European economy in a whole lot of trouble

Concerns about the health of European banks, particularly German banks, and the pace of Eurozone economic recovery have intensified.  Warnings by the European Central Bank’s (ECB) about further financial sector weakness if there is not a “V” shaped recovery reveal the extent of such concerns.  Attention is increasingly focusing on a lack of transparency and the fact that European regulators are not releasing the results of industry wide stress tests in contrast to the recently released results of US bank stress tests.  Such problems have not gone unnoticed in Germany and even the bank regulator in the country said recently that toxic assets at German bank could blow up “like a grenade”. 

It’s worth noting that the IMF’s estimates for future writedowns and capital requirements in its financial stability report suggest that European banks have much more to do than their US counterparts. See an earlier post titled “Stress testing European and UK banks”.   The IMF repeated its warnings this week as it wrapped up its consultations with European officials, whilst US Treasury Secretary Geithner is set to pressure European authorities to carry out tougher stress tests at this week’s G8 meeting.   Germany has taken some steps towards resolving its banking sector problems and this week the German cabinet agreed to support a “bad bank” plan.  Nonetheless, the task will not be easy as Germany is estimated to have over $1 billion in toxic assets, with consolidation of the regionally owned Landesbanken a major concern. 

The prospect of a “V” shaped recovery in Europe is extremely limited.  Warnings about the pace of eurozone economic recovery should be taken seriously.  However, some officials such as the ECB’s Quaden are already talking about an exit strategy, which looks very premature given the likely slower recovery in the eurozone compared to the US over the coming months.  Whilst the US economy is set to see positive growth next year, albeit below trend, Europe is facing a second year of economic contraction.   Moreover, the drop in Eurozone growth in 2009 is likely to be far steeper than the US, with the economy set to decline by close to 5%.  The bigger than forecast 21.6% annual drop in German industrial production in April and the 29% annual drop in April exports released this week provided a timely reminder of the pressure on Eurozone’s biggest economy.  Given the fact that the German economy is still highly reliant on export growth the data were particularly worrying. 

Against this background and with inflation continuing to drop, the ECB is highly unlikely to raise interest rates until the beginning of 2011 at the earliest.  The fact that ECB officials are even talking about an exit strategy seems completely at odds with the reality of the situation.  As it is the ECB’s EUR 60 billion covered bond purchase plan will have a limited impact, and the policy can hardly be labeled as aggressive.  

Even so, there is no indication that the ECB is about to embark on more aggressive credit or quantitative easing.   The latest ECB monthly report predicts that growth in the eurozone will begin to pick up by the middle of next year but admits that inflation could turn negative over coming months.   Surely this will give the ECB further room to maintain easy monetary policy.   Once again disagreements within a 16 nation ECB council will result in compromise at a time when the eurozone economy is crying out for decisive policy actions.   Growth and banking sector concerns will also be a factor that helps to prevent the euro from fully capitalising on any weakness in the dollar.

Stress testing European and UK banks

The US bank stress tests are finally over and markets are breathing a massive sign of relief. 10 out of the 19 banks tested will have to raise $74.6bn in equity but none of the 19 banks will become insolvent, with additional capital requirements deemed as “manageable”.

It hardly seemed worth getting all stressed up over the stress tests but the results are likely to prompt much debate about the methodology used and will not put to bed the issue of the health of the US financial sector and potential for even more capital raising in the future. This should be the theme of another post but for now I want to discuss what this means for European and UK banks.

The stress tests raise questions about whether the European and UK banking sector should follow the US.  The US administration has used the ratio of tangible common equity to total assets for its stress tests on US banks. This measure has been labeled as old fashioned but one that investors currently prefer. This is also the measure the IMF has used in its recent calculations to work our additional capital requirements for banks globally.

The IMF financial stability report estimated additional credit related writedowns in 2009 and 2010 at $550bn in the US, $750bn in the eurozone, and $200bn in the UK. The IMF estimates that the ratio of tangible common equity to total assets was 3.7% in the US at end 2008 but only 2.5% in the eurozone and 2.1% in the UK. It concludes that the extra capital needed to increase this ratio to 6% would be $500bn in the US, $725bn in the eurozone and $250 billion in the UK.

So will be there similar stress tests in Europe and the UK? The increased transparency that the stress test results have brought about in the US is good news for investors even if no bank was ever going to fail them but they raise a potentially worrying comparison with European and UK  banks which appear to have been far less forthcoming. The figures have been disputed by eurozone and UK officials but assuming the IMF is right the estimates raise some disturbing questions about financial sector health outside the US.

Show me the money

The long awaited results of the US administration’s stress tests for US bank will be announced on May 7th. There have been various rumours and speculation about the details in terms of the extent that banks will require further capital injections and indeed which banks will need such injections. Ahead of the announcement I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at the potential equity needed in the global financial sector.

Some light on this was shed by the IMF’s recent release of the Global Financial Stability Report in which the fund increased its total estimates of global writedowns to over $4 trillion. The most recent estimates of financial sector writdowns suggest that institutions are only about one-third of the way there.

In other words there is still a considerable amount of writedowns on toxic debt left to be undertaken. The IMF estimated further writedowns in the US in 2009 and 2010 at $550 billion, $750 billion in the eurozone and $200 billion in the UK.

Moreover, they estimate that financial institutions will require $500 billion of additional capital in the US, $725 billion in the eurozone and $250 billion in the UK just to raise the ratio of common equity to total assets (a measure of leverage) to 6%. Even these estimates may prove conservative. After all, the IMF has raised its estimates of total writedowns several times already and will likely do so again. These figures do not even include the need for other financing which when added amounts to around 60% of Bank’s total assets.

The bottom line is that even with all the money that is being provided to financial institutions at present it will be highly unlikely that they will be able to raise sufficient capital if the IMF’s estimates are anything to go by. Consequently balance sheets will contract sharply and deleveraging will continue.  Governments will be forced to provide support for a long time to come and the end result will be either outright nationalisation or alternatively bankruptcy for some institutions that are deemed not too big to fail.  Worryingly the risks are skewed on the downside, especially if the economic recovery is a weak one which I believe is highly likely to be the case.

10 questions to ask…

…before you return to the stockmarket.

Equity markets have undergone their biggest 5-week rally since the great depression but there are several questions that should be considered to determine whether the gains will last.

1) Why is the rally in equities broad based? On the face of it a broad based rally should come as good news but it also appears indiscriminate with investors rushing to buy any stocks regardless of the underlying factors. This suggests investors are jumping in without looking where they will land.

2) Why are financial stocks rebounding so strongly? Surely all the problems have not been resolved so quickly. Even if the removal of toxic assets are starting to gain traction markets are unlikely to have anticipated the likely problems coming from a new wave of credit card defaults, and comsumer and corporate loan delinquencies as economic conditions deteriorate and unemployment rises.

3) Have markets factored in the outcome of the results of the stress tests on US banks? These results will be known in about three weeks. Although no bank can fail the tests from a technical perspective, there is every chance that some will be found to be in bad shape and in need of more capital.

4) What effect will the impact of accounting changes have? The relaxation of industry accounting standards in the US mean that it will be difficult to gauge losses on a variety of debt. This could add to the uncertainty surrounding valuations rather than help to end it.

5) How will tensions between banks and the administration impact stocks? There appears to be growing tensions between the US administration and banks over repayment of bailout money and the speed at which banks are removing toxic assets from balance sheets. Many banks in the US are reluctant to announce further writedowns despite pressure to do so.

6) How long will positive data surprises continue? Clearly expectations for economic data had become overly bearish over recent months. Data releases have actually come in better than forecast recently as reality has not been as bad as expectations. This in turn, has helped give more fuel to the market rally. Once expectations become more realistic markets will find little support from positive data surprises.

7) Are markets full pricing in the depth and breadth of the recession? It appears that markets are looking at the current economic downturn as if it was the same as past cyclical downturns. This is unlikely to prove correct as economic conditions will not improve anywhere near as quickly as experienced in recent recessions. Moreover, the jobs market is likely to continue to worsen for many months to come. At best, economic recovery is unlikely until early 2010 and even this may be optimistic whilst any recovery is likely to be slow and mild relative to past recoveries.

8)How compelling are valuations? Although the price side of the P/E ratio has dropped sharply the earnings outlook continues to be negative. Analysts have forecast Q1 earnings to drop by around 37% but as the economy worsens and unemployment rises the earnings outlook could like quite bad for some time to come.

9) Are stocks rallying too quickly? Historically equity markets do not rally so rapidly following such a shock on the downside. Any rally is usually slower.

10) Are stocks rallying too early? Stocks rally around 5-6 months ahead of an upturn in economic conditions but as noted above any recovery in the economy is unlikely before early next year, which suggests the stock rally is premature.

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