Banking crisis — the Great Unwind

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    by Alasdair Macleod, GoldMoney:

    There is a growing feeling in markets that a financial crisis of some sort is now on the cards. Credit Suisse’s very public struggles to refinance itself is proving to be a wake-up call for markets, alerting investors to the parlous state of global banking.

    This article identifies the principal elements leading us into a global financial crisis. Behind it all is the threat from a new trend of rising interest rates, and the natural desire of commercial banks everywhere to reduce their exposure to falling financial asset values both on their balance sheets and held as loan collateral. And there are specific problems areas, which we can identify:

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    • It should be noted that the phenomenal growth of OTC derivatives and regulated futures has been against a background of generally declining interest rates since the mid-eighties. That trend is now reversing, so we must expect the $600 trillion of global OTC derivatives and a further $100 trillion of futures to contract as banks reduce their derivative exposure. In the last two weeks, we have seen the consequences for the gilt market in London, warning us of other problem areas to come.
    • Commercial banks are over-leveraged, with notable weak spots in the Eurozone, Japan, and the UK. It will be something of a miracle if banks in these jurisdictions manage to survive contracting bank credit and derivative blow-ups. If they are not prevented, even the better capitalised American banks might not be safe.
    • Central banks are mandated to rescue the financial system in troubled times. However, we find that the ECB and its entire euro system of national central banks, the Bank of Japan, and the US Fed are all deeply in negative equity and in no condition to underwrite the financial system in this rising interest rate environment. 

    The Credit Suisse wake-up call

    In the last fortnight, it has become obvious that Credit Suisse, one of Switzerland’s two major banking institutions, faces a radical restructuring. That’s probably a polite way of saying the bank needs rescuing.

    In the hierarchy of Swiss banking, Credit Suisse used to be regarded as very conservative. The tables have now turned. Banks make bad decisions, and these can afflict any bank. Credit Suisse has perhaps been a little unfortunate, with the blow-up of Archegos, and Greensill Capital being very public errors. But surely the most egregious sin from a reputational point of view was a spying scandal, where the bank spied on its own employees. All the regulatory fines, universally regarded as a cost of business by bank executives, were weathered. But it was the spying scandal which forced the bank’s highly regarded CEO, Tidjane Thiam, to resign.

    We must wish Credit Suisse’s hapless employees well in a period of high uncertainty for them. But this bank, one of thirty global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) is not alone in its difficulties. The only G-SIBs whose share capitalisation is greater than their balance sheet equity are North American: the two major Canadian banks, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan. The full list is shown in Table 1 below, ranked by price to book in the second to last column. [The French Bank, Groupe BPCE’s shares are unlisted so omitted from the table]

    Table

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    Before a sharp rally in the share price last week, Credit Suisse’s price to book stood at 24%, and Deutsche Bank’s stood at an equally lowly 23.5%. And as can be seen from the table, seventeen out of twenty-nine G-SIBs have price-to-book ratios of under 50%.

    Normally, the opportunity to buy shares at book value or less is seen by value investors as a strategy for identifying undervalued investments. But when a whole sector is afflicted this way, the message is different. In the market valuations for these banks, their share prices signal a significant risk of failure, which is particularly acute in the European and UK majors, and to a similar but lesser extent in the three Japanese G-SIBs.

    As a whole, G-SIBs have been valued in markets for the likelihood of systemic failure for some time. Despite what the markets have been signalling, these banks have survived, though as we have seen in the case of Deutsche Bank it has been a bumpy road for some. Regulations to improve balance sheet liquidity, mainly in the form of Basel 3, have been introduced in phases since the Lehman failure, and still price-to-book discounts have not recovered materially.

    These depressed market valuations have made it impossible for the weaker G-SIBs to consider increasing their Tier 1 equity bases because of the dilutive effect on existing shareholders. Seeming to believe that their shares are undervalued, some banks have even been buying in discounted shares, reducing their capital and increasing balance sheet leverage even more. There is little doubt that in a very low interest rate environment some bankers reckoned this was the right thing to do.

    But that has now changed. With interest rates now rising rapidly, over-leveraged balance sheets need to be urgently wound down to protect shareholders. And even bankers who have been so captured by the regulators that they regard their shareholders as a secondary priority will realise that their confrères in other banks will be selling down financial assets, liquidating financial collateral where possible, and withdrawing loan and overdraft facilities from non-financial businesses when they can. 

    It is all very well to complacently think that complying with Basel 3 liquidity provisions is a job well done. But if you ignore balance sheet leverage for your shareholders at a time of rising prices and therefore interest rates, they will almost certainly be wiped out. There can be no doubt that the change from an environment where price-to-book discounts are an irritation to bank executives to really mattering is bound up in a new, rising interest rate environment.

    Rising interest rates are also a sea-change for derivatives, and particularly for the banks exposed to them. Interest rates swaps, of which the Bank for International Settlements reckoned there were $8.8 trillion equivalent in June 2021, have been deployed by pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds and banks lending fixed-rate mortgages. They are turning out to be a financial instrument of mass destruction.

    An interest rate swap is an arrangement between two counterparties who agree to exchange payments on a defined notional amount for a fixed time period. The notional amount is not exchanged, but interest rates on it are, one being at a predefined fixed rate such as a spread over a government bond yield with a maturity matching the duration of the swap agreement, while the other floats based on LIBOR or a similar yardstick.

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