Opinion

Hugo Dixon

EU needs more non-bank finance

Hugo Dixon
Jun 2, 2014 08:40 UTC

The European Union needs more non-bank finance. Banks are on the back foot. On their own, they won’t be able to fund the jobs and growth the EU is desperate for. Non-bank finance needs to take up the slack.

The European Central Bank and Bank of England have made a good start by identifying the importance of reviving securitisation – the process of packaging loans into bond-like securities which can then be traded on the market. The two central banks have just published a joint paper describing blockages in the system which have all but killed EU securitisation since the financial crisis.

But securitisation is only one piece of the non-bank finance landscape. Similar leadership is needed to invigorate venture capital, equity investment, bond issues for small companies, shadow banking and so forth.

Following the financial crisis, securitisation – in common with other types of market-based finance – has had a bad name. This is only partly deserved. Securitisation certainly shares the blame for the U.S. subprime crisis that triggered the global credit crunch. Banks didn’t just originate mortgage loans and sell them off to third-party investors – something sometimes described as “plain vanilla” securitisation. They engaged in increasingly exotic and wild practices.

Not only did the banks lend to borrowers who were unable to service their loans. They constructed opaque financial instruments – sometimes securitisations of securitisations – in the hope of jacking up promised returns.

ECB faces severest stress test

Hugo Dixon
Feb 24, 2014 10:25 UTC

A lot is riding on the cleanup of euro zone lenders being overseen by the European Central Bank. The progress so far is encouraging. But clarity is needed on a few points to ensure that lenders really do get a good scrubbing and are therefore able to support the zone’s fragile economic recovery.

The ECB is in the midst of a so-called comprehensive assessment of euro zone banks. This has two elements: an “asset quality review” (AQR) to determine whether the loans and other assets held on their balance sheets are valued properly; and a “stress test” to check whether they could withstand a severe economic downturn.

To pass the test, banks are supposed to have a “common equity Tier 1 capital ratio,” a measure of balance-sheet strength, of 8 percent in the baseline scenario; and a ratio of 5.5 percent in the adverse scenario. The whole exercise is supposed to be finished by October before the ECB officially takes over from national authorities in November as lead supervisor for the zone’s banks.

QE is the way for the ECB to go

Hugo Dixon
Feb 5, 2014 10:35 UTC

The European Central Bank needs to start taking the risks of deflation more seriously. This danger should be top of its agenda when its governing council convenes for its monthly meeting this week.

The ECB’s line is that it does not see deflation on the horizon. True, the inflation rate has been below the target of close to but below 2 percent for over a year. The flash estimate for January was a mere 0.7 percent. But this still amounts to rising prices – not deflation’s actually falling prices.

True, too, that the ECB itself expects inflation to be below target for at least the next two years. But it doesn’t think the euro zone is close to repeating the experience of Japan which has suffered 20 years of flat prices.

Europe’s post-crisis challenge

Hugo Dixon
Dec 16, 2013 10:28 UTC

The hot phase of euro crisis may be over. But the zone will limp on for years with low growth and high unemployment unless further action is taken on three fronts: bank balance sheets must be cleaned up, monetary policy loosened and more free-market reforms adopted.

The latest news from the euro zone’s various battlefronts is fairly encouraging. GDP in all the problem countries, with the exception of tiny Cyprus, is expected to grow next year. Budget deficits, one symptom of the crisis, are being cut. Current account deficits, the other main symptom, are coming into balance.

Ireland, the poster child of the harsh recipe of fiscal austerity plus structural reform, has just exited its bailout programme. Portugal may do so next year. Even Greece is toying with the idea of issuing government bonds towards the end of 2014.

Bundesbank right to focus on doom loop

Hugo Dixon
Oct 7, 2013 08:48 UTC

Germany’s Bundesbank is not afraid of playing the role of bad fairy. Last year it opposed the European Central Bank’s scheme for buying potentially unlimited quantities of sovereign bonds – a promise which ended the hot phase of the euro crisis. Last week, it criticised rules that encourage euro zone banks to load up on their own governments’ debts.

Jens Weidmann, the Bundesbank president, is right to put this topic on the agenda. After all, the exposure of banks to governments is one half of what has been dubbed the “sovereign-bank doom loop.” When governments such as Greece got into trouble, they dragged their banks down as well. (The other half of the doom loop involves troubled banks dragging down their governments.)

The problem is how to break this loop without triggering a new crisis in vulnerable countries such as Italy and Spain. After all, if their banks were suddenly told to cut their holdings of Italian and Spanish bonds, Rome and Madrid would be hard-pressed to fund themselves.

Euro zone mustn’t flunk bank cleanup

Hugo Dixon
Jun 10, 2013 08:31 UTC

One reason the euro zone is in such a mess is that it hasn’t had the courage to clean up its banks. The United States gave its lenders a proper scrubbing, followed by recapitalisation, in 2009. By contrast, the euro zone engaged in a series of half-hearted stress tests that missed many of the biggest banking problems such as those in Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.

In recent years, the zone has started to address these problems on a piecemeal basis. But it is still haunted by zombie banks, which are not strong enough to support an economic recovery.

The European Central Bank now has a golden opportunity to press the reset button in advance of taking on the job of supervisor in mid-2014. It mustn’t flunk the cleanup.

Cyprus must avoid capital controls

Hugo Dixon
Mar 24, 2013 16:31 UTC

Imposing capital controls would be a historic mistake for Cyprus and the euro zone – even worse than the crass idea of taxing uninsured deposits. Non-cash transactions would be limited, while withdrawals from cash machines would be rationed.

This would be equivalent to Argentina’s “corralito”, which lasted a year in 2001/2002. If capital controls are imposed, it will be almost impossible to lift them because people will stampede for the exits once they are removed. But such heavy-handed rationing of limited cash would clobber an economy which is already heading for a slump.

Some people will say that Cyprus has already endured a week of capital controls because of the extended bank holiday since last weekend’s botched bailout. But officially imposed indefinite capital controls – blessed by the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund – would be far worse.

Cyprus deposit grab sets bad precedent

Hugo Dixon
Mar 18, 2013 09:07 UTC

Cyprus’ deposit grab sets a bad precedent. Money had to be found to prevent its financial system collapsing. But imposing a 6.75 percent tax on insured deposits – or even the 3 percent being discussed on Monday morning – is a type of legalised bank robbery. Cyprus should instead impose a bigger tax on uninsured deposits and not touch small savers.

Confiscating savers’ money will knock confidence in the banks. Trust in the government will also take a hit, since Nicosia had theoretically guaranteed all deposits up to 100,000 euros. Small savers should be encouraged not penalised. They are the quiet heroes of the financial system, who squirrel away their savings, not those who drag it down by engaging in borrowing binges.

Nicosia has not technically broken its promise to guarantee small deposits. That’s because it is not the banks which are failing to repay savers – something which would have triggered the insurance scheme. Instead, it is the government itself which is grabbing a slice of deposits. The pill is also being sugared by giving savers shares in the banks and some of the hoped-for revenues from a possible natural gas bonanza as compensation. That said, the mechanism is still an effective breach of promise.

Mario Draghi’s poisoned banking chalice

Hugo Dixon
Feb 4, 2013 10:01 UTC

When euro zone governments agreed last year to give the European Central Bank the power to supervise its banks, that looked like another victory for its president Mario Draghi. It is more like a poisoned chalice.

The ECB will certainly get a chunk of extra power. But it will also be blamed when banks run into trouble, as they inevitably will. Draghi himself is experiencing this first hand following the scandal at Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), which has had to be rescued by the Italian state. He has been lambasted for failing to supervise the country’s third largest bank properly when he ran the Bank of Italy – although the criticism seems overdone and has often been fuelled by his political opponents back in Rome.

The potential reputational risks for the ECB from banking snarl-ups on its watch are probably even bigger than they are for national central banks. This is because it doesn’t yet have the full set of tools to do the job properly. Moreover, a huge amount is at stake since the ECB is the euro zone’s most credible institution. If its reputation gets tarnished because of perceived supervisory failures, that could rub off on its ability to conduct monetary policy or manage crises effectively.

Can Super Mario save the euro?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 30, 2012 08:45 UTC

Can Super Mario save the euro? Mario Draghi said last Thursday that the European Central Bank’s job is to stop sovereign bond yields rising if these increases are caused by fears of a euro break-up. While this represents a sea-change in the ECB president’s thinking, it risks sowing dissension within his ranks. He will struggle to come up with the right tools to achieve his goals.

Draghi seemingly stared into the abyss and had a fright. Spanish 10-year bond yields shot up to 7.6 percent on July 24 while Italian ones rose to 6.6 percent. The high borrowing costs are not simply a reflection of the two countries’ high debts and struggling economies. Investors also fear “convertibility risk” – or the possibility that the euro will break up and they will get repaid in devalued pesetas and liras.

The central banker’s statement that dealing with convertibility risk is part of the ECB’s mandate is therefore highly significant. He rammed home his message, saying: “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”