Europe's banks on the brink

Thu May 17, 2012 3:04pm EDT

Former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 27, 2012. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

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LONDON, May 17 (IFR) - The eurozone crisis was in full swing when Jean-Claude Trichet took the podium in Berlin last October 6 for his final press conference as president of the European Central Bank. Having helped create one of the longest periods of price stability in the history of central banking, Trichet was closing out his eight-year reign under siege.

Soaring oil prices had made a mockery of the bank's superlative record on inflation, while the worst recession on the continent since World War II had morphed into a full-scale sovereign debt crisis. Now the central bank faced the collapse of dozens of banks that had found themselves locked out of funding markets - a development that would draw the ECB into uncharted territory.

Time was getting short. Franco-Belgian bank Dexia, whose shares had dropped 22 percent just 48 hours earlier, was mere days away from becoming the first casualty of the liquidity crisis engulfing Europe. And there was widespread speculation that Greece, a member of the euro single currency and already the recipient of a 110 billion euro bailout the previous year, was slipping dangerously behind targets and would need further aid.

An uncharacteristically emotional Trichet, forced to grapple with what he called "turbulent waters, storms, unexpected hurricanes", outlined a plan to try to calm the nerves of the global markets, and stop the crisis from spreading even further across the beleaguered continent. The ECB, he announced, would buy 40 billion euros in covered bonds and launch two one-year emergency-lending operations in a bid to bring back some badly needed liquidity.

"All the non-standard measures taken during the period of acute financial market tensions are, by construction, temporary in nature," Trichet told the assembled crowd by way of explanation. He was surely right about that. In a matter of weeks, his plan had been abandoned. The central bank would need to do more - a lot more - to save the day.

At the very moment Trichet was speaking in Germany, in fact, the European Banking Authority was meeting in London 600 miles away, sketching the first draft of the long-term refinancing operations that the ECB would eventually implement under his successor Mario Draghi. The EBA, itself a by-product of the financial crisis and still less than a year old, had been put in place to advise the ECB and its member nations by working through numbers and soliciting comment from across the European banking industry.

Regulators, central bankers and industry officials had spent two days holed up in the 18th floor meeting room at EBA headquarters, crunching the data to try to find out just how precarious a situation Europe's banks were in, and how much money might be needed to address it. Stress tests that summer had brought troubling revelations about the extent of holdings that European banks had in sovereign debt. And looming on the horizon, less than two months away, was the start of 2012 - a year in which the banks faced a 650 billion euros reckoning as hundreds of debt instruments came due. Banks had planned to borrow more from the markets to pay off the old debts, but most could no longer find takers for new paper. With options running out, and the clock ticking ominously, some faced the possibility of collapse.

"There was a problem with bank funding that couldn't be solved by private markets," Piers Haben, director of oversight at the EBA and one of those present at the October meeting, told IFR. "Spreads were blowing out, and tensions rising. We wanted to ensure there wasn't a disorderly slamming-on of the brakes, and were pushing for coordinated steps on funding and capital to strengthen the banking system in an orderly manner."

One solution the EBA discussed was the possibility that the newly-formed European Financial Stability Facility would guarantee any new bank bonds, which perhaps might entice private creditors back into the market. But the EFSF was backed by the same ailing governments that it had been designed to protect - governments whose credibility was unraveling almost by the hour as the full scope of the crisis became known.

Even the facility itself was looking shaky. Investors had queued around the block to get a piece of the EFSF when the rescue fund issued its first bond nine months earlier, putting in 45 billion euros of bids for the 5 billion euros of debt on offer. But now they were selling out, driving up the fund's future cost of borrowing. Between mid-September and mid-October, yields on the inaugural issue spiraled from 1.95 percent to 2.83 percent - the bond market's equivalent of a rout.

Mindful of that, officials at the EBA meeting started considering another scheme that they were calling, in the great tradition of bureaucrat-speak, a "confidential liquidity recommendation". In essence, they would urge the ECB to lend - and lend big. One option on the table was to extend a maximum 500 billion euros to European banks for a period of five years. Another - the LTRO option that eventually won the day - was for loans that were shorter in duration but unlimited in size. With so much at stake, however, the officials could not help worrying whether they were drawing the right conclusions from the facts at hand. Any wrong step now was likely to be disastrous. And just across the Channel, a storm was brewing that reminded everyone that the EBA had recently managed to get things very wrong indeed.

STRESS AFTER STRESS

After running stress tests on 90 of Europe's key banks that summer, the EBA had given Dexia the all-clear in July. But it was now obvious that the Franco-Belgian banking group was in deep trouble - and had been for quite some time. Ratings agencies had placed Dexia under review earlier in the year, causing a 22 billion euro drop in unsecured short-term funding in the second quarter. As the liquidity crisis escalated, the bank lost a further 6 billion in funding; nervous creditors demanded that it post an additional 15 billion in collateral.

On October 3, just ahead of the EBA and ECB meetings, Moody's announced another rating review of the troubled institution. That prompted Dexia's creditors to withdraw a further 9 billion euros in funding. Depositors also joined in on the bank run, pulling out 7 billion in the days after the announcement.

For a bank heavily dependent upon short-term borrowing, the loss of available credit was a death knell. For many years Dexia, like countless other banks, had borrowed cheaper, short-term money to fund higher-yielding long-term assets. As the liquidity squeeze became more acute, however, the bank was forced into selling assets quickly at very deep discounts. It booked 3.6 billion euros of losses on the fire sale.

The impending disaster at Dexia was the fourth item on the agenda of the October EBA meeting, and the organization's handling of the bank was cause for acute embarrassment. The EBA had concluded that, even under stress, the bank's capital cushion would be sufficient to withstand any real bother - in fact, it said Dexia had double the minimum required. Yet even as the EBA was convening in London, Dexia was reaching the end of its rope.

Non-voting members and observers were asked to leave the EBA meeting room while an inner circle discussed the bank's troubles in confidence. Five days later, the French and Belgian governments announced a joint bailout of the stricken bank that included 90 billion euros in state guarantees and a 4 billion capital injection. Dexia, given a clean bill of health by the authority just three months before, had collapsed.

Among other things, that failure meant there were legitimate questions to be asked about whether the EBA, a brand-new institution created to oversee Europe's banks - and one advising the ECB on how to steer through Europe's worst financial mess in decades - would be able to find a practical solution to the situation. Dexia, after all, was merely the first victim of the liquidity crisis - it was just the tip of the iceberg.

Dozens of banks were on the edge of disaster, as the EBA knew only too well - its stress tests had forced banks across Europe to open their books for the first time, and those findings made for decidedly grim reading. Most worrisome of all was the size of bank holdings in sovereign debt. Even after the initial bailout of Greece, few in the market seemed to believe that sovereigns were anything but rock solid. BNP Paribas, then the largest bank in Europe, was discovered to have 235 billion euros of government debt on its books at the end of 2010 - five times the value of its common equity. Almost every bank in Europe, it would soon emerge, was in the same boat.

STATE SECRETS

Over the years, governments - through personal links with senior bankers as well as via legislation - had encouraged lenders to stock up on sovereign debt. In the 1980s, when regulators drew up the first Basel Accord designed to make banks safer, government debt from a bank's home country was deemed so safe that no capital needed to be held against it. When regulators updated the accord in 2004, the same zero risk-weighting was extended to holdings of all government debt above a certain rating.

One goal of the eurozone project, after all, had been to tear down national capital barriers. Buying the debt of your EU neighbors was the epitome of monetary integration. Nobody, least of all the banks that were amassing the huge positions in sovereigns, had ever seriously contemplated a eurozone state being unable to pay back its obligations.

"Government bonds were assumed to be a risk-free asset," Charlie Berman, head of public sector EMEA at Barclays, told IFR. "This was reinforced by the Basel directives, and it suited all parties for banks to hold large positions in government securities in both liquidity portfolios and from hedging other risks as well as proprietary investments. These holdings were supposed to safeguard the system, rather than be pro-cyclical and actually accelerate and exacerbate the systemic risk."

Yet exacerbate the risk is precisely what they did. At the Malvern, Pennsylvania campus of investment firm Vanguard, analysts were spending long man-hours analyzing the intricacies of the Greek bailout. Through early 2010, bond markets had been charging Greece more and more to borrow money, and the extraordinary 110 billion euro package of loans extended to the country in May of that year had been intended simply to tide Athens over for cash, with the expectation it would return to the capital markets in 2012 in much healthier shape. The analysts saw that stock markets had reacted well to the bailout and, more importantly, Spanish and Italian bond yields began to pull back from recent highs. The bailout seemed, at least superficially, to have done the trick.

But Vanguard was already looking ahead to the next phase of the crisis. The investment firm had billions in outstanding loans to foreign banks, many of them in Europe. Their analysts understood that any fresh flare-up of sovereign trouble would badly affect those same banks, which themselves had loaned huge amounts to governments. If that debt went sour, Vanguard was facing potentially enormous losses.

"Banks have always been encouraged to stock up on government debt, so the bad assets were going to be on their balance sheets," recalled David Glocke, a principal in Vanguard's fixed-income group. "It was a lot like the sub-prime problem, but whereas US banks had large exposure to property, in Europe it was all about the sovereign debt issues. It was the canary in the coalmine."

The obstacle facing Glocke and his team was that European banks traditionally hadn't disclosed their government bond holdings with any significant level of transparency. Details of the holdings were customarily shrouded in secrecy, and the market as yet had no way of knowing what the stress tests would eventually uncover - that the vast majority of the institutions held enormous portfolios of government bonds worth many times the common equity value of the banks themselves. No one who wanted to know did know, and no one who did know wanted to speak - but all the pieces were in place for a catastrophe.

"A lack of transparency from banks about exactly how much government paper they held exacerbated the problem - nobody knew who held what, who was the bad guy in the room," said William Fall, global head of the financial institutions group at Royal Bank of Scotland.

All Glocke and his team could do was to make educated guesses about the banks' positions, piecing together data from government bond auctions as best they could. Even so, they readily identified Italian and French banks as areas of concern. The possibility of a major problem was very serious and very real. After consulting with his team of analysts, Glocke wrote to the shareholders of one of Vanguard's biggest investment funds in August 2010.

"We paid particular attention to banks, which have a long history of investing in government debt and represent a significant portion of the Prime Money Market Fund's assets," he wrote. "Based on our analysis, we adjusted the fund's exposure to a number of European issuers. As in past periods of heightened uncertainty, we prefer to watch from the sidelines, rather than stay in the game."

Glocke was one of the first US money market leaders to move, but more would soon follow suit. Over the next few months, as first Ireland and then Portugal turned out to need their own bailouts from the EU and IMF, fund managers stopped lending dollars to European banks. Concerned about the massive exposure to ailing sovereigns, they pulled $58 billion out in June 2011 and a further $38 billion out the following month.

"All you had to do was mention the word European, and everyone would run for the hills," said one capital markets head. "I can't think of a period in history when funding markets were closed for such a long time."

EVEN WORSE THAN BAD

Across the industry, panic had set in. "There was a real, genuine sense of worry," recalled one financial institutions banker at a US firm, who advised banks throughout the crisis. "People were preparing for the worst."

But as no one knew exactly what the worst looked like, or when it would come, those banks that had any cash to spare looking for a safe place to put it. Deposits at the ECB and other European central banks surged, which only made the liquidity problems worse.

"Individually, banks were making the right decision for themselves, but collectively it was suicide," said David Soanes, global head of capital markets at UBS. Between June and July 2011, deposits at the ECB almost doubled. In August they doubled again - and then again in September. By October, banks had 169 billion euros on deposit at the central bank. Cash that once sloshed around the interbank market lay dormant, of no use to the many banks across the region that were starved of liquidity.

Of course some banks had sensed the unease among creditors at the start of 2011, a time when many of them could still issue bonds and keep things ticking over. They had more than 600 billion euros of debt - senior unsecured, covered, government-guaranteed and subordinated bonds - maturing that year. Their ability to repay depended on issuing more debt. Concerned about rising costs and the markets eventually slamming shut, banks accelerated plans for new debt sales. It had become a race against time.

"We started to sense a crisis brewing at the beginning of the year, and chose to get a big chunk of our funding done early on," said Manuel Gonzalez Cid, chief financial officer at Spanish bank BBVA. "There is very little you can do in a funding crisis, so as CFO your job is to foresee potential problems and prevent them from having a major impact."

BBVA's decision was mirrored by dozens of other banks across Europe. Debt capital markets teams at the big investment banks saw a flurry of activity. In the first quarter of 2011, eurozone banks sold about 154 billion euros of fresh debt - a record amount. January was the biggest month of all, with banks getting 25 billion of senior unsecured and 42 billion of covered bonds out the door. In the afterglow of the first Greek bailout, everybody - not least the investment banks, which had pulled in huge fees from all the new issuance - seemed to think that everything might be okay.

But everything stopped seeming okay on March 11, when a magnitude nine earthquake hit off the Pacific coast of Japan. The quake triggered a powerful tsunami that devastated much of the northeast coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, killing more than 15,000 people and injuring almost double that. Whole towns and villages disappeared in an instant.

As the scale of the devastation became clear, bank treasurers and CFOs realized that Japanese investors would retrench massively from international capital markets, selling out their holdings to pay for the rebuilding costs that the World Bank estimated at $235 billion.

Although the Japanese had traditionally lent little to European banks directly, the knock-on effect of their withdrawal from other markets pushed borrowing costs for banks up even higher. Credit supply became ever scarcer, and concerns deepened. The average cost of insuring European five-year senior unsecured bank bonds against default rose from 80bp on the day of the earthquake to more than 200bp by the beginning of May.

"The Japanese tsunami changed banking," said UBS's Soanes, who was one of the architects of the UK government's rescue of RBS back in 2008. "Many banks started to prepare for a possible drought of dollars, as the Japanese could have repatriated their dollars, taking their money home to pay for reconstruction. Whether they did repatriate or not became secondary, as banks reacted as if they would. There was real illiquidity."

That liquidity crisis was in its full throes by July. Bank debt issuance collapsed to just 6 billion euros that month, less than a tenth of the volume issued in January. The vast majority of banks were completely shut out of markets. Those that hadn't brought their plans forward earlier in the year were beginning to regret the decision.

And then Greece once again reared its ugly sovereign head. Two years into the three-year program of the first bailout, it was becoming increasingly clear that Athens wouldn't be able to access capital markets in 2012, as planned. Targets were being missed, and the Greek economy was in a much worse state than had been expected.

Ireland had thrust another spanner into the works. It had decided to impose harsh conditions on creditors to the country's biggest banks, which had been bailed out in December 2010. Subordinated bondholders were told they would generally only receive 25 cents for every euro they had lent Irish banks. The number of investors willing to lend to banks was getting ever smaller.

TIME FOR A HAIRCUT

To complicate matters further, political momentum had been building for private creditors to fund any future eurozone bailouts. The plan, hatched between France and Germany at the resort of Deauville in October 2010, wasn't directed at existing bailouts. But as it became clear that Greece would need more help, private-sector involvement became the talk of the political circles.

PSI was against the wishes of the ECB. The central bank knew that forcing losses on the private sector - including banks - could be devastating for the financial system. According to Benoit Coeure, now an ECB executive board member but at the time a senior official at the French Treasury, central bankers were extremely worried about aggravating the crisis.

"There was concern about the connection between banks and sovereigns, and how a loss of confidence in one could affect the other," he said in an interview with IFR at his Frankfurt office. "One could predict from the beginning, since the Deauville meeting, that any restructuring would infect the sovereign market and impact bank funding."

As momentum gathered pace behind PSI, and it became clear that banks would take huge hits on money loaned to Greece, markets went into a tailspin. The EBA, in an effort to soothe fears, had decided to force banks to reveal their sovereign holdings. Banks weren't happy, yet had little choice but to come clean. The results were released on July 15, just days before the second Greek bailout was hatched.

At the top of the list of Greek creditors was BNP Paribas, which held 5.2 billion euros of Greek government bonds. BNP Paribas, like others including Societe Generale and Germany's Commerzbank, had been piling into Greek bonds for years, chasing that extra bit of yield. A few basis points multiplied by billions meant a tidy sum. But now the banks faced severe losses if PSI were enacted.

"The EBA stress tests revealed in detail banks' government bond holdings, which nobody had seen before, and that fed the noise that was already in the markets," the bank's chief operating officer, Philippe Bordenave, recalled over lunch at the French bank's Paris headquarters.

"Only a few weeks earlier, the ECB was publicly against any private-sector involvement. They knew it would trigger contagion, and they were completely right," he said. "It created a vicious circle. It simplistically and wrongly sowed the seeds in people's minds that any European country could default."

Very soon that contagion began in earnest. Rather than settling markets, the EBA stress tests had instead given investors scary concrete facts to panic about. Although there was a short rally immediately after the tests, bank shares went into freefall once the market had digested the gory details. Over a ten-week period beginning in early July, BNP's share price plunged almost 60 percent. Societe Generale's drop was even bigger.

THE FRENCH WAY OUT

August is the traditional quiet month in France, when people take their annual holidays in the country or at the beach. But Bordenave and his team, as well as their counterparts at Societe Generale, were convening conference calls once a day and sometimes more frequently as they kept nervous vigil over the health of their companies.

As private entities, the banks were just two decades old. Back in 1945, following the end of the Second World War, four of the France's biggest commercial banks were nationalized as part of plans for national reconstruction. BNCI and CNEP - later merged into BNP, a forerunner of today's BNP Paribas - were taken into state hands alongside Credit Lyonnais and Societe Generale.

Until the 1980s, the firms were run according to the interests of the state. Then in 1987, Societe Generale became the first bank to be privatized. BNP followed suit in 1993. Unleashed from government reins, both banks embarked on massive expansion plans; and by 2011, they were two of the largest financial institutions in Europe.

In the US, the two had created vast trading and corporate lending franchises from their New York offices in Midtown Manhattan, and they were increasingly important players.

But without a substantial retail presence in the country - BNP Paribas owned a mid-sized bank focused on California and the Midwest, while SG had no serious US retail operations there - a large chunk of the banks' US operations and dollar funding came from capital and money markets. And a great deal of that came in the form of cheaper, short-term borrowings.

With the re-escalation of the eurozone crisis and the Greek PSI deal, what once had been a steady source of dollars dried up. As the months passed, the banks found it more and more difficult to find the dollars they needed to survive. Both quickly put into place crisis measures.

SG put in place a program to cut its dollar needs. First, it sold out of a large part of its market positions - an inventory of equity, credit and commodity instruments. It also tapped private credit lines from some US banks willing to lend money at high rates against certain collateral, and put in swap lines to convert euros into dollars.

As markets got wind of what was happening in early August, however, chaos ensued. Share prices fell through the floor. At one point, UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday published an article - which was later proven untrue and was retracted by the paper - alleging that SG was on the brink of collapse.

BNP Paribas hadn't been fingered in the story, but it was taking many of the same steps that its rival was following. The bank decided to reduce many of its market positions. Hedges once done through physical shares or bonds were sold off, and derivatives put in place instead so as to consume less cash. The bank lost $100 billion of funding in six months, more than half of which was from money markets.

"We had calls from both investors and clients because they were reading such negative things in the press," said Bordenave. "We have always been a well-capitalized bank. But when you are confronted with that kind of perception crisis, you have to do everything you can to address market concerns, while continuing to manage the bank with a long-term view. It was a challenging period."

Analysts and talking heads alike insisted that both banks needed to raise fresh capital. But that would have been difficult. Share prices had dropped so much that raising the capital needed to appease the markets - if they could even sell the shares - would mean a massive dilution for current shareholders.

Instead, both banks held out, gradually selling out of assets in order to reduce their dollar needs. Societe Generale, which had $100 billion of liquidity needs in June, decided to cut that in half. BNP Paribas said it would cut $60 billion by the end of the year, the equivalent of its entire US dollar short-term funding needs. The cuts were big, and fast.

The plan worked. The two banks had faced a run on their funding, and survived. Nevertheless, funding markets across Europe remained shut and, as summer turned to autumn, attention started to focus on the 650 billion euros that would be coming due in 2012.

"Only later in the autumn was the contagion between sovereigns and bank credit completely understood," recalled the ECB's Coeure. "There were worries about refinancing needs for 2012, both at the bank and sovereign level. The perception was that there was a risk of a disruptive sequence of events which could have triggered a severe credit crunch in the euro area."

LTRO TO THE RESCUE

When new ECB chief Mario Draghi announced the two three-year loan injections into the banking system that had first been sketched out in the London meeting, many bankers failed to appreciate the importance of the decision. The LTROs, unlimited in size, would provide banks with the funds they needed to pay maturing debt - and more. The two long-term operations would end up pumping more than one trillion euros into banks.

It took some time for bankers across the continent to realize that they had just, somewhat miraculously, been saved. Banks could borrow as much as they liked, so long as they had the collateral - rules for which were being constantly relaxed. The systemic collapse that some had feared was to be averted. Some banks, looking at all the ECB's available easy money, even borrowed more than they needed, and reinvested the excess funds into government bonds, which in some cases were yielding record highs. Perhaps they didn't see the irony. By the middle of March, Italian 10-year bonds - which had yielded 7.5 percent in November, before the LTRO - were back down to 4.8 percent. Spanish yields dropped two percentage points.

The immediate meltdown had been skirted. Years from now the ECB may be able to claim credit for having averted the biggest banking crisis in living memory. Even so, the stresses in the banking system persist. Deposits at the ECB have continued to climb, reaching a record 770 billion euros in April - more than 30 times their level a year ago. Many European banks remain unable to tap markets and issue new debt, making them more dependent than ever on the willingness of central banks to keep lending to them. And perhaps most troubling of all, the bank-sovereign dynamic that pushed the system to the brink of disaster continues to be as potent a menace as ever. Although cross-border holdings have declined, banks still hold hundreds of billions in debt from sovereigns that could at some point resort to PSI - or even go into default. Privately, bankers say they are still very worried about what lies ahead.

"The euro project and the ensuing crisis have strengthened the relationship between banks and their governments," said one financial institutions banker. "They need each other." But governments have their hands tied - government debt cannot be quickly reduced without inflicting immense pain on the banks, and banks' exposure to sovereigns cannot be solved without removing a huge source of funding for governments. As the Greek PSI demonstrated, their fates are intertwined.

Escalating concerns about Greece leaving the euro - and about the possibility that Spain, too, may need a bailout - have increased the urgency of the situation. Central bankers need to find a way to break the bank-sovereign loop. One possible solution is to create a resolution mechanism for ailing banks that doesn't impose liabilities on the government.

"Banks shouldn't reassess holding government bonds," said Coeure. "What is very important is that changes to liquidity rules don't create a regulatory bias against holding domestic government bonds. We have to find ways to avoid that expected support when a bank is in difficulty is perceived as adding to the liabilities of governments. Banks should not be off-balance sheet liabilities of governments."

The one trillion euro LTRO has bought central bankers some time. But how much?

(For more IFR capital markets news and commentary, go to www.ifre.com)

(gareth.gore@thomonsreuters.com)

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Comments (1)
Willvp wrote:
Link between banks and politicians.

Both super rich.

None in jail.

May 17, 2012 11:04am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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