The Phaserl


European Banks and Europe’s Never-Ending Crisis

by Pater Tenebrarum, Acting Man:

Landfall of a “Told You So” Moment…

Late last year and early this year, we wrote extensively about the problems we thought were coming down the pike for European banks. Very little attention was paid to the topic at the time, but we felt it was a typical example of a “gray swan” – a problem everybody knows about on some level, but naively thinks won’t erupt if only it is studiously ignored. This actually worked for a while, but as Clouseau would say: “Not anymeure!”

Readers may want to check these previous missives out, which provide a lot of background information and color (in chronological order: “Insolvent Zombies”, “Drowning in Bad Loans” and “The Walking Dead: Something is Rotten in the Banking System”). What is happening now is therefore a “told you so” moment, because, well… we told you so. 🙂

Following the “Brexit” vote, market participants have begun to focus their attention on what we thought they would focus it on: namely on the risks posed by continental Europe. Perversely, the mainstream press on the continent is brim-full with lamentations describing in lurid prose what an unmitigated catastrophe leaving the EU will be for the United Kingdom! (as we promised, we will write about this in more detail soon – it is truly funny to watch). In reality, the UK has left what increasingly looks like a sinking ship.

One bank that did get its share of unwelcome media attention was Europe’s biggest zombie, Deutsche Bank. Its share price has continued to tumble relentlessly, for no immediately obvious reasons. In a way this is faintly reminiscent of Creditanstalt in 1931 – in the sense that Deutsche’s position in the European banking system of today is of roughly similar importance as Creditanstalt’s was back then. This is mainly due to its extremely large derivatives positions, which make it a lynchpin in a vast web of contractual obligations – it is so to speak the mother of all counterparties.

We would however argue that while this is indeed a bit worrisome, the real danger clearly comes from elsewhere. Deutsche Bank is after all headquartered in Germany, and its domestic market is strong. In fact, the real danger is still right where it always was: in Italy and Spain – and to a slightly lesser extent in Greece as well.

Italian banks are sitting on €360 billion in non-performing loans – including, so we are told, loans of the “extend & pretend” variety. Just one day after the Brexit vote, the ECB’s TLTRO II operation took place. Almost €400 billion were lent to euro area banks at negative interest rates. The banks also paid the bulk of the less generous TLTRO I loans back, leaving net new TLTRO additions at about €31 billion. Most of the new TLTRO II loans were taken up – you guessed it – by Italian and Spanish banks (details at Bloomberg).

TLTRO -II: the ECB is subsidizing European banks by offering them fresh funds at negative interest rates, under the condition that they engage in the very thing that has produced the crisis in the first place: more credit expansion ex nihilo! The biggest borrowers are the very banks that are drowning in bad loans.

Add to that approx. €25 billion or so in QE since the Brexit, and a €150 billion liquidity guarantee for Italian banks approved by the EU commission on June 30, and you would think that maybe there would at least be some short-covering in European bank stocks. Not so:

Euro-Stoxx bank index, daily. The index is back at its 2012 crisis lows. Massive new liquidity injections and short selling bans have had zero effect – bank stocks just continue to crumble. Here is a long term view of the index that shows both the boom and the bust – and also illustrates that the sector is now precariously poised at a last ditch support level.

A Legal Dance on Eggshells

As we have pointed out in our previous missives, the EU has at least tried to do something to prevent tax payers from having to involuntarily fund future bank bailouts. Instead, investors and depositors are supposed to shoulder some risk. Given that there is no way the EU will return to honest money and a free market in banking, this is a kind of “second-best solution”, i.e., it is better than nothing.

The problem is however that fractional reserve banking remains a fraudulent practice. Leaving aside the central bank backstop for a moment, let us consider a simple example: Anna pays 100,000 euro into her bank account, as a demand deposit. The next day, the bank creates a deposit of 90,000 euro in favor of Tony as a loan (we are assuming a 10% reserve requirement – in reality it is just 1% in euro-land!). Tony immediately pays the money into Richard’s current account, to pay for a rickety second-hand sailboat allegedly moored in Malta somewhere.

Now the account slip of Anna says: “You can have 100,000 euro on demand” (i.e., anytime). Richard’s account slip says “you can have 90,000 euro on demand”. Tony meanwhile owes the bank €90,000 – but he obviously doesn’t have the money at the moment. Neither does the bank have it. No-one paid in 90,000 euro in additional deposits.

If Anna and Richard both come in to withdraw their €190,000, they will find that only €100,000 are actually there. So now two people apparently have a perfectly valid legal claim on the same money. The bank never told Anna “we’re going to lend your money out the next day, and actually, it’s not going to be available on demand, not really, anyway. Only under certain circumstances”. In other words, Anna’s money has been misappropriated. This, in short, is fraud. At least it is when anyone else but a bank does it.

So while the EU’s Bank Resolution and Recovery Directive (BRRD) at least restores some degree of normalcy by prohibiting willy-nilly bank bailouts, there is a bit of a problem when it comes to “bailing in” depositors – because their deposits are largely fictitious, something they are as a rule not even aware of.

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