The Eurozone Banks' Trillion-Dollar Timebomb
Eurozone banks have fallen dramatically in the stock market despite the results of the stress tests carried out by the ECB. EU Banks Index is down 25% on the year despite year-long bullish recommendations from almost every broker. This should not surprise anyone because we have seen in the past that these tests are only a theoretical exercise. Moreover, stress tests’ results are widely challenged, and rightly so, because the exercise starts with the most ridiculous premise in economics: Ceteris Paribus, or “all else remaining equal”, which never happens. Every asset manager knows that risk builds slowly and happens fast.
Disappointing earnings, rising risk in the eurozone as well as in their diversification markets such as emerging economies, weak net income margins and low return on tangible equity are factors that have contributed to the weak performance of European banks. Investors are rightly suspicious about consensus estimates for 2019 with expectations of double-digit EPS growth rates. Those growth rates look impossible in the current macroeconomic scenario.
Eurozone banks have done a good job of strengthening their capital structure, reaching almost a one per cent per annum increase in Tier 1 core capital. The question is whether this improvement is enough.
Two factors weigh on sentiment.
More than EUR104 billion of risky “hybrid bonds” (CoCos) are included in the calculation of core capital.
The total volume of Non-Performing Loans across the European Union is still at around EUR 900 billion, well above pre-crisis levels, with a provision ratio of only 50.7%, according to the European Commission. Although the ratio has declined to 4.4%, down by roughly 1 percentage point year-on-year, the absolute figure remains elevated and the provision ratio is too small.
This is what I call the “one trillion eurozone timebomb”. One trillion euro risk when the MSCI Europe Bank index has a total market capitalization of around EUR790 billion.
(Source: Bloomberg, Bologna, Miglietta, Segura)
Let us focus on the CoCos, because it is a less commented issue.
The EUR104 billion of CoCos can be a double-edged sword. On one side, they have been one of the favourite instruments to improve core capital rapidly. It was a very popular instrument in recent years to reinforce capital and diversify funding sources. On the other hand, it is a highly risky asset that can create a domino effect on the equity and the other bonds of the entity. Let us face it, the idea that a CoCo can default with no contagion risk to the rest of the capital structure is simply ludicrous.