Risk in Europe

Eastern Europe has borrowed an estimated $1.7 trillion, primarily from Western European banks. And much of Eastern Europe is already in a deep recession bordering on depression. A great deal of that $1.7 trillion is at risk, especially the portion that is in Swiss francs. It is a story that could easily be as big as the US subprime problem.

In Poland, as an example, 60% of mortgages are in Swiss francs. When times are good and currencies are stable, it is nice to have a low-interest Swiss mortgage. And as a requirement for joining the euro currency union, Poland has been required to keep its currency stable against the euro. This gave borrowers comfort that they could borrow at low interest in francs or euros, rather than at much higher local rates.

But in an echo of teaser-rate subprimes here in the US, there is a problem. Along came the synchronized global recession and large Polish current-account trade deficits, which were three times those of the US in terms of GDP, just to give us some perspective. Of course, if you are not a reserve currency this is going to bring some pressure to bear. And it did. The Polish zloty has basically dropped in half compared to the Swiss franc. That means if you are a mortgage holder, your house payment just doubled. That same story is repeated all over the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

Austrian banks have lent $289 billion (230 billion euros) to Eastern Europe. That is 70% of Austrian GDP. Much of it is in Swiss francs they borrowed from Swiss banks. Even a 10% impairment (highly optimistic) would bankrupt the Austrian financial system, says the Austrian finance minister, Joseph Proll. In the US we speak of banks that are too big to be allowed to fail. But the reality is that we could nationalize them if we needed to do so. (And for the record, I favor nationalization and swift privatization. We cannot afford a repeat of Japan’s zombie banks.)

The problem is that in Europe there are many banks that are simply too big to save. The size of the banks in terms of the GDP of the country in which they are domiciled is all out of proportion. For my American readers, it would be as if the bank bailout package were in excess of $14 trillion (give or take a few trillion). In essence, there are small countries which have very large banks (relatively speaking) that have gone outside their own borders to make loans and have done so at levels of leverage which are far in excess of the most leveraged US banks. The ability of the “host” countries to nationalize their banks is simply not there. They are going to have to have help from larger countries. But as we will see below, that help is problematical.

Western European banks have been very aggressive in lending to emerging market countries worldwide. Almost 75% of an estimated $4.9 trillion of loans outstanding are to countries that are in deep recessions. Plus, according to the IMF, they are 50% more leveraged than US banks.

Today the euro rallied back to $1.26 based upon statements from German authorities that were interpreted as a potential willingness to help out non-German (in particular, Austrian) banks.

However, this more sobering note from Strategic Energy was sent to me by a reader. It nicely sums up my concerns:

It is East Europe that is blowing up right now. Erik Berglof, EBRD’s chief economist, told me the region may need €400bn in help to cover loans and prop up the credit system. Europe’s governments are making matters worse. Some are pressuring their banks to pull back, undercutting subsidiaries in East Europe. Athens has ordered Greek banks to pull out of the Balkans.

The sums needed are beyond the limits of the IMF, which has already bailed out Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus, Iceland, and Pakistan — and Turkey next — and is fast exhausting its own $200bn (€155bn) reserve. We are nearing the point where the IMF may have to print money for the world, using arcane powers to issue Special Drawing Rights. Its $16bn rescue of Ukraine has unravelled. The country — facing a 12% contraction in GDP after the collapse of steel prices — is hurtling towards default, leaving Unicredit, Raffeisen and ING in the lurch. Pakistan wants another $7.6bn. Latvia’s central bank governor has declared his economy “clinically dead” after it shrank 10.5% in the fourth quarter. Protesters have smashed the treasury and stormed parliament.

This is much worse than the East Asia crisis in the 1990s“, said Lars Christensen, at Danske Bank. “There are accidents waiting to happen across the region, but the EU institutions don’t have any framework for dealing with this. The day they decide not to save one of these one countries will be the trigger for a massive crisis with contagion spreading into the EU“. Europe is already in deeper trouble than the ECB or EU leaders ever expected. Germany contracted at an annual rate of 8.4% in the fourth quarter. If Deutsche Bank is correct, the economy will have shrunk by nearly 9% before the end of this year. This is the sort of level that stokes popular revolt.

The implications are obvious. Berlin is not going to rescue Ireland, Spain, Greece and Portugal as the collapse of their credit bubbles leads to rising defaults, or rescue Italy by accepting plans for EU “union bonds” should the debt markets take fright at the rocketing trajectory of Italy’s public debt (hitting 112pc of GDP next year, just revised up from 101pc — big change), or rescue Austria from its Habsburg adventurism. So we watch and wait as the lethal brush fires move closer. If one spark jumps across the eurozone line, we will have global systemic crisis within days. Are the firemen ready?

  1. Yep, I really think this will be much worse than people are realizing for the Euro-zone. I have made mention in the past of the GDP percentage of the €-zone 21% and the UK 24% being invested in emerging markets. The numbers you have posted suggest an impossible situation emerging for some of those particular areas in the €-zone.

    One thing that COULD happen, the entire Euro-zone drops ALL independence and faces the problem as one unit rather than independent countries. Germany would bare the brunt of that and would be expecting the predominate authority. SO, the goals of WW2 would have been achieved after all. And they want to lie to us and say the problem started in the U.S.?? Well, they achieve the goals they wanted all along… CHAOS to SOLUTION… Then what?!.

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