December 28, 2018

European banks that leveraged more than 40 (25) times were (are) not banks; only scary betting propositions.

Sir, Stephen Morris, summarizing the state of European banks writes, “Poor profitability, outdated business models, negative rates and little cause for optimism have driven investors away”“Europe’s banks languish in a climate of gloom”, December 28.

As I see it, something leveraged way over 40 times, as many European banks were before the 2008 crisis, should hardly be called bank. When regulators went along with some bankers’ plea to reduce the capital the banks needed to hold, perhaps for bankers to be able to pay themselves larger bonuses, they simply destroyed the bank system that was. 

If I was a regulator, and wanted my banks to grow stronger than their competitors, the last thing I would do, is to allow them to hold little capital.

The regulators, with Basel II in 2004, showed they believe banks could leverage 62.5 times with assets that have obtained an AAA to AA rating. The market initially believed their risk-weighing capacity and valued banks accordingly. The markets, after 2008, no longer believe such nonsense; “There is better risk-reward elsewhere,” one fund manager is here quoted to have said.

The European Commission assigned a sovereign debt privilege of a 0% risk weighting, meaning no bank capital requirement, to all those sovereigns within the Eurozone that take on debt denominated in a currency that de facto is not their domestic (printable) one. The market had blamed Greece for its excessive public debt and is only now beginning to wake up to that statist horror.

Morris writes: “One activist is trying to force it to exit large swaths of the business, arguing it absorbs too much capital for too little return”. That does not mean capital is unavailable for banks.

Do you want bank investors to return? Then offer them to invest in well-capitalized banks with well-diversified portfolios. To invest in banks that values the highest first class loan officers, not some bright equity minimizing financial engineers.

PS. Seeing “Mary Poppins return” reminded me of why good old George Banks went to fly a kite.