February 28, 2024

Fair Game: As Europe’s Crisis Grows, Over There Is Over Here

Some of these banks are growing desperate for dollars. Fearing the worst, investors are pulling back, refusing to roll over the banks’ commercial paper, those short-term i.o.u.’s that are the lifeblood of commerce. Others are refusing to renew certificates of deposit. European banks need this money, in dollars, to extend loans to American companies and to pay their own debts.

Worries over the banks’ exposure to shaky European government debt have unsettled markets over there — shares of big French banks have taken a beating — but it is unclear how much this mess will hurt the economy back here. American stock markets, at least, seem a bit blasé about it all: the Standard Poor’s 500-stock index rose 5.3 percent last week.

But stock investors have a bad habit of dismissing problems in the credit markets until it is too late. Back in the summer of 2007, the stock market was roaring, despite obvious problems in the mortgage market.

Make no mistake: the troubles of Europe and its debt-weakened banks will imperil the United States. For many, it is no longer a question of whether but when Greece will default on its government debt. How far the sovereign debt crisis might spiral, and its precise ramifications, are unknowable, but some fault lines are evident.

Carl B. Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y., outlined what he sees as the major risks — and they fall into two categories. One is the potential for losses incurred by financial institutions that wrote credit insurance on European government debt and the European banks that own so much of that paper. The other is the likely economic hit as banks in the euro zone curb lending significantly.

A crucial mechanism linking financial players in the United States to the problems in Europe involves credit default swaps, those insurance-like products that did so much damage during the 2008 financial crisis. (Think American International Group.)

Billions of dollars in swaps have been written on sovereign debt, guaranteeing that those who bought the insurance will be paid if Greece or other countries default. As of Sept. 9, some $32 billion in net credit insurance exposure was outstanding on debt of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain, according to Markit, a financial data provider. An additional $23.6 billion has been written on Italy’s debt. Billions more in credit insurance have also been written on European banks, many of which hold huge positions in troubled sovereign obligations.

But since these instruments trade in secret, investors don’t know who would be on the hook — as A.I.G. was in its ill-fated mortgage insurance — should a government default or a bank fail.

“If Greece folds its tent and that takes out a big institution, we don’t know who wrote the swaps,” Mr. Weinberg said. “Can they raise the cash to perform on their obligations? Can they take the balance-sheet hits? We have a lot of unknown unknowns.”

Even after what we went through with A.I.G., the huge market in credit default swaps remains unregulated and still operates in the shadows. You can thank big banks that trade these instruments — and their lobbyists — for that.

As for the broader economic effects of Europe’s woes, Mr. Weinberg expects credit around the world to become even scarcer. “Outside the U.S., we never really resumed credit growth since 2009,” he said. “Another hit now would bring credit down and impose a huge squeeze on small businesses throughout Europe and over here also.”

ONE troubling aspect of the euro zone crisis is just how large the European banks’ sovereign debt holdings are. At many institutions, the positions dwarf what American institutions held in mortgage-related securities, for example, when compared to book values.

Why? Regulators encouraged European banks to hold huge amounts of European government debt by letting them account for these investments as if they posed zero risk. That meant the banks didn’t need to set aside a single euro in capital against those holdings.

Now, according to an analysis by Autonomous Research, 43 large European banks hold debt in troubled sovereigns that is equal to 63 percent of those institutions’ book values.

Adding to the peril is that these banks are funded primarily by short-term investors, like buyers of commercial paper, rather than by depositors, as is more often the case with American banks. This was the same problem faced by Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, which collapsed after short-term lenders fled in panic.

Measuring the loans made to European banks against their deposits tells the story. Across Europe, according to Autonomous Research, loans to banks exceed their deposits by 6 percent. Among French banks, loans exceed deposits by 19 percent. In Greece, they swamp deposits by 32 percent.

In the United States, by contrast, banks are borrowing less than 90 percent of their deposits, on average.

This is why it is becoming such a problem for European banks that so many short-term lenders are declining to renew when loans come due. Money market funds, traditionally big investors in short-term paper issued by European banks, have been reducing exposures. A recent Fitch Ratings report shows that for the two months ended July 31, the 10 largest United States prime money market funds pared their holdings in European banks by 20.4 percent, in dollar terms. In the same period, the funds cut their exposure to Italian and Spanish banks by 97 percent.

But these money funds, with total assets of $658 billion, held $309 billion in debt obligations issued by European banks. That’s equivalent to 47 percent of these funds’ total assets.

“We’re seeing a lot of the same things in the markets that we saw in the Lehman era,” Mr. Weinberg said, referring to that awful episode three years ago. “I can’t tell you specifically and exactly how the fallout from Europe will pass through to us, but I certainly can’t tell you it won’t.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=55444b7e1858e4d40fb82fcf20d8c769

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