Panic Pause

The sudden panic about a potentially imminent Italian banking sector collapse back in July has somewhat subsided for now, but sooner or later the issue will inevitably rear its ugly head again.

 

monte-dei-paschi-hq, photo by Stefano Rellandini / Reuters The impressive headquarters of the world’s oldest surviving bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Piazza Salimbeni

Photo credit: Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

 

Two months after Italian bank stocks collapsed even further in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, fears of an imminent need for a bail-in have receded as the Italian government works on plans to shore up its weakest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS).

 

1-euro-stoxx-bank-index-monthlyEuro Stoxx bank index, monthly. The index remains close to its 2012 panic lows. The decline since 2015 has been broad-based, but Italian bank stocks were particularly weak – click to enlarge.

 

This will be achieved via an alternative but rather ambitious method culminating—if all goes according to plan—in a new capital injection. However, MPS, which came up short in July’s ECB stress tests, has already received capital injections in the past.

Such plans to patch up banks have tended to involve kicking the can down the road rather than providing a more definitive solution to the 360 EUR billion of non-performing loans (NPLs) weighing down Italy’s banking sector, equivalent to one fifth of its GDP.

If a sustainable solution is not found to clean up Italian bank balance sheets in the near future, they will inevitably constrain domestic demand and thereby weigh on the country’s already feeble growth even further.

 

2-focuseconomics_italy_economy-01Italy: GDP components, GDP growth rates and current account – click to enlarge.

 

Faltering Domestic Demand

Domestic demand, the longstanding mainstay of the Italian economy, is already under intense pressure. In the second quarter, GDP failed to grow in quarter-on-quarter terms, primarily on the back of a broad-based deterioration in all components of domestic demand (private consumption, government consumption and fixed investment), which could not be offset by the unusually-positive contribution of the external sector to growth.

The difficult climate for domestic demand in Italy is nothing new, since the austerity policies implemented in recent years have taken their toll and Italian governments have centered their efforts on trying to boost external demand instead in order to reverse the current account deficit Italy had until 2012 and keep it positive going forward.

And yet private consumption has remained the main driver of Italy’s feeble economic recovery. Analysts foresee that the poorer-than-expected performance of domestic demand (especially private consumption) in the second quarter this year will be temporary, but its growth rate will nevertheless decelerate in 2017.

Our latest September Consensus Forecast for Italy, obtained by polling 37 local and international analysts, sees GDP growing a meager 0.9% both this year and next, a figure which has in both cases been gradually revised down in recent months from the 1.2% forecasts for both years back in January.

 

3-italy-gdp-growth2xItaly, q/q GDP growth – back to zero as of Q2 2016 (note: y/y growth was 0.8%) – click to enlarge.

 

The panel are basing their growth projections primarily on modest improvements in consumer spending, albeit at a slower rate than initially expected, on the back of gradual gains in household disposable income fueled mainly by improving employment and low inflation.

Domestic demand is forecast to contribute 1.1 percentage points to total growth this year (which will be dragged down slightly by a 0.2% contraction in the external sector), of which 0.7 percentage points will come from the strongest component, private consumption.

In 2017, domestic demand is expected to decelerate and contribute 0.8 percentage points to growth while the external sector will pick up slightly. Of the domestic demand components, private consumption is seen remaining the main cornerstone of the tentative recovery next year, decelerating from 2016 but still contributing 0.5 percentage points to growth.

 

Vicious Circle

A failure to swiftly clean up bank balance sheets means domestic demand will inevitably suffer as bank credit supply constraints continue to prevent the recovery of investment. Loan-loss provisioning reduces the credit banks have available for lending, especially to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers, which are perceived as risky.

Arguably, analysts assessing the Italian banking sector are now most worried about the risk of chronically constrained growth rather than another systemic shock, as banks are trapped in a vicious circle whereby poor economic growth means bad loans keep growing, which in turn weigh on growth even further.

The latest ECB stress tests showed that most Italian banks do have loss-absorbing capacity to withstand a theoretical three-year economic shock, but strong concerns remain about their profitability as NPLs reduce their lending ability and deter investors.

 

4-eba-credit-lossesEstimate of aggregate absolute credit losses (in EUR bn.) of systemically  important European banks under the EBA’s baseline and adverse scenario, plus effect on counterparty domiciles. The problem is that the “adverse scenario” isn’t a particularly adverse one, but rather a run-of-the-mill recession – click to enlarge.

 

Moreover, this scenario of sustained weakness prolongs the risk of banks eventually being forced to resort to a bail-in. A recapitalization of the banking sector involving substantial losses for retail investors would strongly hit consumer confidence and spending, the backbone of Italy‘s economy, which analysts we surveyed foresee as remaining essential to its fragile recovery.

For a country whose already weak economic growth is heavily dependent on domestic demand, this would therefore bode disaster, and not only for the individual citizens with affected bond holdings.

 

Italy’s Banking Sector Woes

The Italian government is desperate to avoid any need for a bail-in, especially after the politically disastrous bail-ins of a handful of small regional banks last year. In this context, it has sought to reassure the markets that individual critical cases of weakness are contained and new capital can be raised without the need for individual investors to take a hit.

But exactly how the overwhelming quantity of NPLs in the Italian banking sector will be dealt with is still far from clear. Italian banks have only made provisions to cover just under half of the 360 EUR billion NPLs weighing down their bank balance sheets, of which 210 EUR billion are already estimated by the IMF to be bad loans that will be irrecoverable.

 

5-bank-non-performing-loans-to-total-gross-loans_0Italian NPLs as a percentage of gross loans outstanding (as of 2015). The bulk of these non-performing loans have been extended in the economically extremely weak and Mafia-riddled South of the country and recoveries are likely to be very small – click to enlarge.

 

Plans such as that affecting MPS, where NPLs are to be offloaded into a securitization vehicle in an attempt to sell them to investors, would seem to be in line with the IMF’s recommendation that Italy build a robust market in NPLs.

And yet many analysts consider such ambitions rather wishful thinking, especially since most of the bad loans on Italian bank balance sheets are uncollateralized loans to small businesses and consumers (in contrast to the mortgage NPLs that dominated Spanish and Irish bank balance sheets during their time of stress), and specialist NPL buyers tend to be more attracted to loans with easily recoverable, tangible collateral.

Moreover, if Italy is to create a functioning NPL market, banks will need to accept significant write-downs on their loans compared to their current book value. There is a sizeable discrepancy between banks’ valuations of the NPLs and the price they would get for them if they attempted to sell off the loans to specialist distressed debt players, which will create yet more of a gaping hole on bank balance sheets.

The small private Atlante fund and its successor Atlante 2, set up by the Italian government to help participate in distressed banks’ recapitalization and also to buy NPLs from banks, are unlikely to be anywhere near large enough to resolve these problems.

 

Bailing in Retail Investors?

To complicate matters further, holdings of bank bonds by retail investors are exceptionally high due to the longstanding practice in the country of selling (or rather mis-selling) bank bonds to ordinary citizens.

An IMF report published back in July calculated that retail investors own about one third of around 600 EUR billion of senior bank bonds and nearly half of an estimated 60 EUR billion of subordinated bonds on the balance sheets of Italy’s 15 largest banks.

Under the bail-in requirement of the EU’s Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) in force since the start of this year, at least 8% of a failing bank’s total liabilities must be written off before state aid can be requested, if the EU enforces strict adherence to the rules (the Italian government has been investigating every possible loophole in case).

In Italy, the IMF estimates that this requirement would hit the majority of subordinated bond holdings by retail investors in the fifteen largest banks and that it would also hit some of their senior debt holdings in two thirds of those cases.

 

6-monte-dei-paschiBanca Monte dei Paschi’s share price has collapsed – and is reaching new lows almost daily. Bondholders are in the crosshairs now – the problem is, many of them are retail clients of the bank and have essentially been duped when the bonds were sold to them – click to enlarge.

 

After the experiences of massive publically-funded bank bailouts in countries such as the UK, Ireland and Spain during the height of the financial crisis, the whole idea behind the BRRD was to break the link between banking and sovereign risk and to stop putting taxpayers on the hook for private banking sector failures, making bank bondholders pay instead.

But this assumes that the bondholders are institutional investors, and fails to take account of the specific circumstances of countries such as Italy where retail investors risk having their holdings wiped out too.

In Italy’s case, many of the bank bondholders at risk are ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who were mis-sold bank debt as if it were as safe as placing their money in a savings account but with the added benefit of a much higher interest rate.

In fact, retail investors are likely to be disproportionately affected compared to institutional investors, since individual citizens are usually sold more risky subordinated debt rather than its safer senior counterpart.

 

Recession Risk

Unless concrete plans for how to create a functioning NPL market are devised, it is unclear how banks that need to recapitalize will be able to do so without ultimately ending up hurting at least some of their equity and subordinated debt holders.

For a country where consumer spending is the cornerstone of an already weak recovery, imposing losses on retail investors, if they are not somehow exempted, would risk dampening consumer confidence to the extent that this could in itself push the country back into recession.

This is before the wider downside risk implications of a struggling banking sector are even taken into consideration. Even if a bail-in remains avoidable, if banks are forced to use their own precious reserves to increase loan-loss provisions and capital buffers in the absence of any substantial state aid injection, this risks prolonging the Catch-22 of poor growth leading to a weak banking sector and vice versa.

 

Charts by: BigCharts, Focus Economics, TradingEconomics, EBA, Steven Handke / John Hopkins University, 4-traders

 

Chart and image captions by PT

 

This article originally apperared as “The Italian Dilemma: Weak banks pose risk to already faltering domestic demand” at FocusEconomics.

 

Caroline Gray is the Senior Economics Editor at FocusEconomics. She specializes in politics and political economy. She recently completed a PhD on regional financing and nationalist politics in Spain, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Previously, she spent three years (2010-2012) reporting on the financial crisis in Spain for government departments and then private sector clients, first as a Political and Economic Officer at the British Embassy in Madrid and subsequently as a financial reporter responsible for covering Spain at a fixed income intelligence service (Debtwire) within the Financial Times Group. She has also worked as a freelance translator (Spanish-English) and copy editor for think tanks on international affairs. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a First Class degree in Modern Languages (French and Spanish).

 

 

 

 

Emigrate While You Can... Learn More

 


 

 
 

Dear Readers!

You may have noticed that our so-called “semiannual” funding drive, which started sometime in the summer if memory serves, has seamlessly segued into the winter. In fact, the year is almost over! We assure you this is not merely evidence of our chutzpa; rather, it is indicative of the fact that ad income still needs to be supplemented in order to support upkeep of the site. Naturally, the traditional benefits that can be spontaneously triggered by donations to this site remain operative regardless of the season - ranging from a boost to general well-being/happiness (inter alia featuring improved sleep & appetite), children including you in their songs, up to the likely allotment of privileges in the afterlife, etc., etc., but the Christmas season is probably an especially propitious time to cross our palms with silver. A special thank you to all readers who have already chipped in, your generosity is greatly appreciated. Regardless of that, we are honored by everybody's readership and hope we have managed to add a little value to your life.

   

Bitcoin address: 12vB2LeWQNjWh59tyfWw23ySqJ9kTfJifA

   
 

Your comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Most read in the last 20 days:

  • America Goes Full Imbecile
      Credit has a wicked way of magnifying a person’s defects.  Even the most cautious man, with unlimited credit, can make mistakes that in retrospect seem absurd.  But an average man, with unlimited credit, is preeminently disposed to going full imbecile.   Let us not forget about this important skill...  [PT]   Several weeks ago we came across a woeful tale of Mike Meru.  Somehow, this special fellow, while of apparent sound mine and worthy intent, racked up...
  • Retail Capitulation – Precious Metals Supply and Demand
      Small Crowds, Shrinking Premiums The prices of gold and silver rose five bucks and 37 cents respectively last week. Is this the blast off to da moon for the silver rocket of halcyon days, in other words 2010-2011?   Various gold bars. Coin and bar premiums have been shrinking steadily (as have coin sales of the US Mint by the way), a sign that retail investors have lost interest in gold. There are even more signs of this actually, and this loss of interest stands in stark...
  • Credit Spreads: Polly is Twitching Again - in Europe
      Junk Bond Spread Breakout The famous dead parrot is coming back to life... in an unexpected place. With its QE operations, which included inter alia corporate bonds, the ECB has managed to suppress credit spreads in Europe to truly ludicrous levels. From there, the effect propagated through arbitrage to other developed markets. And yes, this does “support the economy” - mainly by triggering an avalanche of capital malinvestment and creating the associated boom conditions, while...
  • Gold Divergences Emerge
      Bad Hair Day Produces Positive Divergences On Friday the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China was apparently escalated by a notch to the next level, at least verbally. The Trump administration announced a list of tariffs that are supposed to come into force in three week's time and China clicked back by announcing retaliatory action. In effect, the US government said: take that China, we will now really hurt our own consumers!  - and China's mandarins replied: just you wait, we...
  • Industrial Commodities vs. Gold - Precious Metals Supply and Demand
      Oil is Different Last week, we showed a graph of rising open interest in crude oil futures. From this, we inferred — incorrectly as it turns out — that the basis must be rising. Why else, we asked, would market makers carry more and more oil?   Crude oil acts differently from gold – and so do all other industrial commodities. What makes them different is that the supply of industrial commodities held in storage as a rule suffices to satisfy industrial demand only for a...
  • Chasing the Wind
      Futility with Purpose Plebeians generally ignore the tact of their economic central planners.  They care more that their meatloaf is hot and their suds are cold, than about any plans being hatched in the capital city.  Nonetheless, the central planners know an angry mob, with torches and pitchforks, are only a few empty bellies away.  Hence, they must always stay on point.   Watch for those pitchfork bearers – they can get real nasty and then heads often roll quite literally....
  • Lift-Off Not (Yet) - Precious Metals Supply and Demand
      Wrong-Way Event Last week we said something that turned out to be prescient:   This is not an environment for a Lift Off Event.   An unfortunate technical mishap interrupted the latest moon-flight of the gold rocket. Fear not true believers, a few positive tracks were left behind. [PT]   The price of gold didn’t move much Mon-Thu last week, though the price of silver did seem to be blasting off. Then on Friday, it reversed hard. We will provide a forensic...
  • Cryptocurrency Technicals – Navigating the Bear Market
      A Purely Technical Market Long time readers may recall that we regard Bitcoin and other liquid big cap cryptocurrencies as secondary media of exchange from a monetary theory perspective for the time being. The wave of speculative demand that has propelled them to astonishing heights was triggered by market participants realizing that they have the potential to become money. The process of achieving more widespread adoption of these currencies as a means of payment and establishing...
  • The Fed's “Inflation Target” is Impoverishing American Workers
      Redefined Terms and Absurd Targets At one time, the Federal Reserve's sole mandate was to maintain stable prices and to “fight inflation.”  To the Fed, the financial press, and most everyone else “inflation” means rising prices instead of its original and true definition as an increase in the money supply.  Rising prices are a consequence – a very painful consequence – of money printing.   Fed Chair Jerome Powell apparently does not see the pernicious effects...
  • Merger Mania and the Kings of Debt
      Another Early Warning Siren Goes Off Our friend Jonathan Tepper of research house Variant Perception (check out their blog to see some of their excellent work) recently pointed out to us that the volume of mergers and acquisitions has increased rather noticeably lately. Some color on this was provided in an article published by Reuters in late May, “Global M&A hits record $2 trillion in the year to date”, which inter alia contained the following chart illustrating the...

Support Acting Man

Item Guides

j9TJzzN

The Review Insider

Dog Blow

Austrian Theory and Investment

Archive

350x200

THE GOLD CARTEL: Government Intervention on Gold, the Mega Bubble in Paper and What This Means for Your Future

Realtime Charts

 

Gold in USD:

[Most Recent Quotes from www.kitco.com]

 


 

Gold in EUR:

[Most Recent Quotes from www.kitco.com]

 


 

Silver in USD:

[Most Recent Quotes from www.kitco.com]

 


 

Platinum in USD:

[Most Recent Quotes from www.kitco.com]

 


 

USD - Index:

[Most Recent USD from www.kitco.com]

 

Mish Talk

 
Buy Silver Now!
 
Buy Gold Now!
 

Oilprice.com