Dilemma For European Banks: Clean Books Or Lend?

Apr 27, 2012
Originally published on April 27, 2012 9:35 am

The walls of the Clock Shop in downtown Frankfurt, Germany, are lined with timepieces of every kind, from cuckoo clocks to digital watches. It's a testament to the store's 55-year history as a functioning business.

One of the things that has remained constant for much of that time is the store's relationship with its bank, owner Basia Szlomowicz says.

"They know us," she says. For years, the bank, which she doesn't want to name, has extended credit to her family when they needed it. But in the wake of the financial crisis, small businesses like hers have had a tougher time getting credit.

"Now you have fixed [credit]. This is the amount, not more," Szlomowicz says. "If you need more, you have to ask."

In Europe, businesses of every size tend to rely much more heavily on banks to operate, especially compared with U.S. companies, says Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based research institute Bruegel. He says U.S. companies have a much broader array of credit choices available to them.

Since European businesses are so dependent on banks, restoring Europe's feeble economy will depend to a great extent on whether its troubled banking sector can recover.

A Bank Health Assessment

Just as in the U.S., many large European financial institutions came through the financial crisis saddled with bad debt, such as Greek bonds and subprime mortgage bonds. In a few cases, such as the French-Belgian bank Dexia, governments had to come to the rescue by taking them over.

That happened in the U.S., too, says Yalman Onaran, author of the book Zombie Banks: How Broken Banks and Debtor Nations Are Crippling the Global Economy. The situation was different in Europe, though, he says.

"In Europe, there are so many examples in so many countries, and the repercussions of their 'zombies' is also problematic for our banking system, too," Onaran says. "I mean, our banks lend to their banks."

Veron says the banking system has been fragile since October 2008 "and has never got back to normal."

The condition of the European banks varies enormously. Still, assessing the condition of banks can be a murky task. Many hold assets that remain difficult to value. Regulations and accounting rules vary by country. Moreover, many European banks aren't traded on the stock market and may not release financial data.

Meanwhile, the sovereign debt crisis has cut a swath through the industry. Many banks had loaded up on government bonds, and when those bonds lost value, they found themselves in a precarious position. Investors were scared off, making it tougher for the banks to raise the short-term funds they need to operate.

The European Central Bank had to ride to the rescue with short-term injections of capital. The moves helped avert a crisis, and credit conditions have largely improved, says ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio.

However, the ECB's moves can't reverse the fortunes of a bank that is truly insolvent — and they weren't meant to, he says.

Balancing Budgets

Now the industry is facing a new problem. Last October, regulators demanded that banks shore up their balance sheets by adding a total of 115 billion euros to their loan reserves by June, part of a renewed push to restore the industry's credibility.

It's not clear where the banks will get the money, though. The International Monetary Fund warned last week that the banks could cut back on lending in an effort to improve their capital levels. With the continent on the verge of a recession, IMF officials say, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. The IMF warned that a credit slowdown would hit already-troubled countries like Italy and Spain the hardest.

"They're afraid of a massive process of bank deleveraging, banks shrinking their balance sheets and not lending and not taking risks, and this is bad for the economy," Veron says.

For all the banks' troubles, they also have one big thing in their favor, says Gregory Turnbull-Schwartz, an investment manager at Kames Capital. In the end, governments won't let them fail, he says.

"They do have a problem, and it's something that, for a bank analyst, is kind of concerning. However, I do think government support, despite the rhetoric, is still there," Turnbull-Schwartz says. "I don't think we're at the stage where governments in the U.K. and Europe, or even in the United States for that matter, are going to stand by and let one of the large banks go under."

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Last week the International Monetary Fund sent out a warning about Europe's banks. The IMF said efforts to clean up the bank's balance sheets could actually end up hurting the economy, which is already on the verge of a recession. The warning comes at a time when the health of the banks is generating a lot of concern, and efforts to help them have had mixed results.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The walls inside Basia Szlomowicz's Clock Shop in downtown Frankfurt are lined with timepieces of every kind - from digital watches to cuckoo clocks. She's turned off most of them so she can hear her customers, though the occasional chime fills the air.


ZARROLI: Szlomowicz's family has run this store for 55 years. Like a lot of business owners, she's seen revenues fall lately.

BASIA SZLOMOWICZ: You see a lot of people don't have work, so they're afraid to spend money because they don't know what tomorrow going to be.

ZARROLI: Her problems are made worse because credit has been tightened. Szlomowicz's family has used the same bank for years.

SZLOMOWICZ: They know us, we pay back, and then we need some little bit more money and it was like this. But now you have fix. This is the amount, not more.

ZARROLI: In the United States, small businesses raise money by going to credit unions or getting an SBA loan, or even using their credit cards. Bigger businesses go to private equity or venture capital firms, or they sell stock. There are lots of ways to raise money. But in Europe, businesses depend heavily on big banks.

Nicolas Veron of the research institute Breughel says that's one of the reasons the financial crisis hit Europe so hard. Veron says yes, American banks had problems and credit dried up for a while.

NICOLAS VERON: But the financial system didn't stop operating during that process, while in Europe when banks are hit and don't function normally, basically the whole financial system becomes dysfunctional.

ZARROLI: That means reviving Europe's economy will depend heavily on how its banks are doing. And it underscores the banks' dilemma. Europe needs them to keep lending, but they're also under pressure to do clean the toxic debt off their balance sheets in a way that will make lending harder.

Yalman Onaran, author of the book "Zombie Banks," says the financial crisis left the world with a lot of troubled banks that have been kept alive with the help of governments and central banks.

YALMAN ONARAN: But in Europe, there are so many examples in so many countries, and of course, the repercussions of their zombies is also problematic for our banking system, too. I mean, our banks lend to their banks, too.

ZARROLI: Many of the most troubled banks, like the French-Belgian Dexia, lost money in subprime mortgages and Greek bonds. Others have suffered liquidity problems. As Europe's troubles mounted, investors fled and banks couldn't raise the funds they needed to operate. The European Central Bank had to rescue them with short-term loans of more than a trillion euros.

VERON: The banking system has been basically in a state of systemic fragility since, at least, October 2008 and has never got back to normal.

ZARROLI: Last October, the troubles multiplied. European regulators ordered big banks to shore up their balance sheets by adding 115 billion euros to their loan reserves by June. It's not clear how they'll raise the money. The IMF is worried they'll do so by cutting back on lending, Veron says.

VERON: They're afraid of a massive process of bank deleveraging, so banks shrinking their balance sheets and not lending and not taking your risk, and this is bad for the economy.

ZARROLI: The IMF warned that a credit slowdown would hit already troubled countries such Italy and Spain the hardest.

Regulators have tried to reassure investors about the banks' health. They forced the biggest banks to undergo stress tests, which they passed with flying colors. But the tests aren't always seen as very reliable. The last time around, regulators gave a clean bill of health to Dexia, just a few weeks before it imploded.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.