The ECB faces problems from the Euro area banks as well as fiscal policy

This morning has brought us up to date on the state of play at the European Central Bank. Vice President De Guindos opened his speech in Frankfurt telling us this about the expected situation.

The pandemic crisis has put great pressure on economic activity, with euro area growth expected to fall by 8% in 2020. ……The tighter containment measures recently adopted across Europe are weighing on current growth. With the future path of the pandemic highly unclear, risks are clearly tilted to the downside.

So he has set out his stall as vaccine hopes get a relatively minor mention. Thus he looks set to vote for more easing at the December meeting. Also he rather curiously confessed that after 20 years or so the convergence promises for the Euro area economy still have a lot of ground to cover.

The severity of the pandemic shock has varied greatly across euro area countries and sectors, which is leading to uneven economic developments and recovery speeds……..And growth forecasts for 2020 also point towards increasing divergence within the euro area.

Looking ahead that is juts about to be fixed, although a solution to it has been just around the corner for a decade or so now.

The recent European initiatives, such as the Next Generation EU package, should help ensure a more broad-based economic recovery across various jurisdictions and avoid the kind of economic and financial fragmentation that we observed during the euro area sovereign debt crisis.

He also points out there has been sectoral fragmentation although he rather skirts around the issue that this has been a policy choice. Not by the ECB but bu governments.

 Consumers have adopted more cautious behaviour, and the recent tightening of restrictions has notably targeted the services sector, including hotels and restaurants, arts and entertainment, and tourism and travel.

Well Done the ECB!

As ever in a central banking speech there is praise for the central bank itself.

Fiscal support has played a key role in mitigating the impact of the pandemic on the economy and preserving productive capacity. This is very welcome, notwithstanding the sizeable budget deficits anticipated for 2020 and 2021 and the rising levels of sovereign debt.

This theme is added to by this from @Schuldensuehner

 Jefferies shows that France is biggest beneficiary of ECB’s bond purchases. Country has saved €28.2bn since 2015 through artificial reduction in financing costs driven by ECB. In 2nd place among ECB profiteers is Italy w/savings of €26.8bn, Germany 3rd w/€23.7bn.

Care is needed as QE has not been the only game in town especially for Greece which is on the list as saving 2,2 billion Euros a year from a QE plan it was not in! It only was included this year. But the large purchases have clearly reduced costs for government and no doubt makes the ECB popular amongst the politicians it regularly claims to be independent from. But there is more.

While policy support will eventually need to be withdrawn, abrupt and premature termination of the ongoing schemes could give rise to cliff-edge effects and cool the already tepid economic recovery.

It is a bit socco voce but we get a reminder that the ECB is willing to effectively finance a very expansionary fiscal policy. That is why it has two QE programmes running at the same time, but for this purpose the game in town is this.

 The Governing Council will continue its purchases under the pandemic emergency purchase programme (PEPP) with a total envelope of €1,350 billion.

There was a time when that would be an almost unimaginable sum of money but not know as if government’s do as they are told it will be increased.

The purchases will continue to be conducted in a flexible manner over time, across asset classes and among jurisdictions.

Oh and there is a bit of a misprint on the sentence below as they really mean fiscal policy.

This allows the Governing Council to effectively stave off risks to the smooth transmission of monetary policy.

The Banks

These are a running sore with even the ECB Vice President unable to avoid this issue.

The pandemic has also weighed on the long-term profitability outlook for banks in the euro area, depressing their valuations. From around 6% in February of this year, the euro area median banks’ return on equity had declined to slightly above 2% by June.

Tucked away in the explanation is an admittal of the ECB’s role here so I have highlighted it.

The decline in profitability is being driven mainly by higher loan loss provisions and weaker income-generation capacity linked to the ongoing compression of interest margins.

The interest-rate cuts we have seen hurt the banks and this issue was exacerbated by the reductions in the Deposit Rate to -0.5% as the banks have been afraid of passing this onto the ordinary saver and depositor. Thus the Zero Lower Bound ( 0%) did effectively exist for some interest-rates.

This is in spite of the fact that banks have benefited from two main sweeteners. This is the -1% interest-rate of the latest liquidity programmes ( TLTROs) and the QE bond purchases which help inflate the value of the banks bond holdings.

Then we get to the real elephant in the room.

Non-performing loans (NPL) are likely to present a further challenge to bank profitability.

We had got used to being told that a corner had been turned on this issue even in Italy and Greece. Speaking of the latter Piraeus Bank hit trouble last week when it was unable to make a bond payment.

The non-payment of the CoCos coupon will lead to the complete conversion of the convertible bond, amounting to 2.040 billion euros, into 394.4 million common shares.

It is noted that the conversion will not involve an adjustment of the share price and simply, to the 437 million shares of the Bank will be added another 394.4 million shares at the price of 0.70 euros (closing of the share at last Friday’s meeting). ( Capital Gr).

There is a lot of dilution going on here for private shareholders as we note that this is pretty much a nationalisation.

The conversion has one month after December 2 to take place and the result will be the percentage of the Financial Stability Fund, which currently controls 26.4% of Piraeus Bank, to increase to 61.3%.

Meanwhile in Italy you have probably guessed which bank has returned to the news.

LONDON/MILAN/ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s Treasury has asked financial and legal advisers to pitch for a role in the privatisation of Monte dei Paschi BMPS.MI as it strives to secure a merger deal for the Tuscan lender, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Friday.

The equivalent of a Hammer House of Horror production as we mull how like a financial vampire it keeps needing more.

Italy is seeking ways to address pending legal claims amounting to 10 billion euros (£9 billion) that sources say are the main hurdle to privatising the bank.

Even Colin Jackson would struggle with all the hurdles around Monte dei Paschi. Anyway we can confidently expect a coach and horses to be driven through Euro area banking rules.

If we look at the proposed solution we wonder again about the bailouts.

Although banks have stepped up cost-cutting efforts in the wake of the pandemic, they need to push even harder for greater cost efficiency.

So job losses and it seems that muddying the waters will also be the order of the day.

The planned domestic mergers in some countries are an encouraging sign in this regard.

A merger does reduce two problems to one albeit we are back on the road to Too Big To Fail or TBTF.

There is of course the ECB Holy Grail.

Finally, we also need to make progress on the banking union, which unfortunately remains unfinished. Renewed efforts are urgently required to improve its crisis management framework.

Just as Italy makes up its own rules….

Comment

We are now arriving at Monetary Policy 3.0 after number one ( interest-rates) and number two ( QE) have failed to work. In effect the role of monetary policy is to facilitate fiscal policy. It also involves a challenge to democracy as the technocrats of the ECB are looking to set policy for the elected politicians in the Euro area. However there are problems with this and somewhat ironically these have been highlighted by the Twitter feed of the Financial Times which starts with an apparent triumph.

Italy’s bond rally forces key measure of risk to lowest since 2018

So on a financial measure we have convergence. But if we switch to the real economy we get this.

‘There is no money left’: the pandemic’s economic impact is ‘a catastrophe’ for people in southern Italy who were already in a precarious situation

Switching to the banks we are facing the consequences of the Zombification of the sector as the same old names always seem to need more money. Although there has been more hopeful news for BBVA of Spain today albeit exiting the country where banks seem to be able to make money.

PNC to buy U.S. operations of Spanish bank BBVA for $11.6 billion ( @CNBC )

Although the price will no doubt if the speech above is any guide will be pressure to give a home to a Zombie or two.

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Hard times for the economy and banks of Spain

We have an opportunity to peer under the economic bonnet of one of the swing states in the Euro area. We have seen Spain lauded as an economic success followed by the bust of the Euro area crisis and then it move forwards again. But 2020 has proven to be another year of economic trouble and that theme has been added to by this morning’s data release.

The monthly variation of the seasonally and calendar adjusted general Retail Trade Index (RTI)
at constant prices between the months of September and August, stood at −0.3%. This rate was 1.7 points lower than the previous month. ( INE)

So we have a fall when if we follow the official view of recoveries from the pandemic we should be seeing the opposite. Then we note that relative to August there has been a much larger decline. The breakdown is below.

By products, Food remained the same (0.0%) and Non-food products declined by 0.6%. If the latter is broken down by type of product, Household equipment decreased the most (−3.7%).

The one category which rose was personal equipment which was up 2.3%.

If we switch to the annual picture we see this.

In September, the General Retail Trade Index, once adjusted for seasonal and calendar effects, registered a variation of −3.3% as compared with the same month of the previous year. This rate was four tenths lower than the one registered in August.

In a by now familiar pattern car fuel sales are down by 9.2% and after them the breakdown is as follows.

If these sales are broken down by type of product, Food
decreased by 2.7%, and Non-food products by 3.1%.

So unlike in the UK the Spanish are not eating more. After the news we have looked it sadly it is no surprise that jobs are declining.

In September, the employment index in the retail trade sector registered a variation of −3.0%
as compared to the same month of 2019. This rate was three tenths above that recorded in August. Employment decreased by −4.9% in Service stations.

If we look at the structure of the sales we see that small chain stores have been hit hard with sales down 14.3% on a year ago meaning they are only 88.3% of what they were in 2015. There has been a switch towards large chain stores who are 2.4% up in September on a year ago and some 17% up on 2015.

Looking at the overall picture the “Euro Boom” has pretty much been erased as we note that retail sales in September are only 2.2% above 2015. These numbers are not seasonally adjusted and may give the best guide because if there has been a year not fitting regular patterns this is it. We get another clue from the numbers from the Canary Islands where volumes are 13.5% below a year ago and the overall index is at 87,5. I am noting that because it gives us a proxy for the tourism effect, or in this instance the lack of tourism effect. Regular readers will recall we feared that this would be in play when the Covid-19 pandemic started and we can see that it has.

Housing Market

The Bank of Spain and the ECB would of course have turned to these figures first.

The number of mortgages constituted on dwellings is 19,825, 3.4% less than in August 2019. The average amount is 134,678 euros, an increase of 4.0%.

They will have been disappointed to see the number of mortgages lower but pleased to see an increase in mortgage size which offers the hope of more business for their main priority which is the banks and may even offer a hint of house price rises.

One factor of note is that if we look at the remortgage figures we see a different pattern in terms of fixed to floating mortgage rates than we have become used to.

After the change of conditions, the percentage of mortgages
fixed interest increases from 19.0% to 31.2%, while that of variable rate mortgages decreases from 80.4% to 59.7%.

As to house prices these are the most recent numbers.

The annual rate of the Housing Price Index (HPI) decreased one percentage point in the
second quarter of 2020, standing at 2.1%.
By housing type, the rate of new housing reached 4.2%, almost two points below that
registered in the previous quarter

So we still have growth and the central bankers will be happy with an index that is at 126.8 when compared with 2015. Their researchers will be busy enhancing their career prospects by finding Wealth Effects from this whilst nobody asks why all the emails from first-time buyers saying they cannot afford anything keep ending up in the spam folder.

Looking Ahead

Last month the Bank of Spain told us this.

Under these considerations, the economy’s output would fall by 10.5% on average in 2020 in scenario 1, and by up to 12.6% in the event that the less favourable epidemiological situation underlying the construction of scenario 2 were to
materialise. That said, the pickup in activity projected for the second half of this year, following the historic collapse recorded in the first half, would have a positive carry-over
effect on the average GDP growth rate in 2021, which would reach 7.3% in scenario 1, while remaining at 4.1% in scenario 2,

With the pandemic storm clouds gathering around Europe we look set for scenario 2 of a larger decline in GDP followed by a weaker recovery. Also if you are in an economic depression then how long it lasts matters as much as how deep the fall is.

In any event, at the end of 2022, GDP would stand some 2 percentage points (pp) below its pre-crisis level in
scenario 1, a gap that would widen to somewhat more than 6 pp in scenario 2.

It is a bit like wars which are always supposed to be over like Christmas and like a banking collapse where we are drip fed bad news. Speaking of the banks there is plenty of bad news around. We can start with the Turkish situation.

Turkish debt held by European banks via BIS – $64 billion in Spanish banks. – $24 billion, in French banks. – $21 billion, in Italian banks. – $9 billion, in German banks. ( DailyFX )

Then there was also this earlier this week. The Spanish consumer association took th banks to court over past mortgage fees.

Those affected do not need to initiate an individual lawsuit, with the costs and time that this entails, but can directly benefit from the success of the Asufin class action lawsuit.

So, as previously indicated, those 15 million mortgages may recover up to an average of 1,500 euros without the need to litigate. ( El Economista)

I doubt that is the end of the story but it is where we presently stand.

Comment

The situation looks somewhat grim right now and it has consequences.If we look at the labour market we have learned that unemployment as a measure is meaningless so here is a better guide.

Total hours worked would fall very sharply on average in 2020: by 11.9% in scenario 1 and 14.1% in scenario 2. Although the rise in this variable, which began
with the easing of lockdown, would continue over the rest of the projection horizon, the total number of hours worked at the end of 2022 would still be 4.5% and 8.3% lower than before the COVID-19 crisis under scenarios 1 and 2, respectively. ( Bank of Spain)

Also the public finances will be doing some heavy lifting.

.As regards public finances, it is estimated that the general government deficit will increase sharply in 2020, to stand at 10.8% and 12.1% of GDP in each of the two scenarios considered…….Public debt, meanwhile, would increase in 2020 by more than 20 pp in scenario 1 and by
some 25 pp in scenario 2, to stand at 116.8% and 120.6% of GDP, respectively.

Of course debt affordability fears are much reduced when some of your bonds can be issued at negative yields and even the ten-year is a mere 0.17%.

As to the banks the eyes of BBVA and Banco Santander will be on developments in Turkey right now.

Me on The Investing Channel