It’s looking increasingly as though the proximate cause of the next big global crisis is going to be a liquidity crunch at French banks, rather than a European sovereign default. This is not the kind of stock chart that any leveraged institution likes to see:


BNP Paribas started July trading at €55 per share; it’s now at €27, and there’s no bottom in sight. And that’s making lenders very nervous, according to Nicolas Lecaussin.

“We can no longer borrow dollars. U.S. money-market funds are not lending to us anymore,” a bank executive for BNP Paribas, who declines to be named, told me last week. “Since we don’t have access to dollars anymore, we’re creating a market in euros. This is a first. . . . we hope it will work, otherwise the downward spiral will be hell.”

And Andrew Ross Sorkin, today, points out that Christine Lagarde, after being forthright about the need for European bank capitalizations, has recently been, well, less so. Banks live or die on confidence, and it helps no one if the managing director of the IMF does anything to erode that confidence during a liquidity panic. Largarde’s right that European banks in general — and French banks in particular — need to be recapitalized. But now is not the time to be saying such things, just because statements along those lines, in today’s febrile environment, can cause banks to collapse even before new capital is lined up.

It should go without saying that the banks themselves have to be upfront about the current situation. This kind of thing only makes matters much worse, since it causes markets to discount everything they say:

In the opinion of BNP Paribas, the largest French bank, the market for Greek bonds is inactive, never mind the fact that there are trades every day. It pointed to “the lack of liquidity seen during the first half of 2011” as it concluded market prices were “no longer representative of fair value.” It is now using a model to determine value…

Many banks applied a haircut to all of their Greek bonds, including the long-term ones not covered by the proposed exchange. But some banks, including BNP Paribas and Société Générale in France and Intesa Sanpaolo in Italy, decided to carry the long-term bonds at full value, on the theory that it would all work out and that European governments had promised not to force exchanges of longer-dated bonds…

On Thursday, the average trading price for such bonds was about 37 percent of par value.

The market has good reason to be worried about the French banks. They own $57 billion in Greek sovereign and private debt — more than all German and British banks combined. And they have well over half a trillion euros in Spanish and Italian debt, most of which is trading at a substantial discount to par, if it trades at all.

As a result, the only way for the French banks to be able to project a credible degree of solvency is for the Eurozone to inject a huge amount of money somewhere. Either it goes into the countries the French banks have lent to, and will then be used to pay back the French banks what they’re owed, or else it just goes into the French banks directly — the TARP solution. But if the EFSF isn’t beefed up and deployed very soon, we could see some extremely big French banks either collapse or get nationalized in very short order. And nobody wants to see where the chain reaction from that would lead.