Opinion

Euro area banks remain vulnerable

Strengthening the banking system is important to achieve a sustainable recovery, because it will revitalise credit to the healthier segments of the economy. However without restructuring, euro area banks are still vulnerable.

By: , and Date: August 21, 2015 Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation

This article was also published in Expansion, Il Sole 24 Ore, Kathemerini, Handelsblatt, and will be published in Diario Economico.                                       Expansion logoIl Sole logoKathemerinihandelsblatt logodiario economico logo

The euro area’s biggest banks have reported record profits. The stress tests published by the European Central Bank late last year showed that the largest banks—those with assets of more than €500 billion—have been able to cut their non-performing exposures and increase their provisions. But the euro area banking system is not out of the woods. The vulnerabilities lie in the small and medium-sized banks, those with assets below €500 billion. Together these banks own 50% of the euro area banking system assets.

In our research, based on 130 euro area banks directly supervised by the ECB, we find that banks are often superficially well capitalized—their regulatory capital ratios and even their equity capital looks reasonable. Only one in ten small banks has equity less than 3% of its assets; one in six medium-sized banks has an equity/asset ratio below 3%. But banks are vulnerable either because they have a high share of non-performing loans or they have insufficient resources to cover for possible losses on the non-performing loans. This is a widespread problem but one that is especially acute in the countries that have faced high stress since the start of the crisis.

To identify the troubled banks, we asked a crude but simple question. If 65% of non-performing loans have to be written down, how many banks would still have equity that is at least 3% of the bank’s assets? The answer, we find, is that about a third of small banks, with almost 40% of small-bank assets, would fall below the 3% equity threshold. Medium-sized banks would face similarly extensive stress. By comparison, only one of the euro-area’s 13 “large” banks would be considered stressed under our enhanced stress test.

Corroboration for our findings comes from bank share prices. While the stock prices of all banks are still well below their pre-crisis peaks, the small and medium-sized banks that we identify to be stressed have had particularly weak performance. Even this understates the problem since many of the most stressed banks are unlisted. If our scenario were to unfold, the stressed assets of the small and medium banks would add up to about €3.6 trillion, about 38% of small and medium bank assets—and 16% of entire euro-area banking system assets.

 

Evolution of banks’ stock market prices
20150821 banking vulnerability

Source: Bruegel using data from Thomson Reuters Datastream. Note: Number of listed banks: 45 (23 Small, 12 Medium, 10 Large).

 

The troubled banks tend to serve a narrow range of geographically concentrated customers. As the local economy suffers, so do the banks, which, in turn, further hurts local economic prospects. This vicious cycle keeps non-performing loans high—and growing. But despite such localization, their stock price movements were highly synchronized in the early phase of the crisis, as if there were contributing to the broader systemic tensions. In other words, at moments of panic, they add to the panic well beyond the communities they serve.

For dealing with banking vulnerabilities, European policymakers seem wedded to a single response: to pump more capital into the banks. Even after the ECB’s latest asset quality review and stress tests, the entire focus was on how much more capital the banking system needed. Indeed, critics focused mainly on whether the official estimates for recapitalization were too low.

We also believe in well-capitalized banks—with the focus on equity rather than on fuzzy regulatory capital. But the real problem in Europe is that the banks in trouble have had long-standing governance problems. Often they are either government-owned or have links to the government. They have long been the source of patronage and unhealthy lending practices. Even if the new supervisory system helps clean up some of these past pathologies, the question still must be asked: what economic purpose do these banks serve? The continuing problems in Europe’s smaller banks are sending a message: Europe has a problem of overbanking.

The bottom line is that the euro-area’s banking sector needs pruning. In the United States, hundreds of banks have been closed or merged since the start of the crisis—the bulk of such action was taken quickly so that the problems would not fester. In the euro area, after much effort, the authority to resolve banks has now been standardized across the member states. Yet, there has been little action. Despite rules to impose losses on banks’ owners and creditors, there remains a reluctance to do so.

It is well past time to aggressively restructure, consolidate and close the weakest euro area banks. Failure to do so will act as a drag on economic recovery, much as it did in Japan.

 


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Providing funding in resolution: Unfinished business even after Eurogroup agreement on EMU reform

The recent Eurogroup agreement on euro-area reform foresees a greater role for the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) as a backstop to the banking union. This is a welcome step forward but important issues remain. We assess the agreement on how to fund banks after resolution and the best way to organise the fiscal role in liquidity provisioning to banks. We argue that the bank resolution framework will remain incomplete and its gaps could result in important financial instabilities.

By: Maria Demertzis and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 7, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

ECB’s huge forecasting errors undermine credibility of current forecasts

In the past five years ECB forecasts have proven to be systematically incorrect: core inflation remained broadly stable at 1% despite the stubbornly predicted increase, while the unemployment rate fell faster than predicted. Such forecast errors, which are also inconsistent with each other, raise serious doubts about the reliability of the ECB’s current forecast of accelerating core inflation and necessitates a reflection on the inflation aim of the ECB.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 6, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

The international role of the euro

The authors assess whether the euro area should pursue a greater international role for the euro, as outlined by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and how it might go about doing so.

By: Konstantinos Efstathiou and Francesco Papadia Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 3, 2018
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Green central banking

A few weeks ago, Silvia Merler discussed the rise of “ethical investing”. A related question emerging from the discussion is whether central banks should also “go green”. Silvia reviews the latest developments and opinions on this topic.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Energy & Climate, Finance & Financial Regulation Date: December 3, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

What the "gilets jaunes" movement tells us about environment and climate policies

Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann write on the climate governance lesson European governments should learn from the "gilets jaunes" experience.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: November 30, 2018
Read article Download PDF

External Publication

European Parliament

How to provide liquidity to banks after resolution in Europe’s banking union

Banks deemed to be failing or likely to fail in the banking union are either put into insolvency/liquidation or enter a resolution scheme to protect the public interest. After resolution but before full market confidence is restored, the liquidity needs of resolved banks might exceed what can be met through regular monetary policy operations or emergency liquidity assistance. All liquidity needs that emerge must be met for resolution to be a success. In the euro area, this can only be done credibly for systemically important banks by the central bank.

By: Maria Demertzis, Inês Goncalves Raposo, Pia Hüttl and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, European Parliament, Testimonies Date: November 22, 2018
Read article Download PDF

Policy Contribution

European Parliament

A monetary policy framework for the European Central Bank to deal with uncertainty

In this Policy Contribution prepared for the European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) as an input to the Monetary Dialogue, the authors review the emerging challenges to central banks, and propose an updated definition of price stability and an adequately refined monetary policy framework.

By: Grégory Claeys, Maria Demertzis and Jan Mazza Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, European Parliament, Testimonies Date: November 22, 2018
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

European Banking Supervision: the past five years and prospects for the future

This event will look back at the first five years of the Single Supervisory Mechanism.

Speakers: Danièle Nouy and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: November 20, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Euro-area sovereign bond holdings: An update on the impact of quantitative easing

Since the European Central Bank’s announcement of its quantitative easing (QE) programme in January 2015, national central banks have been buying government and national agency bonds. In this post the authors look at the effect of QE on sectoral holdings of government bonds, updating the calculations published initially in May 2016.

By: Michael Baltensperger and Bowen Call Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 20, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

Euro area reform: An anatomy of the debate

A year ago, a group of 14 French and German economists joined forces with the aim of forging common proposals for euro area reforms. Their report gave rise to a lively discussion among officials and academics. This Policy Insight summarises the group's proposals and also addresses some of the points raised in a subsequent VoxEU.org debate on the topic.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 5, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Deep Focus: How to improve anti-money laundering efforts in Europe

In this episode, Bruegel senior fellow Nicolas Véron joins Sean Gibson to discuss the recent Policy Contribution on how to better the European Union anti-money laundering (AML) regime, a paper he has co-written with Joshua Kirschenbaum.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 30, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Policy Contribution

A better European Union architecture to fight money laundering

A series of banking scandals in multiple EU countries has underlined the shortcomings of Europe's anti-money laundering regime. The impact of these shortcomings has been further underlined by changing geopolitics and by the new reality of European banking union. The imperative of establishing sound supervisory incentives to fight illicit finance effectively demands a stronger EU-level role in anti-money laundering supervision. The authors here detail their plan for a new European unitary architecture, centred on a new European anti-money laundering authority that would work on the basis of deep relationships with national authorities.

By: Joshua Kirschenbaum and Nicolas Véron Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 25, 2018
Load more posts