With strong words to support the Euro, Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank President, quelled fears over the future of the Eurozone. However, the bailout negotiations in Cyprus revealed cracks in this ‘floor’ supporting the region and markets. A ‘Banking Union’ has been undermined, imbalances within the region magnified and individual systematic risk returned. Divergences within the global banking sector will widen but with the Fed likely to remain accommodative, bullish market sentiment may continue to overshadow concerns elsewhere. Nevertheless, this recent turmoil has highlighted that we’re far from an end to the crisis.
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Huge strides forward in Europe and subsequent market rallies have raised hopes for the region. So is the road to recovery now clear or are significant risks still present? Crucially, what are the key areas of conflict we should be watching closely and which are ‘red herrings’?
A greater degree of oversight of the banking sector is needed for stability. Issues of experience and breadth of oversight to include smaller banks are somewhat misnomers but issues of authority, conflicts of interest, and deposit guarantees are not. Nevertheless, turmoil creates opportunities and the road will remain rocky for the shorter-term at least.
Resolution Remains Just Out of Reach
‘Tail risk’ in Europe has dramatically reduced over the past few months. This refers to the risk of a dramatic event which could drive an extreme change in portfolio values, i.e. a Greek exit from the Euro, having fallen substantially. Prompted by Draghi’s statement that he will do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, and solidified with his launch of an ‘Outright Monetary Transaction’, buying the bonds of countries that request help, markets have moved to reflect this reduction in perceived risk.
But does this mean the road to recovery is now clear? Unfortunately not. The risk of an immediate euro breakup may have eased but Europe still needs to integrate further before we can say unity has been strengthened sufficiently.
With the region rocked every time there is turmoil in one country’s banking sector, providing a level of oversight to spread, offset and protect from risk is a desperately needed move forwards. Agreement has been reached to progress this course of action, and the European Central Bank put in charge. So what are the key areas of conflict we should be watching closely to decipher how far risk has truly abated? What issues matter and which are ‘red herrings’?
Ready, Steady, Go….?
The ECB may have been the natural choice of supervisor but it has neither experienceof direct supervision, nor dedicated staff. However, this is probably the most easily remedied concern, with recruitment of a team with appropriate experience.
Of greater concern is the lack of authority with which the central bank would begin its ‘reign’. A ‘Banking Resolution Mechanism’, i.e. a process for the enforcement of support, rules and regulation, will only come into place at a later date. Threats without force are just words and the sustained support that could bring is doubtful.
Furthermore, the central bank’s original mandate of price stability could be compromised. It is unclear how a conflict of interest can be avoided when knowledge of bank positioning may affect its resolve to implement monetary policy. Knowing an interest rate move, for example, could destabilise a large bank and create a level of turmoil, may muddy the waters.
One for All and All for One
Germany has voiced its opposition to a broad-based level of oversight, focused not just on the largest banks but any that could pose a risk to the stability of the banking sector. As the country within the region with the largest number of ‘small’ banks as well as almost a third of the regions total number of banks, this has been a focal point in the press. The claim is that the administration costs to comply would be enormous, passed on customers and hit the local economy.
However, for two main reasons this again is more of a distraction than a nail in the coffin. Firstly, as in Spain, for example, it was issues in smaller banks which brought chaos to the country. Bankia, the ‘bailed-out’ bank, was constructed from several smaller struggling banks. Germany’s smaller banks together have total assets than exceed Deutsche Bank and are responsible for around 38% of both bank lending and deposits. Therefore, oversight should indeed include these banks.
Secondly, on a day-to-day basis, smaller banks may continue to receive oversight similar to national arrangements, minimising the feared disruption and cost. Rules were ‘softened’ when the European Parliament expressed the desire for the ECB to have the choice of delegating its supervision of smaller relevant lenders to national authorities. A feeling of loss of sovereignty is still tough to challenge but may be eased and outweighed by necessity.
Nevertheless, hostility from Germany continues in the form of opposition towards a single deposit guarantee scheme. A ‘run on banks’ was touted as a key risk as capital outflows from the periphery European countries gathered momentum last year. A lack of confidence in the safety of customer deposits drove exits and challenged the liquidity levels and stability of the targeted banks. A region-wide scheme to guarantee these deposits is hoped to bring some calm and reduce these fears.
This is a crucial part of the longer-term plan for a return of confidence to the region but has seemingly ‘dropped off the agenda’ according to Germany, resisting further discussion. The fear is the relative strength of one country will be used to offset weaknesses in another. Tax payers from one country could end up having to pay for the mistakes of a bank in another. Nevertheless, behind the headlines, it is understood that some form of transfer from Germany to the periphery is necessary for stability and this is certainly an issue to watch closely going forward.
A Rocky Road
Therefore, Europe has some crucial challenges to tackle over the next few months. Longer-term strategies must be embedded to protect the region. To complicate matters, politicians will continue to be distracted by ‘putting out fires’. For example, a request for help by Spain remains hotly debated and there is the potential for further civil unrest in reaction to growing opposition to austerity. The risk of further turmoil in Greece is high as it is tasked with completing bank recapitalisation and paying public sector debts, but a long-term solution to alleviate reliance on financial support remains illusive.
Turmoil creates opportunities and the road will remain rocky for the shorter-term at least. International firms that are merely headquartered in an area of weakness can provide an interesting opportunity as price moves, volatile in the shorter-term, more accurately reflect underlying value over the longer-term.
As investors price into the markets only two options for Europe, politicians feel the pressure to avoid a break-up of the monetary union as we know and instead embark on the second scenario, full scale fiscal unity. European countries must share their budgets to share their burdens; fully unite or expect exits; go hard or go home. A Banking Union would form part of this strategy but would it be blinkered to significant risks? Nevertheless, caution can cloud ones vision and maintaining holdings in good quality companies, rather than raising cash levels is preferable. Progress is moving in the right direction and when confidence returns, so could market momentum.
A European Banking Union – an essential but flawed strategy
Ever since the fall of Lehman Brothers and the start of the ‘credit crisis’, a call for greater control over the banks has been hotly debated. Challenged with rising regulatory costs and lower trading volumes margins are being squeezed. Balance sheets are predicted to shrink by at least €1.5tn by the end of next year, even before taking account of an effect of a possible Greek exit.
A proposal that has won support in France is for a European Banking Union. This would involve a single regulator to oversee banks across Europe. Furthermore, it includes an EU-wide deposit guarantee scheme to protect savers in the event of a bank collapse. The European Central Bank has been hailed as the most appropriate candidate as supervisor, explicitly focusing the oversight to the euro area as opposed to the full European Union. This allays one of the UK’s concerns but reservations remain.
A mockery of the original mandate?
Firstly, it maymake a mockery of the ECB’s original mandate. Originally tasked with the challenge of controlling inflation, critics maintain this new role would conflict and weaken their ability to do so. Any move to print money (increasing the amount in circulation, reducing its value meaning more is required to make purchases), could increase inflation instead of maintain price level stability.
A ‘blinkered’ approach?
Secondly, focusing on only part of the problem is not a full solution. A supervisory body overseeing the banks will focus on the largest financial institutions but miss the risks stored up lower down the food chain. The most recent ‘crisis’ was kicked off by Bankia, Spain’s largest savings bank, suffering solvency issues. However, it was formed from 7 already troubled smaller banks and therefore the risks they posed would have gone unnoticed. Oversight is certainly warranted, but is the horse wearing blinkers?
Fiscal unity first
Finally, this is not a first step. Before such a move is considered, fiscal consolidation is required. To provide backing to support banks, greater control over national budgets is needed. Being so heavily affected by the economy in which they are located, unity must start from the top down. A ‘two speed’ Europe with pockets of growth versus widespread recession; a need for interest rate increases opposing desperation for further easing; and budget surpluses contrasting deficits highlighting the instability. European countries must share their budgets to share their burdens, fully unite or expect exits, go hard or go home.
But beware of de-risking
Caution can cloud ones vision and currently cash is not king. As prices rise faster than cash can appreciate in most savings accounts, the value of money is being eroded. Boosting cash levels is not prudent. Instead, maintaining a holding in good quality companies, with confidence they will grow in value over the long run, makes more sense. Progress is moving in the right direction and when confidence returns, so could market momentum.