..Far from being a unique situation, the fragile exposure of unsecured depositors across the Euro zone is the norm…
Please, click here to read this article in pdf format: March 29 2013
At the end of my last letter, I anticipated I would devote the next one to explain why, in my view, the European Central Bank is hypocritical on the Cyprus situation and why the rest of the periphery has to expect the same fate than Cyprus. Fortunately for me, Mr. Joeren Dijsselbloem who is both Dutch Finance Minister as well as the leader of the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers, confirmed my second point in a press conference 24 hours later, making my work easier…
A quick view of a bank’s capital structure
There are multiple issues on the Cyprus event. Perhaps the most relevant is the fact that unsecured depositors were sacrificed because their banks did not have enough subordinated debt to bail in. For this reason, the official story goes, Cyprus is a special case. Let me explain this point. In the figure below, I show the stylized version of the capital structure of a bank. From top to bottom, every portion of it is subordinated to the one immediately above it. It is clear that the least subordinated should be the deposits that finance a bank.
What is clear to us was not clear to leaders of the European Union. At closed doors, they first decided that deposits above EUR100M would arbitrarily lose 9% (in spite of existing subordinated debt to bail in) and put the matter to vote….only to revise this figure a week later up to 40% and without voting. It was hardly an ordinary bankruptcy proceeding; banks did not go through an ordinary liquidation and nobody could see an actual market appraisal of recovery values across the capital structure. The portion of such structure, which was supposed to be the most protected, saw its recovery value fluctuate between 9% and 40% within days because folks who live far away from this drama decided so over a weekend. On the other hand, those who held deposits of amounts below EUR100M are only entitled to them nominally. Effectively, they cannot withdraw their monies, let alone send them outside Cyprus. If they hold demand deposits believing that they can serve as medium of indirect exchange and they cannot use them precisely for that function, their property was affected, regardless of what the official story says.
Let’s return then to the thesis that Cyprus is a special case because the subordinated debt of its banks did not provide with enough cushion in the liquidation. As you can see from the figure above, the thicker the subordinated debt tranche is they lower the likelihood that unsecured senior debt and depositors will be affected. If Cyprus is a special case and it is not a template for the rest of the Euro zone banks, then it must be true that the rest of the Euro zone banks have stronger tranches below that of depositors. The sections below will show that during the last year (since March 2012):
a) The same Euro zone authorities that imposed the loss on unsecured depositors were the ones who enabled a cash-out of subordinated debt holders, leaving depositors exposed to the firing squad,
b) The Fed has been the ultimate enabler of this situation, and
c) The fate of the US dollar is indirectly coupled with the fate of the Euro zone = There is no place to hide.
How the ECB financed the exit of subordinated debt holders
In December of 2011 and February 2012, the European Central Bank (ECB) extended longer-term refinancing operations to provide liquidity to euro zone banks. The liquidity, in euros and at a below market price, was against sovereign debt held by the banks, as collateral. Part of this liquidity was used for what is called “liability management” exercises, where the banks changed the composition of their liabilities: They borrowed from the ECB to repay their subordinated debt holders. This is the reason why Cyprus should actually be a template for the rest of the Euro zone. Because across the Euro zone, subordinated debt was reduced, leaving unsecured depositors exposed….again, across the Euro zone. The figure below, with the aggregate balance sheets of the main players, should help visualize what happened during the last twelve months:
In step 1, we see the focused balance sheet of the Euro zone banks and their subordinated investors (i.e. holders of subordinated debt), with regards to the subordinated debt. The same is a liability to the banks and an asset to the investors.
In step 2, we see the aggregate change caused by the extension of the LTRO Loans (i.e. loans issued under longer-term refinancing operations, by the ECB). These loans are an asset of the ECB and a liability to the banks.
Against these loans, the ECB issued Euros, which are an asset of the banks and a liability to the ECB.
In step 3, we see the transaction that I hold responsible for allowing unsecured depositors to be fair game across the Euro zone. With the Euros loaned by the ECB, banks bought out subordinated investors. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to quantify the exact impact of this transfer to date. However, reviewing past research notes released at that time (March 2012), my point will be clarified. (ADDENDUM: I HAVE BEEN GENEROUSLY FORWARDED TO THIS LINK, WHERE ZEROHEDGE.COM DID THE MATH ON THIS POINT, PROVIDING AN UPDATED STATUS ON THE ISSUE)
On March 28th, 2012, Barclays’ Credit Research team had published a report titled “European Banks: Liability management shrinks the bank capital market”. In it, it was estimated that at the end of March (only one month after the second LTRO), about 20% of the subordinated debt (equivalent to EUR97BN) had been targeted for exchange. The average exchange ratio of the transactions had been calculated at 82% of par (74% for Tier 1 and 89% for Lower Tier 2). The reductions were split as follows: Close to 35% of cash out in the Tier 1 market (EUR54BN), 12% reduction of the Lower-Tier 2 (EUR37BN), and 18% reduction in Upper-Tier 2 (EUR6BN).
According to Barclays too, all the transactions had been bondholder-friendly, with an average 7pt (i.e. 7%) premium to secondary market across all issues (9pts for Tier 1, 5pts for Lower Tier 2). The main motivation behind all the transactions was capital optimization. They created capital gains to the banks. Except for two transactions in which the subordinated debt was exchanged for common stock or new Lower Tier 2, the rest were all tenders for cash. Greek banks in particular (i.e. National Bank of Greece, EFG Eurobank and Piraeus Bank) also participated in this liability management exercise; in some cases (i.e. Piraeus’s Prefs at 37 and LT2 floater at 50, announced on Mar 7/12) at premiums ranging 10 to 17pts.
In other words, both banks and subordinated debt holders enjoyed great capital gains, leaving unsecured depositors exposed to higher risk. This played out in the context of a virtuous cycle, where the cheaper funding improved the risk profile of the financial institutions and attracted capital back to the Euro zone. In the process, both the Euro appreciated and the EURUSD basis tightened, which further strengthened the equity of the financial system. The depositors of course, continued to receive mere basis points for their trust. On May 29th and later on June 25th, I had warned about the danger of this outcome.
But the story did not end here. In steps 4 and 5 of the figure above, I show the impact the Fed had in all this with its quantitative easing policy. By literally printing money in US Treasuries purchases, it added fuel to the fire, because Euro zone banks took advantage of the situation to borrow cheap US dollars, helping them repay their LTRO loans. Zerohedge.com has explained this with more detail than I can provide in this note, (in chronological order) here, here and here. I recommend that you read these articles in detail, if you want to understand how the game is going to end.
Step 6 seeks to show the status quo after the party. If the Cyprus situation is contained (which I doubt), going forward we should see the reduction in both assets (i.e. LTRO loans) and liabilities (i.e. Euros) at the balance sheet of the ECB and the banks, with banks replacing LTRO repaid loans with unsecured USD funding.
The Fed as the ultimate enabler tied the fate of the USD to the Euro
If you noticed, I circled the US Dollars held at the balance sheet of the Euro banks in step 6 of the figure above, as an asset. I did this because I want to emphasize a point I have been making for a long, long time: The collapse of the Yankee bond market (i.e. the market for bonds denominated in US dollars, where the borrowers are non-US resident corporations), caused by corporate defaults in the Euro zone will unmask the exposure that the Fed has to the fate of the Euro zone. The dollars that end up with the Euro zone banks get recycled in multiple ways and one of them is via the Yankee market (another one is of course the USD loan market).
It should be clear therefore that this whole transfer of wealth will ultimately (and irresponsibly by the Fed) end up exponentially (through leverage) affecting those holding their savings in US dollars.
I am confident that the story above shows that far from being a unique situation, the fragile exposure of unsecured depositors across the Euro zone is the norm; and that their fragility was further increased in the last twelve months thanks to policies created by the same authorities who now refuse to honor their promise of a banking union, and instead impose capital controls, which have effectively destroyed any credibility on the safety of capital in the Euro zone.
One last word of caution: I think it would be wrong to interpret from the process depicted above that there was a premeditated conspiracy on the part of policy makers to weaken the position of depositors. This outcome, I believe, was simply an unintended consequence in their efforts to sustain the Euro zone. However, even if one accepts my view, the unintended outcome begs the following question: Why was there cheap money available for subordinated debt holders to cash out, but there is none now to protect the savings of depositors? Nobody can answer that question but with speculation, and as such, intellectual honesty demands that I keep mine to myself, because as Mark Antony said in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “…You are not wood, you are not stones, but men; and being men, it will inflame you, it will make you mad”.