Last Updated: Thu Oct 20, 2011 16:18 pm (KSA) 13:18 pm (GMT)

Europe’s coming credit austerity

Angela Merkel and the rest of Europe’s leaders are in a big financial mess. (Photo by Reuters)
Angela Merkel and the rest of Europe’s leaders are in a big financial mess. (Photo by Reuters)

Having demonstrated how poorly austerity worked in Greece, Europe may be on the verge of giving it a try in credit markets.

Plans to rescue the euro zone and its banks might land Europe in an extended credit crunch, a very poor outcome given the continent’s continued heavy reliance on bank financing.

While details are depressingly vague as to the how, plans seem afoot to insist on widespread recapitalization in European banks as part of an overall financial crisis package. The idea, broadly, is that the euro zone will write down Greek debt sufficiently, while establishing a backstop to stop a run on other weak states’ debt and then recapitalize the banks so that they can withstand the losses inherent in the exercise.

The U.S. banking recapitalization of 2009 is widely viewed as the model here, if not in form then in outcome, as U.S. banks are now far better capitalized than their European peers.

There are, at least, two severe problems with this.

Firstly, a look at the U.S. will show that while its banks as independent entities were saved, their ability to play their role in intermediating capital was compromised, at least in part because they were not aggressive enough in writing down doubtful housing-related debts. That’s an important contributing factor in creating a frail, shaky recovery in the U.S., and could easily happen in Europe.

“Markets may also fear adverse unintended consequences; for example, proposals to strengthen bank capital ratios that banks try to meet by accelerating the shrinkage of balance sheets,” George Magnus, senior economic advisor at UBS, wrote in a note to clients.

“This would deepen the euro zone’s growth crisis and make higher capital ratio goals retreat ever further into the distance.”

Europe, like the U.S., is going through a balance-sheet recession. That means everyone is trying to repay debts at the same time, suppressing growth, inflation and asset prices. Government austerity is exacerbating this, but an extended credit crunch as banks try to rebuild balance sheets will only make matters worse.

This is not to say that Europe’s banks don’t need to shrink, as does its sovereign debt. Euro zone plans to save itself seem to have moved from simply trying to restore confidence, an impossibility as a stand-alone plan, to adding capital to the mix. Without addressing the underlying indebtedness this is going to result in either failure or a very extended period of slow growth.

An attempt to shore up banks must come to terms with the other over-indebted borrowers in the euro zone, and not simply the sovereign ones.

Take Spanish house owners, for example, who already face huge difficulties in getting loans to finance real estate purchases. Independent economist Edward Hugh argues that Spain needs a substantial asset writedown program, something that bank recapitalization simply does not address.

One easy-to-foresee risk post a euro zone rescue is that continued weakness in housing in peripheral markets continues to stress bank capital, casting a shadow over funding markets and undermining confidence. Remember, euro zone banks have a loan-to-deposit ratio of about 108 percent, a good 20 percentage points higher than U.S. banks, and only about 10 percent below their own pre-crisis peaks.

A reduction in bank lending in Europe is going to be even more painful than it would be in the U.S. given the euro zone’s less deep and highly developed capital markets. Europe has no Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, yet, to take the strain in housing finance. Middle-sized businesses are still very reliant on bank financing.
In the U.S., the Federal Reserve helped to mitigate the pain of bank recapitalization by creating conditions in financial markets where investors wanted to take on some risk, leading to a booming market in bond issuance for corporate borrowers. Thus far there is no talk of credit easing from the ECB but it would not at all be surprising if this is on the agenda in a year’s time, once the force of bank deleveraging has been felt.

This is not an argument for going easy on banks, their shareholders or their executives. If anything Europe needs to take a harder line – forcing writedowns of debts public and private and being prepared to deal with the consequences.

Those consequences would not be pretty for bank shareholders. Many banks would fail and need to be taken into temporary public administration.

The more controlled default there is as part of the euro zone’s rescue, the better the results will be in two years time.

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