Americans generally think of Europe first as a wonderful place to visit. They rarely ponder the economic and financial ties between the United States and European Union, but in fact these ties are extensive and significant to the stability of both economies. One area of particular connection involves the large banks and companies that provide services on both sides of the Atlantic. It is this area of commercial finance that risks are actually growing to the United States—in large part due to political gridlock in Europe stemming from the 2008 financial crisis.
Credit market professionals have been aware of problems among the European banks for many years.Their lack of profitability, combined with high credit losses and a lack of transparency have created a minefield for global investors going back decades. Whereas the United States has a bankruptcy court system to protect investors, in Europe the process of resolving insolvency is an opaque muddle that leans heavily in favor of corporate debtors and their political sponsors.
When we talk about true mediocrity among European banks, one of the leading example are, surprisingly, German institutions. Germany, after all, has a reputation for being the economic leader of Europe and a global industrial power, thus the continued failures in the financial sector are truly remarkable.
The biggest example, Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank, has had problems with capital and profitability going back decades.
But Deutsche Banks’s problems are not unique.
What is troubling and indeed significant for American policy makers, however, is the nearly complete failure of our friends in Europe to address their banking sector, either in terms of cleaning up bad assets or raising capital to enable the cleanup.
One of the political understandings that came out of the Basel III process (a regulatory regime first introduced in 2013 to promote stability in the international financial system) was that the United States would take a harder view on mortgage related exposures and particularly intangible assets like mortgage servicing rights. The Europeans, it is said by participants, agreed to take a tougher line on bad assets loitering inside banks and to particularly require banks to take a reserve against bad credits immediately.
Prior to 2018, when the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, directed EU banks to start recognizing bad credits, international accounting rules essentially allowed EU banks to ignore bad credits. Indeed, EU banks could pretend that loan payments were still being received. Loans that defaulted prior to 2018 were not included in the directive. Thus Europe has a decade of detritus sitting in the loan portfolios of many banks that is neither disclosed nor properly valued. Whereas in the United States banks must charge-off bad assets down to some expected recovery value, in Europe we extend and pretend.
Many observers were surprised several years ago when Chinese airline conglomerate HNA arrived on the scene as the new shareholder of Deutsche Bank, a significant global investment bank that provides a range of services in the United States. The German lender had been marketing an offering of new equity shares for years without luck, thus the arrival of the high-flying and highly-leveraged HNA was greeted with quiet gratitude in European capitals. No European politician wants to be caught dead talking about large banks in anything but the most responsible tones, thus nobody asked any questions about HNA or its owners.
Sadly the HNA equity investment in Deutsche Bank was financed with a lot of debt. When the Chinese firm started to literally implode two years ago due to massive debt payments on its $40 billion in obligations, it began to sell its shares in Deutsche Bank, creating the latest crisis for the chronically underperforming bank. Today HNA is being liquidated under the supervision of the Chinese government. And to this day, nobody among United States or European bank regulators really knows who owns the company that was briefly the largest shareholder of Deutsche Bank
The setback with HNA led to discussions of merging Deutsche Bank with Germany’s Commerbank, another poor performer among the country’s banking sector. Again, German politicians led by Chancellor Angela Merkel refuse to even hint at public assistance for Deutsche Bank, but the mounting troubles with banks across Europe may force Merkel’s hand as it has in Italy.
Bank earnings in Europe are weak, notes veteran bank consultant Mayra Rodriguez Valladares. As she exlains in a recent Forbes column:
Unfortunately, many of European banks’ woes are of their own making. A host of regulatory and legal fines and ongoing money laundering investigations of several banks do not bode well for European earnings. According to a Moody’s Investors Services report: ‘European banks were fined over $16 billion from 2012 to 2018 related to money laundering and trade sanction breaches.’
Rodriguez Valladares notes that U.S. and EU banks are enormously intertwined, particularly in terms of funding and derivatives—two areas of keen interest to U.S. regulators. But the fact of the matter is that the EU banking system and the EU economy are still too weak to shoulder the burden of a general cleanup of bad credits in EU banks.
The economic reality and ugly politics are both too daunting for EU leaders to engage publicly on these issues. Indeed, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholtz, who is touted as a possible successor to Merkel, was attacked by opposition politicians because of the prospective job losses in a Deutsche-Commerzbank merger.
But sadly the union of two zombie banks was not to be. “Banking giant Deutsche Bank and its crosstown rival Commerzbank ended merger talks, leaving in tatters the German government’s hope to shore up both banks and create a banking powerhouse,” The Wall Street Journal reported on April 25.
So now the German government must try to identify another politically expedient way to hide the Deutsche Bank problem without resorting to an explicit state bailout. Not only is financial help for EU banks problematic politically, but the EU simply lacks the economic resources to clean up the broader asset quality problems affecting European banks.
The tendency of EU politicians to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to these issues represents a smoldering threat to global financial stability. Troubles affecting Deutsche Bank and other EU lenders could easily explode into financial contagion if markets decide to turn away from these banks à la Lehman Brothers. For American business leaders and political leaders, the festering problems in European banks are a source of potential risk that could cause significant economic problems for all of us. Stay tuned.