stress tests?

No...The haircuts are applied to the trading book portfolios only, as no default assumption was considered, which would be required to apply haircuts to the held to maturity sovereign debt in the banking book.” (Calculated Risk)


The stress tests were a fraud. The sovereign debt (bonds) have already slipped in value, but the losses remain concealed behind a wall of ECB liquidity. This is a very nontransparent and corrupt system. Trichet needs to be replaced with someone who is more forthcoming and committed to restoring public confidence.

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