Saturday, August 27, 2011

Uncertainty and European Bank Risks

The stress of the global financial crisis continue to haunt European banks as the economy continues to slow and bond vigilantes target sovereign debt of countries (such as the countries of the eurozone) who do not have their own fiat money.  The emergency lending facilities of the ECB have become more important for many European banks. On last Monday, banks deposited 128.7 billion euro with the ECB and borrowed 555 million euro overnight from the ECB Marginal Lending Facility, which was up from 90 million the prior day.  As Greek default becomes more inevitable and other eurozone countries struggle with sovereign debt financing, the interbank lending market has shown increasing stress as the skepticism about bank liquidity throughout Europe grows.  On Tuesday, European banks borrowed 2.82 billion euro overnight from the ECB, despite the stigma attached to the Marginal Lending Facility.

As the result of increasingly perceived risk by investors, European banks will pay more for the $100 billion of cash they need to raise by the end of the year.  Banks are hoarding cash, depositing it with the ECB, rather than lend it to other banks as political leaders squabble and preach deficit reduction which will only slow the economy faster.  Credit Agricol, with significant Greek exposure, posted profits which beat forecasts and felt compelled to complain about unjustified market irrationality and volatility.  A Bundesbank board member stressed in public comments that recent dollar money market tensions were far from the 2008 crisis levels and European banks are not facing a funding crisis as the result of U.S. money market funds becoming more selective to whom they lend.  The Bundesbank board member emphasized the liquidity available through repos and the ECB's readiness to mitigate problems with the swap agreement with the Fed. On Thursday, the Greek central bank (Bank of Greece) announced it had activated an Emergency Liquidity Assistance program to insure liquidity funding and all small, medium, and large Greek banks, except the National Bank of Greece, have indicated they will participate.  A Fitch survey of U.S. money funds showed a 9% decreased exposure to Europe last month and significant caution with respect to Italy and Spain.  Bankers have estimated that Italy lost $40 billion worth of money market funding in July.  While these figures are miniscule compared to the 8000 billion euro funding of the 91 eurozone banks, it does show the true state and reliance of eurozone banks on short term funding with some 58% of that funding needing to rolled over in two years and 47% in less than one year, but the official line is that there is nothing really wrong with the eurozone banks.

Today, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, in a speech at Jackson Hole, said that European banks may need urgent forced capital injections to stem the eurozone's sovereign and financial crisis as they must be strong enough, in her words, to withstand the risks of sovereigns and weak growth.  She indicated that while private funding should be the priority, public funding, perhaps through the EFSF, should be ready.  She emphasized the IMF's change from immediate fiscal tightening to fiscal programs which allow spending to continue now while economies stay weak and reduce deficits over the long term.  This speech occurred at the same time as the second and third largest Greek banks announced an all share merger to be followed with a 500 million euro capital injection.

This IMF changed emphasis which acknowledges the need for public spending to feed growth during periods of declining aggregate demand is a refreshing change from the 1997 austerity mistake the IMF imposed on Japan which stifled growth.  Eurozone banks will remain key indicators in a global economy which is slowing down and economic contraction which eurozone austerity has accelerated.

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