Europe’s liquidity crisis

By Felix Salmon
November 14, 2011

I had a long lunch meeting on Friday with a hedge-fund manager with an astonishing ability to navigate the Bloomberg Blackberry app. And there was one chart in particular which he clearly pulled up on a regular basis: the spread on senior unsecured bank debt in Europe. As Lisa Pollack points out, it’s tempting but dangerous to look at the iTraxx Senior Financials index in this context, because it’s an easy index to follow but it also includes non-bank names like Aviva, Axa, and Munich Re. So here’s the 3-month Euribor/Eonia spread, instead, which also has the advantage of going back to 2007. It’s not the best indicator when it comes to measuring banks’ cost of funds, but it’s fantastic if what you’re looking for is a guide to how stressed the Euroland funding market is.

euribonia.tiff

This chart comes from a 40-page note on European bank liquidity published by Daniel Davies and Jag Yogarajah of Exane BNP Paribas; I can highly recommend you try to get yourself a copy of it somehow. And in fact the situation is worse than this chart makes things look, since in the months immediately following Lehman’s bankruptcy, the three-month interbank funding market effectively did not exist, and the numbers being charted here are, in the note’s words, “arguably somewhat hypothetical“. Take out the nonexistent market following Lehman’s collapse, and spreads in Europe are right at their all-time highs.

We all know why this is, of course. European banks have lots of European sovereign debt. European sovereign debt is falling in value. Therefore European banks are insolvent. Therefore, they have greatly increased credit risk. Therefore, spreads are rising.

Except, this isn’t really true. Greek banks are insolvent, it’s true, if you mark their sovereign debt exposure to market. But to a first approximation, no other banks are. Mark French banks’ holdings of Italian sovereign debt down by say 10%, and they’re still fine; their capital drops, of course, as it would with any write-down, but certainly to nowhere near zero.

What is true is that Europe is in the middle of a textbook liquidity crisis. Banks are not lending to each other — and the ECB isn’t stepping in to solve the problem. This is a serious structural issue with the way that the European monetary system was constructed: the ECB is tasked only with guarding inflation, and not with ensuring the health of the banking system. Individual national central banks are meant to do that. But they can’t print money — only the ECB can. So when there’s a liquidity crisis, no one’s able to step in and solve it.

Here’s another chart from the report:

datastream.tiff

The light-blue line is the share prices of US banks. They fell steadily through all of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, with TARP barely making a difference. Who caught that falling knife and stabilized US bank share prices? Not Treasury, but the Fed, with its quantitative easing. As soon as that started (see the dark blue line), US financial institutions suddenly looked as though they’d be fine.

For this reason, the Exane analysts are convinced that talk of European bank recapitalizations is silly — essentially, it’s treating the wrong disease:

There is no reasonable amount of capital that can cure a liquidity shortage. The reason why people are refusing to lend to the banks is not primarily because they fear an underlying solvency problem (although some people do), but because they fear an obvious and immediate liquidity problem. It is rational not to lend to an institution that you believe to be illiquid.

The real problem here is simply that banks are hoarding their cash and not lending to each other. Look at the way that bank debt issuance has fallen off a cliff — even the issuance of covered bonds, which to a first approximation don’t have any credit risk.

term.tiff

And the way the banking sector works, banks have to be constantly lending to each other: in nearly every country in Europe, the amount of bank debt coming due every day is higher than the total amount of bank capital in the system. The overnight interbank market is the bloodstream of the European financial system, and the flow of blood is coming to a halt. Or, as the Exane report puts it, “if we think of wholesale funding as commodity input, it is much more like the supply of limestone to a kiln than the supply of flour to a bakery – not only can the banking sector not produce loans without new financing, it cannot shut down for a short period of time either, it needs constant supply.”

And here’s how a recent BIS report put it:

Quantitatively, private liquidity dominates official liquidity… private global liquidity is highly cyclical because it is driven by divergences in growth rates, monetary policies and, above all, risk appetite.

Private liquidity can give rise to international spillovers… This international component of liquidity can be a potential source of instability, because of its own dynamics or because it amplifies cyclical movements in domestic financial conditions and intensifies domestic imbalances.

The liquidity situation at European banks is similar to that at the sovereign level, too, as James Macdonald explains very cogently. Italy’s debt, it turns out, is not particularly high, by historical standards.

macdonald.jpg

Instead, the problem is that Italy is being forced to roll over its debts on a regular basis.

Before World War I, countries considered truly creditworthy borrowed on terms that are unrecognizable nowadays. The vast majority of their debts were in the form of perpetual annuities…

In 1900, for example, France had a public debt amounting to 105% of GDP; but over 96% of it was in the form of perpetual annuities, and less than 4% in the form of short-term Treasury bills. Therefore the country’s annual funding requirement was only 4% of GDP. The credit of a country with such a debt structure was virtually impregnable short of a world war.

Since those halcyon days, however, western governments have raised their debts on a far shorter-term basis… France, with a public debt of (only) 86% of GDP, now has an annual funding requirement equivalent to over 20% of GDP. It is in good company. Belgium Italy, Spain, and Portugal also have to finance 20-25% of GDP each year. The USA has a funding requirement of nearly 30% of GDP, thanks to the folly of the Treasury Department’s decision to stop selling the 30-year T-bond in 2001 in a misguided attempt to shorten the average duration of the debt.

The result is that the sovereign borrowers that the markets have been accustomed to think of as “risk-free” have become a little similar to banks… At any time, a ripple of suspicion about their long-term ability to repay their debts (not unreasonable given the relentless build-up of their off-balance sheet liabilities since the war) could set off a chain reaction which ends up with a self-defeating rush for the exits.

This is what is happening to Italy.

You can see the dilemma facing the ECB here. It’s facing a dual liquidity crisis: not only within the European banking system, but also at European sovereigns. And it doesn’t really have a mandate to address either one.

But it’s liquidity crises which are the most violent, and which can kill a financial system — indeed, an entire economy — more or less overnight. Someone in Europe needs to come up with a plan for how to address the current crisis — now. Because if it gets any worse, it could well be too late.

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