The euro debt crisis has engulfed Europe's banks as bank regulators dreamed delay was a solution

09/13/2011 9:04 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Financial markets are behaving as if they expect a European banking crisis that would require the bailout or nationalization of some European banks in what would be a replay of the financial crisis that followed on the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008. Only this time the epicenter would be Europe instead of the United States and the ripples would expand from the EuroZone outward into global financial markets.

How realistic is that fear? Very, I’m afraid. European banks are facing a very real liquidity and capital crisis that could lead to the need for a government rescue of some globally significant banks.

But the crisis isn’t an exact replay of the 2008 crisis. Although the effects of the crisis wouldn’t be limited to Europe, the likelihood that a European crisis would take down a major U.S. bank—in a mirror image of the 2008 crisis where problems originating in the United States did lead to the bailouts of banks in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Belgium—is relatively small in 2011. On the other hand, the crisis is potentially worse this time around because the European Central Bank is much less able to intervene as a lender of last resort than the U.S. Federal Reserve was in 2008.

The current European banking crisis is rooted in the Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish debt crises but the collapse, bailout, and collapse of the prices of the bonds of those countries wouldn’t have produced the current mess without a series of mis-steps by banks, bank regulators, and central banks.

European banks hold a huge amount of government debt from the countries involved in the crisis. German banks, for example, held $22 billion in Greek government debt at the end of 2010, according to the Bank for International Settlements. If you add holdings of Greek government debt to holdings of private sector Greek debt, the exposure gets much higher. For example, in May Fitch Ratings said that French Bank Credit Agricole (CRARY) had $35 billion in exposure to Greek government and private debt. BNP Paribas (BNPQY) and Societe Generale (SCGLY) had exposure of about $11 billion each.

The exposure of European banks to Greece, however, is small souvlaki compared to exposure to the much larger Italian economy. BNP Paribas, for example, has an estimated $31 billion in exposure to Italian government and private sector debt. Even where the total for Italy is not as high as for Greece, the additional exposure is big enough to add to worries. Credit Agricole has an estimated $17 billion in Italian exposure.

But the current banking crisis owes as much to the reaction of banks and bank regulators to the problem as to the size of this exposure itself. Nobody now expects that Greece will be able to avoid a default in the end—the credit default swap market is now pricing in a 98% chance of default within the next five years. Even Sunday’s announcement of new measures to close a $3 billion budget gap just served to convince financial markets that the more Greece cuts, the more the economy will slow, and the fewer taxes the government will collect. Like last year’s rescue package, this year’s deal, if ultimately approved, only serves to buy time.

But instead of using that time to get Europe’s financial house in order, banks and bank regulators have spent the time dreaming that everything would somehow turn out all right. So, for example, banks have avoided marking their portfolios of Greek, Italian, and other troubled debt securities to market. The arguments have been varied and ingenious. Banks have argued that since the Greek II rescue package asked bond holders to take a 21% haircut on the value of their bonds, banks should value their debt at that same 21% discount even though the debt instruments were trading at much lower prices. Banks have also argued that since it has become difficult to trade some of this debt there is no market price that they can use to value it. Instead they’re marking this debt to the values calculated by financial models. Remember how well that turned out in the financial crisis of 2008?

And regulators, especially those in France, have let them get away with it. Regulators have pointed to the last bank stress test and said, See our banks passed. As if having a 6.5% Tier one capital ratio when 5% was the benchmark to earn a pass in the test was enough. As if 6.5% should earn applause when many countries are urging their banks toward a 10% standard.

You can probably predict the reaction in the financial markets. Because non-European banks can’t trust the books at European banks to accurately state bank risk, they’ve stopped lending to European banks. U.S. money market funds, a key source of short-term capital for European, banks have cut back their short-term lending. An August survey by Fitch Ratings found that 43% of the total prime money market funds reduced their exposure to European banks by 9% or more. Where money market funds have kept lending, they’ve cut the length of their loans. Fitch found that 20% of money market fund lending to French banks was for maturities of a week or less. That’s three times greater than just a month earlier. Money market fund exposure to Spanish and Italian banks has fallen even faster. It was effectively zero, Fitch found, by the end of July.

This is a big deal, especially for French banks, which are particularly reliant on short-term funds from wholesale sources such as money market funds. For example, French banks rely on short-term funding even for long-term lending. Credit Agricole, for example, relies on short-term funding for 23% of lending for long-term mortgages. A reliance on short-term funding makes a bank extremely vulnerable to exactly the kind of squeeze that threatened the banking system after the collapse of Lehman Bros.

And in the current market there’s not a whole lot of long-term capital looking for a home at a European bank. Across the EuroZone banks have managed to sell $4.5 billion in debt this year, but almost all of that came in the first half of the first half. For the last three months banks have redeemed more in maturing debt than they’ve managed to sell in new debt. According to Dealogic net issues of bank debt in the region—excluding covered bonds, which are secured against pools of existing loans—is a negative $41 billion. Covered bonds can’t fill the gap indefinitely since new issues face limits imposed by the need to find existing loans to use as collateral and by national banking regulations. And it’s not like these banks can go to the equity markets to raise capital except at a crushing cost. Shares of Societe Generale are down 55% since June 15 and shares of Credit Agricole are down 45%.

The math gets pretty daunting if you look at the amount of debt that EuroZone banks need to roll over in the next few years—let alone any new money they need to raise to expand their business (in case their economies have, you know, ideas about growing) or to meet new capital requirements. According to Deutsche Bank Eurozone banks need to finance nearly $2 trillion over the next five years.

Where might that money be coming from? No where without some kind of guarantee from either national governments or the European Central Bank. The European Central Bank has done such an astounding job of eating into its own credibility over the last year and of convincing everyone that its policies are as steady as the wind in Pomerania that nobody is absolutely certain that the central bank stands ready to supply all the liquidity that EuroZone banks might need. The last year has also highlighted the European  Central Bank’s limitations as a lender of last resort. The European Central Bank is dependent on member central banks for its funding and it’s by no means clear that those banks stand behind the EuroZone banking system as a whole.

In fact one big fear is that some national governments may be preparing to save their own banks while letting those in the rest of the EuroZone hang twisting in the wind. So, for example, when the rumors swept through the financial markets last week that Germany was preparing contingency plans to support its banks in the event of a Greek default, the market as a whole found the news chilling. Was Germany planning to protect its own banks but abandon everyone else’s? If German cash went to a bailout of German banks, who would stand behind the EuroZone’s other banks? What would happen if, as looks likely, Moody’s Investors Service, downgrades French banks such as BNP Paribas or Credit Agricole? The French government doesn’t look nearly as prepared to step in. In recent weeks its big response has been to castigate those spreading “rumors” that French banks could be overly exposed to the Italian crisis. (French banks account for about 45% of all bank holdings of Italian government and private debt.)

Trouble in France poses a much greater risk to U.S. banks than trouble in Greece, Spain or Italy. At the end of 2010, according to the Bank for International Settlements, French banks owed American banks more than $160 billion. That’s way more than the $20 billion Spanish banks owed U.S. banks.

But U.S. banks, bank regulators, and the Federal Reserve have been much more active than their European counterparts since 2008 in forcing banks to write down bad debt and mark portfolios to market (more active doesn’t, of course, mean active enough). Banks have been forced to raise capital and U.S. banks aren’t nearly as dependent on short-term money as their French peers or as they were in 2008. The Federal Reserve, whatever the faults in its policy, has been very clear in its intention to play the role of lender of last resort.

So what happens now?

I think Europe’s leaders patch together some kind of arrangement that allows the European Central Bank to continue to support European banks and the bonds of Italy and Spain. I think Chancellor Angela Merkel manages to squeak through to a “yes” vote on the new powers for the European Financial Stability Facility and the European Central Bank holds the fort until that funding is up and running. I think the Greek government throws the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund enough of a bone in the form of new promises to get the next round of funding that it needs in September. I expect financial markets to heave a sigh of relief at the end of the month that the terrible has been averted.

I don’t see a real solution in any of this, however. Greek debt is too large to handle with an austerity program and some stopgap cash. Those of Europe’s banks that are having liquidity and capital issues aren’t going to attract a flood of cash simply because the crisis has been delayed.

At some point Greece will default. It’s just my hope that EuroZone leaders will use any time they’ve gained by this latest delay to more useful ends than they accomplished during the last delay.

Hope.  But I doubt it.

If we get a relief rally in developed markets in October, enjoy it. But raise cash. Look for bargains in safe havens such as gold and high dividend stocks. Wait for the next move down to put money to work again. I think there’s one more big disappointment after a rally that doesn’t hold required to wash out the market.

If we get a rally, don’t think it marks the end of this crisis. That will require bigger changes than anything we’ve seen so far.

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund http://jubakfund.com/ , may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of June see the fund’s portfolio at http://jubakfund.com/about-the-fund/holdings/

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