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Europe’s Banks Face Second Funding Squeeze on Sovereign Crisis
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European banks at risk of writedowns from the sovereign debt crisis face a funding squeeze that may depress earnings, curb lending and imperil economic recovery in the region.

Investors are shunning bank securities on concern Greek, Portuguese and Spanish bonds held by the lenders will plunge in value. Bank bond sales slowed in May to the lowest since Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s failure in 2008 as the extra yield buyers demand to hold the securities over government debt soared to the highest this year. Firms are wary of lending to each other, depositing record funds with the European Central Bank.

“There is a lot of mistrust,” said Christoph Rieger, co- head of fixed-income strategy at Commerzbank AG in Frankfurt. “Banks are trading with the ECB rather than with each other.”

The central bank is preventing a crisis by providing banks with unprecedented funding. In substituting long-term money with shorter-maturity ECB cash, policymakers are making it harder to wean banks off life support as well as the short-term financing that regulators blame for the credit crisis.

The cost of insuring bank debt from default rose close to a record last week. The Markit iTraxx Financial Index of swaps on 25 European banks and insurers climbed to 208 basis points on June 8, approaching the all-time high of 210 basis points set in March 2009, JPMorgan Chase & Co. prices show.

Italy’s Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, SEB AB, the second-biggest bank in the Baltic states, DnB NOR ASA and ING Groep NV have isolated themselves from the freeze by already selling all the debt they needed this year, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley analyst Huw van Steenis. Germany’s Commerzbank AG, France’s Natixis SA and Spain’s Banco Espanol de Credito SA have raised less than 35 percent of the senior funding they require, he wrote in a note to clients on June 9.

Markets ’Doing Their Job’

“If you’re not a quality borrower, you’re not going to get funding from the market until you reduce your loan-to-deposit ratio and shrink your balance sheet,” said Simon Maughan, an analyst at MF Global Ltd. in London. “The credit and bond markets are doing their job. Unless you reform, you’ll be stuck on government support for the foreseeable future.”

An official at Natixis declined to comment. Officials at Banesto in Madrid didn’t return calls for comment. “We are comfortably funded,” Commerzbank spokesman Reiner Rossman said by telephone.

Risk aversion is helping to spur sales of covered bonds, securities that are guaranteed by the issuer and backed by mortgages and other loans, reducing risk for investors and interest payments for the issuer. Financial firms have sold 11.5 billion euros ($13.9 billion) of the bonds this month, three times the total for May, according to van Steenis. Frankfurt- based Commerzbank raised 1 billion euros in a June 9 offering.

‘Rare And Expensive’

Banks are still struggling to borrow even from one another and loans with a maturity of more than one month are “rare and expensive,” making them depend more on ECB funding, Brice Vandamme, a London-based analyst at Deutsche Bank AG, wrote in a note to clients on June 9.

Shut out of the interbank market, lenders tapped the ECB for 122 billion euros of seven-day cash at the central bank’s last weekly tender on June 8. The 96 bidders paid an interest rate of 1 percent on those loans, almost three times the one- week euro interbank offered rate of 0.37 percent. The ECB didn’t identify the banks involved.

Europe’s lenders deposited a record 369 billion euros in the ECB’s overnight deposit facility on June 9, more than in the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse. Deposits have surpassed 360 billion euros for the past week. In the eight years leading up to Lehman’s collapse, euro-region banks deposited an average of about 277 million euros with the ECB.

‘Dangerous Games’

Firms are leaving cash with the central bank instead of lending it to other banks amid concern that counterparties may collapse. Deposits have also climbed to a record as the ECB flooded money markets with cash since 2008.

“Central banks are helping with funding and liquidity and, if push came to shove, further accommodation would be provided,” said Nigel Sillis, director of fixed-income and currency research at Baring Asset Management in London, which has 35 billion euros of assets under management. “The ECB’s role isn’t to play dangerous games by withdrawing funding early: it’s to prevent a sovereign issue becoming a banking issue.”

Increased reliance on short-term ECB loans and interbank funding runs counter to the rules being proposed by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. The committee, which sets minimum standards for banks in 27 countries, plans to require banks to maintain a “net stable funding ratio” of 100 percent, meaning they would need an amount of longer-term loans or deposits equal to their financing needs for 12 months.

Basel Delayed?

The Basel Committee’s proposals will have to be modified and phased in over a long period of time, according to Morgan Stanley’s van Steenis. Basel will require 1.5 trillion euros of incremental bank deposits and bond funding alone, he estimated.

WestLB AG, the German state-owned lender bailed out during the financial crisis, is among banks paying the most to borrow for three months in euros, dollars and pounds, according to data from the British Bankers’ Association.

“Funding costs for any bank are a reflection of an institution’s credit ratings,” WestLB spokesman Richard Bassett said, referring to the bank’s BBB+ credit rating from Standard & Poor’s. “WestLB has benefited from recent restructuring and is now a profitable bank with a stable earnings base.”

European banks are on average paying 4 basis points more than U.S. lenders to access three-month dollar cash, close to the widest since November, the BBA data show.

Bonds ‘Crowded Out’

The ECB said on May 31 that Europe’s banks will have to write down 195 billion euros of bad debt by 2011, on top of the 444 billion euros of writedowns they have already logged, bringing the total to the equivalent of $762 billion. U.S. banks will have written down $885 billion by the end of 2010, the International Monetary Fund said in April.

The ECB said European banks’ ability to sell bonds may be hampered as governments seek to finance fiscal deficits amassed in part to finance a bailout of the banking industry.

With governments facing “heavy financing requirements over the coming years” there’s a “risk of bank bond issuance being crowded out,” the Frankfurt-based ECB said in its biannual Financial Stability Report.

The ECB is going to have to continue supporting banks in the region for at least the time being, said Danny Gabay, director of Fathom Financial Consulting in London and a former Bank of England economist.

“The banks are entering increasingly turbulent waters now,” Gabay said. “For too long policy makers in Europe were looking the other way, hoping we could sail through the financial crisis. Now their chickens have come home to roost.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Gavin Finch in London at gfinch@bloomberg.net; John Glover in London at johnglover@bloomberg.net

Source >  Bloomberg

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