EU countries to rescue banks that fail stress tests

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European countries will support banks that fail stress tests if those lenders cannot raise capital from investors within six months, according to a draft EU document.

The paper, being prepared for EU finance ministers to approve on Tuesday (12 July), is an about-face from promises by the G20 in the wake of the financial crisis that taxpayers would never have to bail out banks again.

The European Banking Authority is due to announce next week the results of its latest stress tests of the region's top lenders – 91 in all – in another attempt to reassure investors that European banks have been rebuilt against future shocks.

This latest round of tests has been touted as being more rigorous than previous attempts in which few banks failed, and finance ministers' officials are drawing up plans for how to deal with the fallout.

Lenders that nearly fail the tests will be put on a critical watch list in case they deteriorate further, the document says. Those banks will be given until the end of September to repair their finances and will then have a further three months to implement it.

News that EU governments appear serious about supporting banks that fail to maintain core capital of 5% in the face of several theoretical markets shocks lifted Bund futures and UK gilts.

"In essence that puts even more pressure on the periphery (eurozone countries) to come up with measures, not only to shore up their budgets, but to support their banking sectors, which they can ill-afford to do," said Marc Ostwald, strategist at Monument Securities.

"It's basically a charge to safety on the back of this. This is a market which is living in mortal fear of anything to do with the euro zone and anything that puts the banking sector under more stress," Ostwald said.

The Italian/German 10-year yield spread hit fresh euro-era highs amid fears that already fiscally stretched countries like Italy may have to dig into their pockets to bail out banks that fail the test as well.

Private sector first

According to the document, capital-raising plans should first be based on "private-sector measures, including […] retained earnings […] raising additional common equity or high quality hybrid instruments from private investors, assets sales, mergers".

But if the search for private capital leads nowhere, then governments should be ready to step in.

Officials do, however, make provision for "the extreme case" if efforts to rehabilitate a bank fail and it threatens wider stability, recommending "a process of orderly restructuring and resolution".

The number of banks declared by the EBA to have failed will either encourage investors that Europe is now coming clean with its banking problems, or if the tests are deemed too lax again, they will hurt the EU's already battered credibility.

Previous stress tests are widely dismissed as too lax – all Irish banks passed last year's test just months before the EU and International Monetary Fund had to bail them and the country out.

September deadline

In the document, dated 7 July, officials write that banks that miss the 5% capital pass mark will be given until the end of September at the latest to submit recapitalisation plans, with a further three months to implement "private-sector measures".

"If the relevant banks are unable to implement a credible capital plan by the specified deadlines the [government] stands ready to take necessary measures to maintain financial stability," officials write in the document seen by Reuters.

The new checks will measure how well the core capital that banks rely on to absorb losses such as unpaid loans holds up when exposed to an economic dip or fall in property prices.

They also gauge the impact on banks should government bonds they own, issued by states such as Greece, lose value.

Those banks that come uncomfortably close to the 5% threshold will also be singled out for special attention.

"Banks where the [core tier one] ratio is above but close to the 5% benchmark under the stress scenario will be subject to reinforced prudential scrutiny so as to ensure that there is no unexpected deterioration in their capital position." 

At the end of June, eurozone sources said the European Banking Authority (EBA) was set to announce within weeks that 10-15 of 91 banks being scrutinised had failed, with casualties expected in Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

The EBA wants the number of banks that do not pass the tests to be around that level to show the examinations were serious, said a second source, adding that the authority did not want to push for more, for fear it could spark panic.

"In order to demonstrate that it is credible, the EBA would need to show that the number of bank failures is significant, without being substantial," said the source. "A number in the teens is about right."

EURACTIV with Reuters

 

In 2009, Brussels pushed for banks in need of state aid to undergo stress tests in order to assess the viability of their restructuring plans (EURACTIV 24/07/09).

The last round of stress tests in summer 2010 were painted as a sham by many observers, whose predictions about the sector were not confirmed in the tests. According to the results, only seven of 91 banks failed the stress tests, meaning that their tier one capital ratio, measuring core capital against total assets, fell below a 6% margin.

Ahead of the tests, sources had predicted that some banks would try to conceal their exposure to sovereign debt as disclosing such information would make markets too jittery (EURACTIV 02/07/10). 

To add to the criticism of the scenarios used in the tests, six of the 14 German banks tested did not disclose their exposure to sovereign debt, one of a few key benchmarks in an exercise designed to test banks' resilience to future economic shocks.

  • July 15: Stress test results to be released by the European Banking Authority

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