It turns out that 91 European banks are to be put through a ‘stress test’ to see how well or badly they will cope with a shock to the system. The stress test itself was a little unclear until late last week, when the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) detailed what would happen. As a result, a lot of folks think it’s a fudge, and the intention of creating more confidence in the EU’s banking system may actually have achieved the opposite.
Here’s the lowdown.
CEBS stress tests were announced after their initial approach was viewed as being too little and too narrow. The intention was to stabilise confidence in the EU banking system following the crisis in the Eurozone, and the approach was meant to follow the example set by America in May last year.
Back then, everyone felt the American banking system could not deal with the exposures they had to OTC derivatives, so the Federal Reserve tested the banks to see if they could deal with not just those exposures, but any other severe shocks to the system.
The US tests used two economic scenarios: one mirroring the consensus of economic experts on the course of the downturn through 2010, and the second modelling a worse-than-expected course of economic activity.
This resulted in recognition of a $74.6 billion shortfall, which was far less than the figures being bandied around before the stress test results. For example, the IMF estimating that the U.S. banks needed another $275 billion to $500 billion whilst some analysts throwing figures around that the industry may need as much as $1 trillion.
The less than anticipated shortfall led to increased confidence in the American banks. That confidence led to some stability in the system thereafter, financial stocks jumped 36% in the seven months after the tests, which is why it was worth doing.
This is why the US example was followed by the lengthy discussion of living wills in the UK regulatory sector, and the idea of reverse stress testing as implemented by the FSA last December. In these tests, banks are meant to imagine that they have failed and then have to work backwards to determine which risks and vulnerabilities caused their hypothetical collapse.
The FSA’s approach to stress testing consists of three main elements: companies’ own internal stress testing, where they assess their ability to meet capital and liquidity demands in a sudden downturn; the regulator’s testing of specific companies; and simultaneous “system-wide” stress testing, based on a common crisis scenario.
In both the US and UK examples, the stress test methodologies were completely transparent and now we come to the European bank stress tests.
In the EU tests, CEBS will study 91 banks, mainly in Spain and Germany, but also several other key banks including Britain's "Big Four" – RBS, HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds. In the latter example, thanks to the FSA’s scrutiny, they have already been subject to tough tests at home and should pass with flying colours.
The list is actually considerably longer than the original announcements in June which selected just 25 banks for review, and includes the German Landesbanken for the first time.
The significance of that decision cannot be underscored more deeply as BaFIN, the German regulator, announced a year ago that €800 billion of toxic debt sat on the balance sheets of these banks, particularly some of the Landesbanken, and that was double the amount they had estimated just three months earlier.
With almost $1 trillion in deposits, 2,500 banks and 45,000 branches, Germany also has one of the densest banking networks in the world, and hence a weakness in the German system would be a weakness for all, particularly as Germany has been bailing out Greece and, soon, Spain, Italy, Portugal and more.
In Spain’s case, as recently blogged, there is a big problem with the mid-size banks where the savings banks, regional banks and mid-sized banks are all closing, merging and consolidating, with anything from a quarter to a third of all Spanish bank branches to close.
That’s not good.
But the stress tests can turn this situation around by showing that Europe can cope with even the worst case scenario.
That’s a tough call, as we are all asking: ‘Can it?’
After all, a stress test if it turns out to be negative will worsen the situation but, if it’s positive, it will improve everything.
So the stress tests are being reported to be as transparent as the US version, with a three scenario test, according to the German newspaper Handelsblatt.
The first will analyse how banks perform if economic growth is at the rate forecast by the European Commission; the second will test the effect of a 3% drop in gross domestic product; and the third will look at how banks would cope with a "shock" situation in government bond markets, a scenario similar to events in May this year when Greece was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s.
It is that downgrade which has caused all of these jitters anyway, and created the uncertainty and lack of confidence in the Eurozone. Without confidence in the European banking system, then even worse scenarios could be considered, such as the collapse of the Eurozone and a return to national boundaries and nationalistic tendencies therein.
But there is already an issue with the European stress tests as the approach, structure and details of the tests have been changing over time, and many think the results – to be announced on 23rd July – will be a fudge. This view was given even more fuel when there were rumours that France and Germany were trying to suppress the methodology to be used for the tests.
This is bad news, as the lack of confidence in European banks will be made worse when or if there is a lack of confidence in the European banks’ stress tests, and the stress tests will only increase market uncertainty, rather than decrease.
All in all, my view is that Europe is caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
If they complete the stress tests and release the results with complete transparency, there is likely to be some fallout. Unless the results show that the fears for bank counterparty risks in Europe are unfounded, which in the case of the Landesbanken and Spanish caja banks is unlikely, then it will just confirm what many already suspect: Europe’s broke.
On the other hand, if t
hey complete the stress tests and release the airbrushed results that show some manipulation or opaqueness, then everyone will believe that their fears for bank counterparty risks in Europe are proven.
Therefore, what seemed to be a great idea to bolster confidence in the Eurozone may actually prove to be a lose-lose situation.
So how can the Eurocrats create a win out of this?
Just be totally honest.
If there are real issues in the heartland of Europe’s banks, be brutally frank about them.
It is only with total honesty, transparency and clearly washing any dirty laundry in public at the end of the month that Europe has any hope of surviving this current battering.