Category Archives: European banks

1/6/20: COVID19 and European Banking

McKinsey research note on European banks' potential losses due to COVID19 is quite on the money:

With more than 1/3rd of European executives expecting "a muted recovery that would lead to sharp drops in banks’ revenue, a squeeze on their capital, and a hit on return on equity", European banks can expect revenues to drop by 40 percent plus, and ROE drop 11 percentage points in 2021.

And the problems are strategic. COVID19 is actually accelerating changes in customers' demand for services. "McKinsey’s European customer survey shows how customer behavior and needs have changed over the past month: digital engagement levels have climbed up to 20 percent, the use of cash has halved, 30 to 40 percent of customers have expressed a greater need for advice, while 20 to 40 percent want products to help them through the crisis.4 Pension shortfalls are a particular challenge with those close to retirement facing a very immediate problem."

Alas, European banks, especially those operating in the 2008-2014 crises-hit economies, such as Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal, are utterly unprepared for these shifting trends. I wrote about these problems in a series of two article for The Currency here: and

17/2/17: European Non-Performing Banks’ Loans 2016

Latest Fitch data shows some significant progress achieved by Ireland in dealing with non-performing loans on banks' balancesheets:

According to Fitch, Irish banking system ranked 6th worst in terms of NPLs in the EU at the end of 2016. This is a significant improvement on second and third places for Ireland during the height of the Greek and Cypriot crisis. However, the above data requires some serious caveats:

  1. Ireland has been the earlier starter in the game of repairing banks' balancesheets than any other country in the Fitch's Top10 Worst systems table above;
  2. Ireland's performance crucially depends on the assumed quality of mortgages debt restructurings undertaken by the banks over recent years - an assumption that is hardly un-contestable, given that the vast majority of mortgages arrears resolutions involve extend and pretend types of measures, such as extending mortgages maturity, rolling up arrears into a new (for now cheaper) debt and so on; and
  3. Ireland is compared here to a number of countries where the banks bailouts have either been much shallower or completely absent.
Still, for all the caveats, it is good to see that after 9 years of a crisis, Irish banking system is no longer in top-5 basket cases league table in Europe. At this speed, by 2026, me might be even outside the top-10 table... 

23/10/16: Too-Big-To-Fail Banks: The Financial World ‘Undead’

This is an un-edited version of my latest column for the Village magazine

Since the start of the Global Financial Crisis back in 2008, European and U.S. policymakers and regulators have consistently pointed their fingers at the international banking system as a key source of systemic risks and abuses. Equally consistently, international and domestic regulatory and supervisory authorities have embarked on designing and implementing system-wide responses to the causes of the crisis. What emerged from these efforts can be described as a boom-town explosion of regulatory authorities. Regulatory,  supervisory and compliance jobs mushroomed, turning legal and compliance departments into a new Klondike, mining the rich veins of various regulations, frameworks and institutions. All of this activity, the promise held, was being built to address the causes of the recent crisis and create systems that can robustly prevent future financial meltdowns.

At the forefront of these global reforms are the EU and the U.S. These jurisdictions took two distinctly different approaches to beefing up their respective responses to the systemic crises. Yet, the outrun of the reforms is the same, no matter what strategy was selected to structure them.

The U.S. has adopted a reforms path focused on re-structuring of the banks – with 2010 Dodd-Frank Act being the cornerstone of these changes. The capital adequacy rules closely followed the Basel Committee which sets these for the global banking sector. The U.S. regulators have been pushing Basel to create a common "floor" or level of capital a bank cannot go below. Under the U.S. proposals, the “floor” will apply irrespective of its internal risk calculations, reducing banks’ and national regulators’ ability to game the system, while still claiming the banks remain well-capitalised. Beyond that, the U.S. regulatory reforms primarily aimed to strengthen the enforcement arm of the banking supervision regime. Enforcement actions have been coming quick and dense ever since the ‘recovery’ set in in 2010.

Meanwhile, the EU has gone about the business of rebuilding its financial markets in a traditional, European, way. Any reform momentum became an excuse to create more bureaucratese and to engineer ever more elaborate, Byzantine, technocratic schemes in hope that somehow, the uncertainties created by the skewed business models of banks get entangled in a web of paperwork, making the crises if not impossible, at least impenetrable to the ordinary punters. Over the last 8 years, Europe created a truly shocking patchwork of various ‘unions’, directives, authorities and boards – all designed to make the already heavily centralised system of banking regulations even more complex.

The ‘alphabet soup’ of European reforms includes:

  • the EBU and the CMU (the European Banking and Capital Markets Unions, respectively);
  • the SSM (the Single Supervisory Mechanism) and the SRM (the Single Resolution Mechanism), under a broader BRRD (Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive) with the DGS (Deposit Guarantee Schemes Directive);
  • the CRD IV (Remuneration & prudential requirements) and the CRR (Single Rule Book);
  • the MIFID/R and the MAD/R (enhanced frameworks for securities markets and to prevent market abuse);
  • the ESRB (the European Systemic Risk Board);
  • the SEPA (the Single Euro Payments Area);
  • the ESA (the European Supervisory Authorities) that includes the EBA (the European Banking Authority);
  • the MCD (the Mortgage Credit Directive) within a Single European Mortgage Market; the former is also known officially as CARRP and includes introduction of something known as the ESIS;
  • the Regulation of Financial Benchmarks (such as LIBOR & EURIBOR) under the umbrella of the ESMA (the European Securities and Markets Authority), and more.

The sheer absurdity of the European regulatory epicycles is daunting.

Eight years of solemn promises by bureaucrats and governments on both sides of the Atlantic to end the egregious abuses of risk management, business practices and customer trust in the American and European banking should have produced at least some results when it comes to cutting the flow of banking scandals and mini-crises. Alas, as the recent events illustrate, nothing can be further from the truth than such a hypothesis.

America’s Rotten Apples

In the Land of the Free [from individual responsibility], American bankers are wrecking havoc on customers and investors. The latest instalment in the saga is the largest retail bank in the North America, Wells Fargo.

Last month, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced a $185 million settlement with the bank. It turns out, the customer-focused Wells Fargo created over two million fake accounts without customers’ knowledge or permission, generating millions in fraudulent fees.

But Wells Fargo is just the tip of an iceberg.

In July 2015, Citibank settled with CFPB over charges it deceptively mis-sold credit products to 2.2 million of its own customers. The settlement was magnitudes greater than that of the Wells Fargo, at $700 million. And in May 2015, Citicorp, the parent company that controls Citibank, pleaded guilty to a felony manipulation of foreign currency markets – a charge brought against it by the Justice Department. Citicorp was accompanied in the plea by another U.S. banking behemoth, JPMorgan Chase. You heard it right: two of the largest U.S. banks are felons.

And there is a third one about to join them. This month, news broke that Morgan Stanley was charged with "dishonest and unethical conduct" in Massachusetts' securities “for urging brokers to sell loans to their clients”.

Based on just a snapshot of the larger cases involving Citi, the bank and its parent company have faced fines and settlements costs in excess of $19 billion between the start of 2002 and the end of 2015. Today, the CFPB has over 29,000 consumer complaints against Citi, and 37,000 complaints against JP Morgan Chase outstanding.

To remind you, Citi was the largest recipient of the U.S. Fed bailout package in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with heavily subsidised loans to the bank totalling $2.7 trillion or roughly 16 percent of the entire bailout programme in the U.S.

But there have been no prosecutions of the Citi, JP Morgan Chase or Wells Fargo executives in the works.

Europe’s Ailing Dinosaurs

The lavishness of the state protection extended to some of the most egregiously abusive banking institutions is matched by another serial abuser of rules of the markets: the Deutsche Bank. Like Citi, the German giant received heaps of cash from the U.S. authorities.

Based on U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) data, during the 2008-2010 crisis, Deutsche was provided with $354 billion worth of emergency financial assistance from the U.S. authorities. In contrast, Lehman Brothers got only $183 billion.

Last month, Deutsche entered into the talks with the U.S. Department of Justice over the settlement for mis-selling mortgage backed securities. The original fine was set at $14 billion – a levy that would effectively wipe out capital reserves cushion in Europe’s largest bank. The latest financial markets rumours are putting the final settlement closer to $5.4-6 billion, still close to one third of the bank’s equity value. To put these figures into perspective, Europe’s Single Resolution Board fund, designed to be the last line of defence against taxpayers bailouts, currently holds only $11 billion in reserves.

The Department of Justice demand blew wide open Deutsche troubled operations. In highly simplified terms, the entire business model of the bank resembles a house of cards. Deutsche problems can be divided into 3 categories: legal, capital, and leverage risks.

On legal fronts, the bank has already paid out some $9 billion worth of fines and settlements between 2008 and 2015. At the start of this year, the bank was yet to achieve resolution of the probe into currency markets manipulation with the Department of Justice. Deutsche is also defending itself (along with 16 other financial institutions) in a massive law suit by pension funds and other investors. There are on-going probes in the U.S. and the UK concerning its role in channelling some USD10 billion of potentially illegal Russian money into the West. Department of Justice is also after the bank in relation to the alleged malfeasance in trading in the U.S. Treasury market.

And in April 2016, the German TBTF (Too-Big-To-Fail) goliath settled a series of U.S. lawsuits over allegations it manipulated gold and silver prices. The settlement amount was not disclosed, but manipulations involved tens of billions of dollars.

Courtesy of the numerous global scandals, two years ago, Deutsche was placed on the “enhanced supervision” list by the UK regulators – a list, reserved for banks that have either gone through a systemic failure or are at a risk of such. This list includes no other large banking institution, save for Deutsche. As reported by Reuters, citing the Financial Times, in May this year, UK’s financial regulatory authority stated, as recently as this year, that “Deutsche Bank has "serious" and "systemic" failings in its controls against money laundering, terrorist financing and sanctions”.

As if this was not enough, last month, a group of senior Deutsche ex-employees were charged in Milan “for colluding to falsify the accounts of Italy’s third-biggest bank, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA” (BMPS) as reported by Bloomberg. Of course, BMPS is itself in the need of a government bailout, with bank haemorrhaging capital over recent years and nursing a mountain of bad loans. One of the world’s oldest banks, the Italian ‘systemically important’ lender has been teetering on the verge of insolvency since 2008-2009.

All in, at the end of August 2016, Deutsche Bank had some 7,000 law suits to deal with, according to the Financial Times.

Beyond legal problems, Deutsche is sitting on a capital structure that includes billions of notorious CoCos – Contingent Convertible Capital Instruments. These are a hybrid form of capital instruments designed and structured to absorb losses in times of stress by automatically converting into equity. In short, CoCos are bizarre hybrids favoured by European banks, including Irish ‘pillar’ banks, as a dressing for capital buffers. They appease European regulators and, in theory, provide a cushion of protection for depositors. In reality, CoCos hide complex risks and can act as destabilising elements of banks balancesheets.

And Deutsche’s balancesheet is loaded with trillions worth of opaque and hard-to-value derivatives. At of the end of 2015, the bank held estimated EUR1.4 trillion exposure to these instruments in official accounts. A full third of bank’s assets is composed of derivatives and ‘other’ exposures, with ‘other’ serving as a financial euphemism for anything other than blue chip safe investments.

The Financial Undead

Eight years after the blow up of the global financial system we have hundreds of tomes of reforms legislation and rule books thrown onto the crumbling façade of the global banking system. Tens of trillions of dollars in liquidity and lending supports have been pumped into the banks and financial markets. And there are never-ending calls from the Left and the Right of the political spectrum for more Government solutions to the banking problems.

Still, the American and European banking models show little real change brought about by the crisis. Both, the discipline of the banks boards and the strategy pursued by the banks toward rebuilding their profits remain unaltered by the lessons from the crisis. The fireworks of political demagoguery over the need to change the banking to fit the demands of the 21st century roll on. Election after election, candidates compete against each other in promising a regulatory nirvana of de-risked banking. And time after time, as smoke of elections clears away, we witness the same system producing gross neglect for risks, disregard for its customers under the implicit assumption that, if things get shaky again, taxpayers’ cash will come raining on the fires threatening the too-big-to-reform banking giants.

Note: edited version is available here:

2/9/16: Remember Banks Stress Tests: Tripple Farce and Still No Joy for Ireland

Couple of older, but still relevant notes have stacked up on my virtual desktop over the last few weeks. Catching up with these, here is a post on the banking sector 'bill of un-health' produced this summer by the EBA.

European banks street tests conducted by EBA last month combined the usual old farce with the novel new farce. Just to make sure the punters were not too scared of the European economy’s champions.

Based on Basel III criteria - CT1 ratio of 7% post shock - all but two banks (Italy’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di SAiena Spa and Austria’s Raiffeisen Zentralbank) have managed to escape the tests with CT1 ratios post-shock within the Basel III parameters. Or in other words, everyone passed, save for two who didn’t. Systemically, therefore, EBA can assure us all that euro area banking is just fine. Nothing to see, nothing to worry about.

However, the farce of the tests goes deep than this predicable and historically conditioned outcome. Because this time around, EBA no longer even bothered with determining who ‘failed’ and who did not. Like in Breznev’s USSR, in the EBUSSR, ‘friendship wins’ and ‘no one loses’.

There was another predictable trend in the EBA results. No matter how ‘flexible’ the models fort testing get, no matter how being the ‘stress assumptions’ get, Irish and Italian banks remain the sickest puppies in the entire ward of already not too healthy ones:

But, hey, despite much of the stock markets hullaballoo over recent months, the bidding of banks’ equity has not really done much in terms of beefing sufficiently their capital buffers. So here are some comparatives on 2014 stress tests against current ones.

Note: 2014 stress tests estimated impact of a shock out to 2016, while this year tests are estimating impact out to 2018.

So behold (via @FT):


  • 2016 state: Transitional CET1 ratio of 6.14 per cent v 8.42 per cent average - under performing the average by 228 bps
  • 2018 state: Fully loaded CET1 ratio of 7.62 per cent v 9.2 per cent average - under performing the average by 158 bps
  • Signals improvement, on the surface, but this is a cross comparative over tow somewhat different benchmarks


  • 2016 state: Transitional CET1 ratio of 7.05 per cent v 8.42 per cent average, undershooting the average by 137 bps
  • 2018 state: Fully loaded CET1 ratio of 5.21 per cent v 9.2 per cent average, underperforming by 399 bps
  • Signalling, even if we are to totally disregard differential quality, this does not bode too well for Irish financial ‘giants’

FT did provide a handy chart showing changes in stress test shock-level CET1 ratios for Adverse Stress Scenarios in 2014 tests and 2016 tests (never mind the ‘actual’ levels as of 2015, as these are subject to market valuations etc).

What the above shows?

For a tiny banking system, Ireland’s one is sicker than any other. And this comes on foot of years of repairs, recapitalisations, arrears resolutions etc etc etc. Green Jerseying ain’t working, folks. All Spanish banks are performing better than the two Irish flagships. Majority of Italian banks (save for one) are better than the two Irish ‘giants’. All Portuguese banks are stronger than the Irish systemically-important institutions. And none have spent anything close to Ireland on ‘repairing’ their lenders.

Maybe, if we wait long enough, EBA will include a bunch of Greek and Cypriot banks next… to make ours look better…

10/7/16: Europe’s Banks: Dinosaurs On Their Last Legs?

Europe's banks have been back in the crosshair of the markets in recent weeks, with new attention to their multiple problems catalysed by the Brexit vote.

I spoke on the matter in a brief interview with UTV here:

Now, Bloomberg have put together a (very concise) summary of some of the key problems the banks face: "Europe's banks have been a focal point of investor skittishness since Britons voted to leave the European Union, but reasons to be worried about financial firms pre-date the referendum. Whether it be the mountain of non-performing loans, the challenge from fintech firms and alternative lenders encroaching on what was once their turf, or rock bottom interest rates eroding margins, the problems facing Europe's lenders are mammoth."

To summarise the whole rotten lot: European banks (as a sector)

  • Cannot properly lend and price risk (hence, a gargantuan mountain of Non-Performing Loans sitting on their books that they can't deleverage out, exemplified by Italian, Slovenian, Spanish, Portuguese, Cypriot, Greek, Irish, and even, albeit to a lesser extent, German, Dutch, Belgian and Austrian banks);
  • Cannot make profit even in this extremely low funding cost environment (because they cannot lend properly, while controlling their operating costs, and instead resort to 'lending' money to governments at negative yields);
  • Cannot structure their capital (CoCos madness anyone?);
  • Cannot compete with more agile fintech challengers (because the dinosaur mentality and hierarchical structures of traditional banking prevents real innovation permeating banks' strategies and operations);
  • Cannot reform their business models to reflect changing nature of their customers demands (because they simply no longer can think of their customers needs); and
  • Cannot succeed in their traditional markets and services (despite being heavily shielded from competition by regulators and subsidised by the governments).
Instead of whingeing about the banks' plight, we should focus on the banks' resound failures and stop giving custom to the patrician incumbents. Let competition restructure Europe's banking sector. The only thing that sustains Europe's banks today is national- and ECB-level regulatory protectionism that contains competition within the core set of banking services. It is only a matter of time before M&As and organic build up of fintech players will blow this cozy cartel up from the inside. So regulators today have two options: keep pretending that this won't happen and keep granting banks a license to milk their customers and monetary systems; or open the hatches and let the fresh air in.