Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Quick Take On The European Stress Test

It has been a while since my last post.

I am always thinking that i should write on the two themes that i am following closely - Europe and the financial reform in the US. But then as I read my fellow bloggers - Rebecca Wilder, Mark Thoma, Yves Smith, Simon Johnson and James Kwak and so many others, I realize i have very little to add to the debate.

This time i think i might be adding something new, i guess. The core of this post is on the stress test. Enjoy!

The idea of the stress is to measure the banks’ performance in times of a recession combined with a sovereign crisis. Indeed, according to the Committee of European Banking Supervisors site also assumes an adverse scenario that leads to a hike in interest rates leading to a deterioration in the EU bond markets. This scenario assumes a 3% deviation of GDP for the EU compared to the EC forecasts over two years horizon.

Clearly, the idea of the European stress test, organized by the CEBS, is to be sure that banks have enough buffers to support a significant downward turn. It seems that it is only stress test equity tier 1 capital, not something else.

The list with all the banks that are being tested can be found here.

The market is signaling two important things. First, it will equally bad if all banks fail or if all banks pass. Clearly, neither scenario couldn´t be farther from the truth. Second, the Euro will get a boost of credibility mostly if there is transparency in the process.

While we hope for the best regarding the outcome of the tests, it seems that we might have a few critical problems. The major problem is that the CEBS announced that there is no need for countries to release the methodology of the tests. So, it may be the case that all Greek banks can pass the test according to the Greek methodology but fail under the German one, for example. How can we compare apples with oranges? By not having a unified methodology the CEBS is saying that the same countries that run a unified currency – the Euro – are so different income wise, GDP wise, trade wise, labor wise, tax wise, that they cannot bear the same methodology under a stress test. The question then comes: Why should countries that have different criteria for stress tests carry the same currency?

Bear in mind that countries are not required to release the methodology. But I hope regulators are aware that the key goal of this test is to enhance the Euro’s credibility and hence the more transparent it is, the more credible it gets.

The second problem with the Friday outcome is that there is no consensus on how a bank can get the required funding. So, for example, let´s it is indeed true that the nationalized Hypo Real Estate Holding AG failed the test. In this case it seems that the bank would need to raise capital in the market. Clearly, the bank will fail to raise the required capital. Then, it seems that the bank needs to ask for the local government. So, in the case Hypo Real Estate it would ask to be bailout by the German government. However, the missing aspect here is that it European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) was created exactly to bail out the banks. The €440bn ($520bn) rescue package establishes a special purpose vehicle, backed by individual guarantees provided by all 19 member countries. But if the EFSF was created with the intent of bailing out the banks why can't member countries (and their commercial banks) access the funds right away?

In the United States one should remember that the outcome of the stress tests displayed a shattered financial system. No doubts in early 2009, the system was way better than September-October 2008 but far from being considered dynamic or healthy. However, in the US, the regulators were able to inject capital in the banks that failed the test. What would happen if the state banks in Germany and Spain fail the test? Will they be required to be shut down? In the US there was a strong consensus that the government was going to bail out those who fail the test. In Europe there is no such a guarantee.

I honestly cannot foresee a happy outcome for the European stress test. While people simply are no longer talking about Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, I don´t think that the sovereign crisis experienced by Greece in May 2010 is gone for good. It is not true that what we have seen was simply a confidence crisis against the Euro and against Greece. While markets may remain calm for a while, the crisis we observed early this year displayed key problems and fragilities surrounding the Euro. Here are a few obstacles of the Euro zone: the fact that countries have high debt levels, that some countries chose to preserve the old ‘welfare state’ but also like to have a strong Euro, that the Eurozone will always have different labor costs, that the Euro lacks a unified fiscal stance and most of all, that it is impossible to group poor and rich countries under a single currency.