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Europe's banks suffer

Nicole GoebelFebruary 16, 2016

Europe's banks are grappling with a combination of tighter regulation and a weak economic climate. Their shares have been pummeled, prompting managers to call on central banks to intervene.

Symbolbild Dunkle Wolken über der Deutschen Bank
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

"It's not a great time to be a bank." Last week's statement by Credit Suisse Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam just about sums up the mood in Europe's banking sector.

Banks' share prices have been hammered in recent weeks, with the benchmark Euro Stoxx banks index down 23 percent so far this year. Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which are used to insure against debt default, have shot up, reflecting a higher risk of default.

Credit Suisse, one of Europe's top three banks, last week announced a loss of $5.8 billion ($6.45 billion) for 2015. Deutsche Bank CEO John Cryan was not joking last October when he warned staff and investors "not to expect only sweetness and light in the coming months."

At the end of January, the bank reported a staggering loss of 6.8 billion euros for 2015. Deutsche is also mired in no less than 6,000 litigation cases.

Infografik Deutsche Bank Gewinne 2006-2015 Englisch

In Italy, four banks had to be bailed out in November. Italy's banks are sitting on 201 billion euros of bad debt, the highest level in Europe. The country also has far too many banks, which the government has said needs to change.

In total, eurozone banks have some 1.9 trillion euros in loans that aren't being paid back on time.

Adding to the banks' woes is the EU's "Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive" - also known as bail-in rules - which has been in force since January. It stipulates that some of the cost of bank rescues have to be coughed up by shareholders and investors, rather than the public purse.

The directive is part of a drive by European regulators for greater accountability in the banking sector after the 2008/2009 financial crisis.

Add to that a weak global economic climate and tumbling oil prices and you know why bank bosses do not rest easy at the moment.

'Help,' Mario!

In fact, they are so worried they have called on the ECB to help. Unicredit CEO Federico Ghizzoni even demanded concerted action by the major central banks. "One central bank alone is not enough, so there is a need for strong coordination among the most important ones in the US, Europe, Japan and maybe also China," he recently said to "Bloomberg Television."

German business daily "Handelsblatt" quotes a bank manager as saying that "it's time for the ECB to intervene," without giving a name. Another manager told the paper that the banks alone could not "overcome the crisis."

But ECB President Mario Draghi is keeping his cool. Speaking in the European parliament on Monday, he said that the banks were far more solid than a few years ago, and that they had "significantly strengthened their capital positions" following ECB stress tests.

Slow down on reforms, banks say

The paper says they are demanding that the ECB buy their bonds, which have come under pressure recently. They also say that regulatory changes are happening too quickly.

EZB Mario Draghi PK
Draghi: Banks far more solid than a few years agoImage: Reuters/R. Orlowski

Thomas Hartmann-Wendels, a banking professor at the University of Cologne, told DW that while stricter regulation of the banking sector was clearly necessary, "some developments are going too far. For example, the fact that some regulators are calling for banks' own risk assessment models to be scrapped. That's counterproductive, the focus on regulation here is too strong."

The international Basel Committee on Banking Supervision requires banks to use standard models for risk assessment that are used to determine a bank's capital requirements.

Many banks also use their own risk assessment models, which some regulators would like to see the back of for the sake of transparency. But banks argue that they need some degree of leeway to accommodate different business models.

Hartmann-Wendels also points out that "the minimum requirements for risk management have been amended four or five times in the last few years, which is particularly tough on smaller banks."

But these are mere niggles, given that before the 2008/2009 financial crisis the banks "focused too strongly on returns, which could only be achieved by engaging in dodgy deals like tax avoidance schemes or risky derivatives that require very little equity," Hartmann-Wendels explains, stressing that the banks "have still not found answers to those problems."

The ECB could, of course, mop up the banks' bad debts, but that would not be "in accordance with a market economy," says Hartmann-Wendels.

"It has become a bit of a trend that the ECB has to tackle everything - solve the sovereign debt crisis by buying sovereign debts - and so, of course, when the banks have a crisis, why not think the ECB can help there by buying bank bonds?"

"That can't be the solution, the banks have to do their homework," he stresses. If there was a systemic risk to the sector that would have to be addressed, but Hartmann-Wendels does not see it at present.

And he is in good company - German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have both said they see no systemic risk in their countries' banking sector.

What remains is for the banks to win back investors' trust by implementing reforms, as no amount of bond-buying can truly tackle the industry's problems.