25 May 2009

On Europe and European Banks vis a vis US Banks

A mate of mine Charles Powell, and I, have been having a minor dissagreement with the prospects for Europe going forward vis a vis the United States.
I have looked at the terms of trade and the energy efficiency of GNP and the unleveraged households as very positive for Europe and that notion extended to the banks, the assumption being that no one could be worse off than the yanks. I excude UK, Spain and emerging Europe, but I assumed French and German Banks would be solid.

I still think Europe has a future, but it appears that Charles was far more correct about the banks.... thanks for the forward and the debate, Charles.

"As we have repeatedly said, Spain is set for a long, painful deflation that will manifest itself via a spectacularly high unemployment level, a real estate collapse and general banking insolvencies. Consider this: the value of outstanding loans to Spanish developers has gone from just €33.5 billion in 2000 to €318 billion in 2008, a rise of 850% in 8 years. If you add in construction sector debts, the overall value of outstanding loans to developers and construction companies rises to €470 billion. That's almost 50% of Spanish GDP. Most of these loans will go bad.

"Spanish banks are now facing a very bleak outlook. Spain's unemployment rate reached over 17% last month; there are now four million unemployed Spaniards and over one million families with not a single person employed in the family. Spain and Ireland had the worst housing bubbles in the world and now Spain has as many unsold homes as the US, even though the US is about six times bigger.

"Why are Spanish banks not insolvent? Spanish banks are not marking their real estate loans to market. We've often wondered how it is that our thesis for Spanish real estate and industrial collapse has not created more victims. The answer is simple according to an article in Expansion, the Spanish equivalent of the Financial Times, from the 19th of April titled 'Spanish banks control half of all real estate appraisals.' You can't make this stuff up. We haven't even begun to see the worst in Spain yet."

European banks are in far worse shape than their US counterparts. That is because they utilize far more leverage, on an average about 30 times leverage. How can that be, in what is supposed to be a conservative industry?

"European banks were only restricted on the basis of risk-weighted assets, unlike the US where it is the total leverage ratio that matters, so most European banks bought assets that were rated by Moody's and S&P, who couldn't rate their way out of a paper bag, and for anything that wasn't highly rated, they bought credit default swaps or guarantees from AIG and MBIA. Because of that European banks were able to lever up a lot more than their US counterparties. Given the much higher leverage levels and general worsening of collateral values, we think that all the shoes in Europe have not dropped."

European banks have assets of about 330% of their GDP, compared to US banking assets, which are about 50%. They have over $700 billion in loans to Asian businesses (which are watching their exports collapse) and $1.3 trillion in loans to Eastern Europe, which is in a very serious recession, and so many of those loans are simply not going to be worth anything. Simply put, there is going to be a need for massive amounts of money to bail out European banks, or we'll watch their economies simply implode.

Where is the money for the bailouts going to come from? Germany? That will be a tough sell politically in a country that is in a much worse recession than the US. How do you tell your citizens you need to bail out banks in other countries with their tax dollars? Italian and Austrian banks are going to need a lot of capital, more than their governments can pay. It is going to be a very tough problem.

Governments around the world are responding to the global recession by running massive deficits. In addition to the US, the UK, Japan, Russia, Spain, and Ireland are all running deficits of over 10%.

And, as in the case of the US, these are not going to be one-time deficits. The IMF predicts that England will shrink again next year and the recovery in the US will be modest at best. The US economy is expected to grow by 0.2% (far from the optimistic projections of various US government agencies), the 16-nation eurozone will eke out a modest gain of 0.1%, and the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial economies will, as a whole, only grow by 0.2 percent. They project that Japan's economy will stagnate next year.
Where Will the Money Come From?

And now let's look at what is bumping in my worry closet. The world is going to have to fund multiple trillions in debt over the next several years. Pick a number. I think $5 trillion sounds about right. $3 trillion is in the cards for the US alone, if current projections are right.

Just exactly where is that money going to come from? The US trade deficit is now down to under $350 billion a year. The Fed can monetize a trillion. Maybe. Look at the yield curve on US government debt below (Bloomberg). US savings are going to go up, but where is the incentive to buy ten-year debt at 3.5%? Four-year debt under 2% doesn't do much for your savings growth. Even with monetization and the Chinese buying our debt with the dollars we send them, that still leaves the bond market about $1.5 trillion short, give or take $100 billion.


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