Europe’s banks: leaving the zone of turbulence?

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By Vincent Touzé

The 2008 crisis almost endangered the entire global financial system. Thanks to support from governments and central banks, the banking sector has recovered and once again appears to be solid financially. In the aftermath of the crisis, the public finances of the Southern euro zone countries – Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece – and Ireland (the “PIIGS”) have, in turn, been severely weakened. Greece was forced to suspend payments, and the risk of default is still hanging over the others. Since early 2011, bank liabilities in these economies have become a significant concern of the financial markets. Despite good stress tests, this fear intensified in August 2011. European banks then entered a new period of turmoil, and the European Central Bank was forced to lend them more than 1,000 billion euros for 3 years at a rate of 1% in order to avoid a major credit crunch.

As part of their investments abroad and through their foreign branches, Europe’s banks hold liabilities from the PIIGS countries through lending to the banking sector, to the public sector (sovereign debts and credits) and to households and private non-bank enterprises. France is one of the countries that is most heavily exposed to the PIIGS (public and private sectors combined), with a total commitment by the banking system in the third quarter of 2011 of about 437 billion euros (see table), or 21.9% of GDP. Germany’s exposure, at about 322 billion euros (12.5% of GDP), is smaller. The exposure of the UK banking system is comparable and is valued at 230 billion euros, or 13.3% of GDP. In comparison, the Japanese and US banks hold little debt: 59 billion euros (1.4% of GDP) for Japan and 96 billion (0.9% of GDP) for the United States. In the course of the financial crisis, Europe’s banks have pulled back from these countries (1). According to the statistics of the Bank for International Settlements (Figure 1), the reduction in exposure was most pronounced in Greece (-55% since Q1 2007) and lowest in Portugal (-15%). Divestments of the debt of Spain (-29%), Italy (-33%) and Ireland (39%) have been comparable and are at an intermediate level compared to the previous two.

Guarantee funds can be drawn on if a bank goes bankrupt, but generally their provisions are insufficient to support a “big” bank in difficulty. According to the principle of “too big to fail”, the state must intervene to avoid bankruptcy. Possible avenues of action include acquiring some of the bank’s capital, nationalizing it by refloating it, or facilitating its long-term refinancing through the purchase of bonds. A bank failure has to be avoided at all costs, because it is frequently accompanied by panic, with collateral damage that is difficult to predict or contain. The mere fact that a State announces credible support for a bank or a banking system is often sufficient to avert a panic. If the States were to come to the rescue of the banks in the case of the Greek default, the macroeconomic implications of a 50% default on all private and public debts seem relatively minor, since it would require, for example in the case of France, a cost of around 17 billion euros, an amount that is much less than 1% of GDP (see table). By contrast, a 50% default of all the PIIGS would require 220 billion euros in support from France (11% of French GDP). The macroeconomic cost beforehand