Ian Pye wrote this article. Ian is an independent economic and geopolitical researcher as well as a strategic planning and business development advisor. His articles and analyses on international affairs, economic trends and cultural topics have been published in various mainstream and alternative press sources. Mr. Ian’s wider intellectual interests are reflected in his writings on the convergence of foreign affairs, political philosophy, history, global finance and energy policy. He has undergraduate degrees in economics and political science from the University of California and a Master’s degree in finance from Cambridge University.
Ian Pye is an independent economic and geopolitical researcher as well as a strategic planning and business development advisor. His articles and analyses on international affairs, economic trends and cultural topics have been published in various mainstream and alternative press sources. Ian’s wider intellectual interests are reflected in his writings on the convergence of foreign affairs, political philosophy, history, global finance and energy policy. He has undergraduate degrees in economics and political science from the University of California and a Master’s degree in finance from Cambridge University.
The 2007 – 2009 Financial Crisis was not a one-off historical event, and it was most certainly global in scope. Yet the means deployed to quell and contain it by the world’s central and private banks, as well as their corresponding governments and other regulatory bodies, ultimately served to kick fiscal and monetary cans down the road. Various central bank balance sheets ballooned to unprecedented debt levels, foremost being the books of the US Federal Reserve, which saw its balance sheet climb from $869 billion to over $4.5 trillion in a decade of both treating, and preventing a reprise of, said crisis.
Yet, the problems that led to the first crisis are still latent – and threaten at clearly larger scales – within the world economy. So, when and how would the ‘second leg’, as it were, of this extended global deflationary cycle commence? What event(s) would trigger it, and could said event(s) be prudently forecast, let alone prevented?
European Banking Contagion
Four European banks have failed over the past eight months alone, giving strong indications that another 2007 corrective brink may be at hand. These institutions were Banco Popular of Spain, and three Italian banks - Monte dei Paschi di Siena(MPS), Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare di Vicenza. Popular was taken over by rival Spanish Banco Santander with help from the EU, MPS was taken over by the Italian government in a state recapitalization, and the latter two banks were also assumed by Rome in order to split their “good” versus “bad” assets and liabilities between Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s largest bank, and the Italian state, respectively.
Notedly, no state aid was provided to Banco Popular in its sale to Santander. Popular apparently had financial books in better shape than did MPS upon its takeover. Per analyst Don Quijones , “[i]n fact, if anything, Popular had a better problem loan ratio on its balance sheet than MPS. While the Spanish entity was ‘resolved’ through the cancellation and redemption of its convertible and subordinated shares and bonds, MPS was recapitalized with government money.”
Private versus public economic priorities evidently become lucid through such desperate cleanup exercises, among other items.
Intesa bought the “good bank” assets of both latter failed banks while the “bad bank” assets, including non-performing loans (NPLs), subordinated bonds and non-functional legal arrangements were bought by the Italian state, which will pass the costs onto taxpayers, as per the advice of Rothschild Bank, advisor to the Italian Treasury. Italian citizens will bear the €5bn - €6bn arrived at immediate cost of these twin bailouts, on top of their lost savings. Senior bondholders received protection by Rome whereas junior creditors and the banks’ shareholders lost their shirts via this “rescue”.
In what has come to be fairly predictable denial behavior, merely weeks before the Veneto and Vicenza seizures, and per finance analyst and writer Wolf Richter, “Italy’s Minister of Economy Pier Carlo Padoan insisted that the two banks would not be wound down. Last year, to dispel the mountain of evidence to the contrary, he insisted that that there would be no need of any future bail outs; and that, furthermore, Italy did not even have a banking problem.” Said denials officially precede what they deny could or will happen, yet which then often do, and this latest theater is thus seemingly no different from denials floated prior to the worst of 2008’s failures.
Public Outrage, Private Blessings
The use of taxpayer money for the Veneto and Vicenza bailouts went against provisions established by the European Commission and European Central Bank (ECB), ultimately revealing the frantic stakes reached in conducting such emergency measures, despite lack of admissions from banking and government officials. These bailouts sidestepped a 2016 EU law involving the need for the specially designated Single Resolution Board to coordinate matters.
Yet said board, taking the lead from the ECB, “decided that resolution of the banks under the new EU rules was ‘not warranted in the public interest’”. There were political reasons for handling the twin banks’ bailouts with such haste but also presumably reasons involving the need for averting systemic fiscal risks spiking. The former reasons tend to be emphasized in the mainstream corporate press; the latter, not so much.
Despite established EU protocols for handling distressed banks and public objections raised by EU bureaucrats over these twin Italian bailouts, signals here point toward tacit blessings having been given by the EU and ECB because “Italy was able to argue there was regional economic risk from the failure of two important regional lenders.” Confidence would’ve suffered dramatically, and the two lenders had failed to raise private capital as prescribed since the beginning of 2017. By contrast, Santander raised some €7bn to fund Popular’s takeover.
Warning in early June of the potential for a systemic crisis, the Italian Economy Undersecretary Pierpaolo Baretta stated that, the “collapse of two regional banks in Italy's Veneto region [would’ve triggered] a systemic crisis [that’d have] risked dragging down the whole domestic economy.” Brussels got out of the way of timber falling, and especially by avoiding their prescribed “bail-in”[i]procedures, which would’ve caused outright public panic in said instances. Per US based geopolitical analyst George Friedman, the bail-in is a formula for bank runs. Rome wants to make sure depositors don’t lose their deposits. A run on the banks would guarantee a meltdown …The bail-in rule exists because Berlin doesn't want to bail out banking systems using German money.
Additionally, and as per Analyst Don Quinones, the Italian government decided to commit €17 billion in taxpayer funds to bail out senior bondholders and depositors. This includes a €5 billion capital injection for Intesa, which is getting the good assets and liabilities, such as deposits. The €5 billion is to protect Intesa against losses from those assets. Prohibited “state aid” under EU rules? No problem. It has now been cleared by the EU Commission. [emphasis added]
This is all a mere hint of what’s expected to come further, both in Italy as well as other plagued EU economies. Why? For one, monstrously unprecedented levels of public and private continental debt.
How ‘Systemic’ Could It Get?
The twin Venetian bank failures are consistently portrayed as small and thus relatively insignificant events. This is judged based on the collective €60bn price tag of bailing them out - certainly not a loss figure to sneeze at - yet that nonetheless is indeed modest by comparison to Italy’s wider economy, which retains a nearly $2tn GDP. Still, said summary ignores the systemic basis of risks which sit latent in many institutions due to their derivatives and off balance sheet exposures. Per Economist Francisco Pereira, though “there were disagreements over the prospect of contagion given the small size of the banks, the Italian government, the Commission and some within the ECB clearly felt the risk that it might impact other bank bonds, or even Italian sovereign debt, was still too big and dangerous to ignore.”
As of Fall 2016, the stock index of Italian banks and that of Deutsche Bank (DB) of Germany, which retains over $46+ trillion of gross derivatives risk exposure as well as questions regarding its solvency health, had been “moving in tandem” despite DB and said Italian banks carrying different surface challenges.
I.E. DB doesn’t have the Italians’ NPL problems. And yet, why the correlated graphical movements? Perhaps because DB is also so exposed to Italy that an Italian banking crisis would eventually pose contagion to a multiple size of what happened in 2008?
Per Friedman again, since “Italy is the fourth largest economy in Europe, [hers] is the mother of all systemic threats … [T]he IMF recently said Deutsche Bank is the single largest contributor to systemic risk in the world. A rippling default through Europe will hit Deutsche Bank”, let alone trigger an EU-wide banking crisis which would most certainly spread immediately across the Atlantic.
Relatedly last Fall, the Bank of Italy categorized the nation’s top three banks UniCredit, Intesa Sanpaolo and Monte dei Paschi as “systemically important institutions”. Hence the bailout of MPS, and per Reuters, the categorization of UniCredit as “Italy’s only globally systemically important institution (G-SIFI)”, alongside all three Italian banks also being labelled as “Other Systemically Important Institutions” (O-SII).
What – or better yet, who – could or even would tip the perceptual balance into “crisis mode”? During negotiations for bailing out MPS, not only did JPMorgan walk away, but so did two prominent New York hedge funds – Fortress and Elliott - despite being offered an 80% mark down on MPS’ NPLs, which was clearly not enough to attract and keep such private investors. The government then stepped in. Can it continue to under such continuing perceptual duress and growing lack of confidence?
Wider Banking Consolidation Agenda
As with the 2007 – 2009 Crisis, there is an inevitable, widespread, transatlantic shrinkage expected in the number of banks out there, and not only by acute fiscal necessity, but seemingly by longer term design as well. In such a game, the largest global banks routinely stand to assign, rearrange or outright ‘hoover up’ the assets of ‘expendable’ banks deemed to be culled. In Europe, the “Club Med” or Mediterranean nations’ banks are seemingly more expendable and ripe for consolidation versus, say, German or French mega-banks like BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Deutsche Bank.
Per Analyst Pascal Straeten, the capital of the top EU banks averages 4.5% of total assets (versus 6.6% with the top US banks) […] Two of France’s biggest banking institutions, namely BNP Paribas and Société Générale, have capital of only 4% of total assets as of end 2016 while Deutsche Bank sits at the bottom of the barrel with 3.5% …
Additionally, as always, the northern EU countries are imposing their will onto their southern brothers with middleman the ECB and the EU Commission acting as middlemen. Look at how much austerity is being imposed on the citizens of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy; look at the restructuring measures being imposed on the Spanish and Italian banks, but not too much onto the French or German banks. To illustrate this point, look at the Spanish bank Banco Popular, until recently Spain’s sixth largest banking institution, is no longer alive. Its assets, including a massive portfolio of small-business clients, now belong to Banco Santander, Spain’s biggest bank. The fact that neither German nor French banks have suffered a similar fate is a clear demonstration of the double standard ingrained in the EU’s finance industry.
Per an oddly frank admission within the otherwise City/Wall Street establishment-abiding FT of London,
“Bank consolidation is definitely the hidden agenda at the EU level — they want to move to a US-style model centred around a few larger players,” says a hedge fund manager specialising in bank debt. “The only issue is that this cannot be done without victims: big banks don’t want to buy small banks when they are going concerns,” he adds. [sic]
Who assigns and executes such ‘wash and rinse cycles’, how frequently, and why, ultimately? Is the European Commission itself co-tasked with such bank consolidation duties? “Clearly this [I.E. Deciding the fate of European lenders] is putting way too much power on the European Commission — the European Commission is not supposed to be a resolution authority; it is only supposed to deal with competition,” per this cited head of research at a European investment firm.
Relatedly, JPMorgan was recruited to help save the twin Italian banks but ultimately walked away, and presumably not just for fiscal reasons; said bank is the most powerful in the US, and one of the top five in the world. Hence it will tend to influence wider global banking practices, trends and strategies. The desire for wider EU banking consolidation is palpable as the inevitability of another global financial meltdown nears. JPMorgan recently ordered US domestic consolidation among mid-sized banks, per the Federal Reserve’s imminent (I.E. As early as December 2017) balance sheet shrinkage, which it deems as eventually presenting funding problems for said tiers of banks. This event begged structural and systemic questions over JPMorgan’s relationship with the Fed itself.
How much have the 2008 and imminent global financial crises served, or will serve, for wider, sweeping macro-strategic imperatives and expected ‘debt jubilees’ among the West’s largest banks? For global financial ‘governing bodies’ such as the IMF and Bank for International Settlements? What extensive, longer term international money order is being sought through part and parcel ‘creative destruction’ involving such periodic transcontinental asset consolidations via seemingly nonlinear chaos?
Italian Economy Generally Weak, as is the Wider EU Economy
Said three Italian banks were merely reflective of wider, more disturbing trends in the country’s economy. Italy’s general NPL ratio is close to 14% of its overall banking industry’s loan book, and close to 12% of Italy’s GDP itself as of the end of 2016. Italy
belongs to the EU country group with the highest level of non-performing loans, with an NPL coverage ratio of 49% (as of December 2016), above the 45% EU average. Within such an environment of financial duress, almost any bank failure could send shockwaves through the system, pushing other banks closer to the tipping point.
Italy’s general banking foundation is so fragile, and a viable market for accommodating deteriorated credit so lacking, that it has not been able, per Don Quinones again, “to offload their estimated €360 billion of non-performing loans, many of them with very weak, if any remaining, collateral underpinning them. Yet on average, they are marked at around 50 cents on the euro.”
Per Reuters last Fall, “Italian banks are widely seen as under capitalised and they are struggling under a pile of bad loans left behind by a deep recession that ended in 2013.” [sic]
Macro economically speaking, Italy’s debt to GDP ratio is in excess of a shocking 130%, its national youth unemployment is north of 37%, with overall official unemployment at 11.3% (well over twice official US unemployment) and the labor force participation rate is only at 65%. Deeper public and institutional confidence has been negatively affected because of this reckless finance gamesmanship over the years, only to be followed by such wanton bailing out of banks inevitably buckling under said gamesmanship.
Per Analyst Iakov Frizis, according “to research on Italian bank balance sheets conducted by Mediobanca Research, out of 500 Italian banks, 114 are at risk, exposed to an excessive amount of credit that surmounts the net value of their tangible assets.” These 114 have Texas ratios[ii] north of 100%, “meaning that they don’t have enough capital to cover all the bad stuff on their books.”
Additionally, Intesa Sanpaolo and UniCredit, Italy’s largest banks, have weak general solvency data registered and are clearly reliant upon the broader collective stability of Italy’s overall banking industry. UniCredit is the largest lender yet cannot help in such bailouts because it already has raised €13bn this year for salvaging itself as a going concern.
Genoa-based Banca Carige, Italy’s ninth largest, founded in 1483 and carrying over €26bn in assets, is another problem case, having been told by the ECB to fix its asset quality issues lest it too be culled. Carige has lost over €2bn over the past four years, and although technically in better shape than the previously closed three banks, still faces a third cash call since 2014. It will also face troubles in ridding its books of bad loans, especially as the Italian and wider EU economies sour further. Will Carige require the same controversial treatment by the state which Veneto and Vicenza just received?
It’s a waiting game, due in part to perception management by governments and banks which directly influence them. There’s a tactical delaying factor at work as far as debt handling goes, alongside generally desperate hoping for a rapid turnaround in the Italian economy’s performance. Possibly overly ambitious – even reaching – national economic growth forecast figures have been issued by the IMF and internal organizations. One rosy depiction states that “Confindustria, the Italian employer federation, last week increased its 2018 growth forecast to 1.1 percent from 1.0 percent. But even those forecasts might have been jeopardized had the distressed Venetian banks been left to fester.” Yes, but how did their bailing out necessarily lead to boosted collective consumer – let alone institutional – confidence? Especially as, again, more “zombie banks” litter the Italian financial landscape, waiting to roam at night?
The same source cited above then goes on to provide negative caveats regarding Italy’s weaknesses:
The [GDP] growth numbers are still too low to fully dispel the risk that Italy’s NPL problem will prove an economic drag. And Rome cannot rescue bigger banks the same way; only robust growth of, say, 2 percent to 2.5 percent per year can hope to make a real dent in the NPL problem given the fact that many of the NPL are in obsolete industries like clothing and textiles for which growth is largely irrelevant. Private capital inflow into the banks is still required to finance the write down of these loans which often are carried on the banks’ books at inflated prices.
Note the flippant criticism of “clothing and textiles” (why not lambast the added banalities of the Italian food, olive oil, wine and tourism industries while they’re at it?) as obsolete for “growth”. Because Italy must essentially and effectively mimic German machine manufacturing, exporting, aggressive technology and Anglo-American finance innovation, to truly become a viable “player” alongside other “growth” economies, correct? Because Italy clearly cannot continue to remain, in essence, *Italian*? We’re sure there are drastic emergency pedagogical measures available – via distance learning or otherwise – for getting millions of leisurely Italians to learn how to code within six months…
Per Frizis again, Italy faces a three-pronged national banking problem: A seemingly unresolvable bad loan issue, a housing crisis due to correcting property prices which further threaten collateral sanctities for bank lending, and a dysfunctional, “politicized governance of lending institutions” which holds back collective financial sector performance. Meaning: Bail out all the tepid financial institutions you want, Rome and / or the ECB/EC/EU – you still will not structurally resolve the matters at hand.
What would otherwise push these banks over the cliff? A systemic event triggered foremost by a derivatives meltdown, either within Italy or certainly elsewhere, due to the opaquely defined counterparty relationships between institutions which have traded them, and the wider nature of how derivatives risks go from “net” to “gross” fairly quickly – thus defying prescribed definitions – thereby spreading contagion across borders.
Too Much Global Debt – and thus Risk – As Is
Systemic risk could easily spread from a financially, pandemically plagued Europe to the US, considering that, despite announced governmental figures painting economic indicators as generally healthy, the state of the US economy is much more precarious than advertised.
Per veteran bond king Bill Gross, market risk is at its highest since the pre-2008 Crisis era due to central bank policies for low-and negative-interest rates “artificially driving up asset prices while creating little growth in the real economy and punishing individual savers, banks and insurance companies.”
Very similar sober sentiments are shared by other senior investors, including Paul Singer of the Elliott hedge fund, who very recently admonished investors and the public that
“distorted” monetary and regulatory policies have increased risks for investors almost a decade after the financial crisis.
“I am very concerned about where we are,” Singer said … “What we have today is a global financial system that’s just about as leveraged -- and in many cases more leveraged -- than before 2008, and I don’t think the financial system is more sound.”
The US consumer debt picture isn’t pretty. Per Bloomberg,
In the first quarter , 17 percent of U.S. consumers said they were likely to default on a loan payment over the next year, up from 12 percent in the third quarter, before the election …
The percentage of debt that’s at least 90 days delinquent rose to 3.37 percent in the first quarter, the second consecutive quarterly gain, according to data from the New York Fed. It’s the first time those delinquency figures have risen twice in a row since the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010. About 46 percent of Americans surveyed by the Federal Reserve could not pay a hypothetical $400 emergency expense, or would have to borrow to do so, according to a 2016 report …
Mortgage debt has been growing slowly since 2012. The fastest-growing types of borrowings have been student loans, credit cards and auto debt. For much of this debt, there is either no collateral, like credit card loans, or collateral whose value declines over time, such as cars …
Further, there is little to no wage growth in the US economy, which hampers not just consumption trends but savings and investment. On top of this, consumers are more reliant on credit to make their way. Per Bloomberg again,
Americans faced with lackluster income growth have been financing more of their spending with debt instead. There are early signs that loan burdens are growing unsustainably large for borrowers with lower incomes. Household borrowings have surged to a record $12.73 trillion, and the percentage of debt that is overdue has risen for two consecutive quarters. And with economic optimism having lifted borrowing rates since the election and the Federal Reserve expected to hike further, it’s getting more expensive for borrowers to refinance.
Italy’s banking fiasco can thus easily infect not simply its neighboring EU economies, but thereby rapidly spread across the Atlantic, tipping over North American financial institutions into crisis as well. The dynamics, esoteric or exoteric, involved in such a worst-case scenario must be scrutinized as they are matters of both national and world security. For the serious observer, the tools required for said scrutiny by necessity will extend well beyond surface-level academic and even corporate prescribed tools.
[i] A “Bail-In” involves “rescuing a financial institution on the brink of failure by making its creditors and depositors take a loss on their holdings. A bail-in is the opposite of a bail-out, which involves the rescue of a financial institution by external parties, typically governments using taxpayers’ money. Typically, bail-outs have been far more common than bail-ins, but in recent years after massive bail-outs some governments now require the investors and depositors in the bank to take a loss before taxpayers. Source: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bailin.asp
[ii] “The Texas ratio takes the amount of a bank's non-performing assets and loans, as well as loans delinquent for more than 90 days, and divides this number by the firm's tangible capital equity plus its loan loss reserve. A ratio of more than 100 (or 1:1) is considered a warning sign.” Texas Ratio http://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/texas-ratio.asp#ixzz4mmC7OgNP