EU's 2018 bank stress test too mild, spared weaker states: auditors

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Last year’s European Union bank stress test did not appropriately reflect systemic risks, EU auditors said on Wednesday, a shortfall that may have produced misleading results for some lenders, especially those in weaker states.

The European Banking Authority (EBA) found that none of the 48 banks it tested last year failed a major capital threshold, in what was seen as a positive outcome for the bloc’s banking system which is still recovering from a decade-long financial crisis.

But the European Court of Auditors, which is responsible for evaluating EU policies, said in a report on Wednesday that the EBA may have been too soft in assessing banks’ health, raising concerns about the way lenders’ risks are monitored by EU supervisors.

In response to the auditors’ findings, the EBA defended its risk-assessment methods but said it would reconsider how it selected banks to take part in future tests, with the next due in 2020.

The auditors said last year’s test was based on scenarios that were less serious than the 2008 financial crisis and was also milder for countries with weaker economies.

“The 2018 stress test imposed less severe adverse scenarios in countries with weaker economies and more vulnerable financial systems,” the report said.

“For this reason, the low impact on certain banks may have been due not to their better health, but rather to a lower stress level being applied,” the auditors said.

The 2018 stress test, the fourth conducted by the EU banking watchdog, nearly halved the number of checked banks from 90 in the first exercise in 2011, the auditors said, warning that this led to the exclusion of some vulnerable lenders.

At the time of the test the head of EBA was Italy’s Andrea Enria, who is now in charge of the banking supervision unit of the European Central Bank.

Many smaller banks were spared from the 2018 stress test and only those in 15 of the 28 EU countries were assessed, the auditors pointed out.

In replies included in the auditors’ report, the EBA said it would reconsider its geographical coverage and partially accepted the auditors’ recommendation to select banks on the basis of their risk rather than size.

The auditors recommended banks be checked against a wider range of systemic risks, but the EBA said its test “cannot cover all systemic risks, but focuses on the most important ones”.

The auditors’ report also warned against the EBA’s excessive reliance on national supervisors, although it noted that was mostly caused by the limited staff at disposal of the EU watchdog.

This resulted in national perspectives prevailing over EU-wide interests, the auditors said.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Kirsten Donovan