Banking follies in the eurozone

Edward Hugh has a brilliant analysis of recent events in the eurozone and especially how banks are leveraging the liquidity provided by the ECB to "cleanse" their balance sheet of bad assets and essentially exchanging these for freshly minted euro deposits at the ECB. I think we should be very clear what is going on here; this is essentially a covert recapitalisation of the European banking system and the ECB is in every sense of the word acting as a lender of last resort. 

Here is the relevant part;


Another area where the transfer of liquidity doesn’t show up as a change in aggregate excess liquidity is when banks offload their wholesale liabilities to other EuroArea banks and refund via the ECB. Here again, if they do it smartly, they can even earn a bit of “quasi carry” in the process, by buying back their debt at well below face value from those who are anxious to exit the periphery, and then refinancing at the ECB without writing down the underlying asset. This could be termed a liability “write down”, and again the procedure earns the bank a nice bit of income which can subsequently be used to help the recapitalisation process.

Take the Portuguese Bank BPI (the country’s fourth largest), which is making public tender offers to buy back its debt. If all concerned tender their bonds to BPI, BPI will pay something short of  €1.5bn cash to investors. Mortgages which were previously sitting in one of their SPVs will return to their balance sheet, and ECB money will now be on the other side financing them allowing significant profits (and capital) to be reported. In this particular tender the smallest discount is 35% and the largest is 65%. Investors may initially balk at the offer, since they will nurse a heavy loss (equal, naturally, to BPI´s profit) but ultimately they will probably be only too happy to be able to walk away from Portugal, and  with some cash in their pocket to boot.

Iberian banks were already aware of  the benefits of this kind of restructuring during the 2009-2010 liquidity wave, and went about quietly repurchasing their bonds (bank capital, securitizations, senior bonds) on a selective and private basis at a discount. Much of their reported profits in those years in fact came from either the ECB carry trade or this kind of  transaction.  So when we read that another Portuguese bank – Banco Espirito Santo – has just had €1 billion of debt guaranteed by the Portuguese state (a sovereign which can’t itself go to the markets) it isn’t hard to imagine that the process going on in the background is something similar to that seen in the BPI case, and that the debt is being guaranteed so it can  go over to the ECB to be posted as collateral.

The National Bank of Greece has been doing something similar. They recently offered to buy back some €1.5 billion in covered bonds and preferred securities,offering 70% of face value for the covered bonds and 45% for the preferred hybrids. As the bank itself says, “The purpose of the offers is to generate core Tier 1 capital for the group and to strengthen the quality of its capital base….The offers would generate a gain for the group.”

And Italian banks would seem to be doing something similar, since they issued around €40 billion in government backed bonds specifically to take to the ECB. The bonds are held by the banks themselves and stay on their books to maturity, their only purpose being to provide collateral for use at the ECB. In fact Italian banks took something like €116 billion from the LTRO, or almost 25% of the total. Perhaps this is why Unicredit CEO Federico Ghizzoni and other European top bankers met ECB officials in Frankfurt back in November, to discuss new rules for collateral.

In Spain securitised mortgages sitting on the balance sheets of the bank-ownedFondos de Titulizacion de Activos could also be recycled in this way (here’s a complete list, although note that these Funds are regulated by Spain’s CNMV and not the Bank of Spain, which is why their presence is relatively unknown and people are able to accurately say that the central bank has been very strict on SIVs, since they weren’t their responsibility).

That something like this may be happening, with the ECB “buying into” public and private  Euro Periphery debt  while investors are discretely getting out is suggested by this report in Bloomberg:

The euro is losing the relationship with riskier assets that underpinned the currency in 2011 as the deepening sovereign debt crisis reduces the creditworthiness of even the biggest economies in the region. The 17-nation currency has fallen 8.7 percent against the dollar since October, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has gained 3.4 percent, and the correlation between the two dropped to 58 percent from a record 91 percent in November, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The euro had moved almost in lockstep with investments linked to growth, including stocks and the Australian dollar, since January 2011.

This decoupling is taking place as European Central Bank President Mario Draghi cuts interest rates and promises banks unlimited cash for three years to rein in soaring borrowing costs for governments… Strategists also anticipate more losses as the US economy improves while the euro zone shrinks, driving international investors away from the region’s assets.

So if the first two objectives were to help the struggling sovereigns, and enable the commercial banks to refinance their debt, then to some extent these objectives have been met. But what about the third objective, moving credit on the periphery to get the real economy moving again? Well, here the ECB’s measures are likely to have far less effect, and indeed what effect they do have may be in some way a mixed blessing, since the banks seem far more worried about demonstrating they have an adequate level of core capital than they are about participating in solutions to real economy problems.


While I would, in general, be hesitant in taking anything from Zero Hedge at full face value I think the following story on Unicredit adds flavor to this by providing further evidence on the points Edward mentions above. 

The story is clearly speculative but gets backing from Edward's accout above. The following seems to be a part of the general process which in itself is, in my view, absolutely mad.

Banks in weak countries have been issuing debt, getting a government guarantee, and then posting them as collateral at the ECB. There are examples of this for Greek banks for sure, but my understanding is it has also been occurring in Portugal and Ireland. It is the only way banks in Greece (and the other countries) can raise money.

The article then goes on to make this more alarming point (but really does not have evidence to back it up) that it appears that about €40 billion of the first LTRO was done by Italian banks (Unicredit?) that issued bonds to themselves and got a government guarantee, and then posted this asset as collateral for liquidity through the LTRO.

So, here is how I understand it.

Unicredit issues a 3m bill and gets a government guarantee so that whoever chooses to buy this bill knows that it will be backed by the sovereign (after all, this is still better than the bank even if the two are joined by the hip). The only problem is that it is being issued to itself with a permanent guarantee from the government.

From an accounting perspective this must be close to illegal in any meaningfully lawful jurisdiction, but I defer to experts here of course. The issue here is not then that the sovereign is guaranteeing a liability of a bank, we have seen this plenty of times and it is indeed the only way that some financials can issue debt, but rather that the bond never gets marketed to third party buyers. 

It is absolutely astonishing that this 3m bill is then being posted as collaterall at the ECB. But you must understand that it has to be posted as such as far as I can see since you can't hold your own liabilities.  So, the banks posts a bond issued to itself and posts it at the ECB and get freshly minted fresh euros credited to its bank account at the ECB. After the process, Unicredit still has the bond as a liability but instead of the same bond on the asset side (which is impossible) it has a deposit asset with the ECB.

If this is true, and the ECB is agreeing to this I must admit that it amounts to a serious bout of banking follies in the European banking industry.