Firstly, there’s no doubt there are some valid concerns surrounding BES, the key ones of which are:
All this culminates into some very real concerns. While there are plenty of unfounded rumours flying around, the fact is they are hard to disprove because the structure of the bank and its affiliates is so maddeningly complicated. The exposure has also been continuously underestimated and hidden so it’s only right to ask, what else might they be hiding?
- The ownership structure is a mess. BES is 25% owned by Espirito Santo Financial Group, which is 49% owned by Espirito Santo Irmaos SGPS SA, which in turn is fully owned by Rioforte Investments, which is fully owned by Espirito Santo International (last two are based in Luxembourg).
- The exposure between these level is equally opaque, with the WSJ highlighting back in December that ESI was utilising different branches of its structure, including BES, to fund itself up to the tune of €6bn. Currently, BES has admitted it has the following exposure: €980m debt from Rioforte, but it also helped place €651m of debt issued by Rioforte and ESI to retail customers and €1.9bn to institutional clients.
- This debt could essentially be worthless or massively written down. It’s not clear how open BES was about its conflicts of interest and if it mislead buyers. There is a serious risk of lawsuits here. Citi has put potential total losses at €4.3bn, this could wipe out BES capital buffer and force it to raise a similar amount again.
- BES also has a worrying exposure to its subsidiary in Angola which is draining €2bn worth of funding. This is substantial for a bank with a €6bn loan book. The bank has also required a 70% guarantee from the Angolan state, which itself has a poor credit rating meaning the usefulness of such guarantee may be limited (the fact it was needed at all says a lot). This has also been weighing on the share price.
But all of these are very specific BES problems, why has this suddenly sparked Europe-wide contagion. I believe there are a few factors behind this:
- The market has pulled too far ahead and was looking for an excuse to pull back. The market is also in a bit of a price discovery phase, still trying to figure out how to balance the issues of low inflation, search for yield, remaining eurozone risks and future ECB action, so it can be prone to sharp moves. The lower volumes and liquidity in certain markets may also exacerbate the move. Lastly, with the recent market convergence, there is bound to be more spill over between and within markets. All to say, part of this may be the confluence of market factors and circumstances – such a situation can last but is more likely to be temporary.
- More importantly though, investors are realising that, if the bank got into trouble it would have to rely on its sovereign for help. The bank cannot afford to recapitalise to the tune of €4bn. Equally though, Portugal (in the midst of trying to find further budget savings) would struggle to stump up the cash – hence the sovereign spill over. Talk of the sovereign-bank loop being broken are seemingly premature (as I have said before).
- On top of this, investors are also looking at a lot of uncertainty about how a bailout/bail-in might work and what the exact rules would be. The eurozone’s rules on bank bail-ins and the single bank resolution mechanism don’t kick in for some time and while the state aid rules make it clear investors will take losses the exact format is very uncertain. These two points should once again peak investors’ concerns about how such bank resolutions might be handled. Throw the political obstacles in the mix surround a national flagship bank such as BES and one might wonder how much has really changed since such questions were asked at the peak of the crisis.
There are clearly some lessons in this situation for eurozone investors and they would do well to remember the short comings in the eurozone architecture, particularly when it comes to the banking sector which is yet to be cleaned up even after six years of crisis. That said, given the specific nature of the problems it is unlikely to mark a huge turnaround in market sentiment. Sure, the market will pull back a bit but we still have the injection of the new ECB lending operations (TLTRO) to come and the hope of some positive data on the GDP and inflation front.
- More generally, BES’s problems show some elements indicative to periphery banks (particularly in Portugal and Italy). It has a very old, complex and opaque structure and its exposures are still not well known. Too little attention has been paid to this in the past year. The loan books are also weighed down by investments and lending to zombie firms. Let’s not forget, these two countries did not suffer from bubbles but chronic low growth and high corporate debt levels – neither of which has been tackled.
One final point out of all of this is to watch how BES does in the upcoming ECB Asset Quality Review (AQR) and bank stress test. If it is not seen to have been rigorously assessed and problems highlighted then serious questions will begin to be asked about the credibility of an exercise. Now, the failure of the AQR would really be the start of bigger problems for the eurozone.