Bank Debt Back In The Spotlight


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The scenes of long queues of people outside Northern Rock have faded somewhat from memory. While not completely forgotten, they seem a long time ago now ? it was in September 2007 after all. The

The scenes of long queues of people outside Northern Rock have faded somewhat from memory. While not completely forgotten, they seem a long time ago now ? it was in September 2007 after all. The following autumn then saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers and less than a month later Icelandic banks Kaupthing and Landsbanki stopped trading, a move which impacted on the many expatriates who had savings in their offshore branches.

We then lived in suspense for a while, wondering if any other similar banks could fail. Savers spread their money out over different banks to increase protection from depositor guarantee schemes, or moved money out of banks and into arrangements which provide protection from institutional failure.

As the credit crisis slowly lifted, fears about bank failures abated. The issue of bank debt, however, is now back squarely in the spotlight again thanks to the financial crisis in Greece and fears over contagion to Eurozone countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland.

It is impossible to escape news about the crisis facing Europe and its currency at the moment. Everyday seems to turn up something new. One article which really stood out for me, though, was one published in the New York Times on 1st May 2010 entitled ?Europe?s Web of Debt?. Using data supplied by the Bank for International Settlements, it highlighted the extent to which the ?vulnerable? countries on the periphery of the Eurozone have become interwoven, all both owing money and being owed money to/from the others – and this is besides the vast sums owed to countries like Germany, France and the UK.

This creates the risk of a domino effect if one country defaults. For example, if Greece defaults on its debts to Portugal, how would the already struggling Portugal cope? Would the losses impact on its ability to repay its debts to Spain, one of the weakest economies in Europe?

For example, here are the figures relating to Spain –

Spain is owed:

By Portugal – $86bn

By Italy – $47bn

By Ireland – $16bn

By Greece – $1.3bn

Spain owes:

To Portugal – $28bn

To Italy – $31bn

To Ireland – $30bn

To Greece – $0.4bn

Spain also owes:

To Germany – $238bn

To France – $220bn

To the UK – $114bn

Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Greece are in a similar situation. Total debt is as follows –

Spain – $1.1 trillion

Italy – $1.4 trillion

Ireland – $867 billion

Portugal – $286 billion

Greece – $236 billion

As of 19th May 2010, in an unexpected move, Germany?s financial regulator BaFin prohibited short trading on banks, insurers and Eurozone bonds and banned credit default swaps (CDS) on sovereign bonds until 31st March 2011. It said that the ?extraordinary volatility? of debt securities from Eurozone countries justified its action, as did the fact that CDS movements ?could jeopardise the stability of the financial system as a whole.?

The move has echoes of autumn 2008 when, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the UK and US temporarily banned shorting bank shares to prevent speculators causing another major bank to collapse. It has led some commentators to wonder about the health of the German banking system. Last May BaFin had warned that the toxic debt held by Germany?s banks could blow up ?like a grenade? when hidden losses from the credit crisis came to light, and feared write offs could exceed ?800 billion. German lenders are now facing a second set of losses on so called ?Club Med? holdings.

Tim Congdon from the International Monetary Research observed that in the second week of May, ECB data showed that there was a ?major run? on Club Med banks, with ?56 billion of interbank lending moving from periphery Eurozone countries to core ones.

The BaFin ban on short trading then triggered a capital flight from Germany to Switzerland. If money continues to move out of the core, affecting countries like the UK and France as well as Germany, Europe may soon find itself with depleted depository capital.

We would be wise not to be complacent about how secure our savings are in the bank. While it is unlikely that a country like the UK or Germany would allow a major bank to fail, there is a level of risk with smaller banks and those in the weaker southern European countries. While they do have depositor compensation schemes in place, but it would remain to be seen how long it would take for them to repay depositors if a bank failed.

One lesson we learned from 2008 was that every investor should ask their adviser, bank or life assurance company to prove exactly how they are protected, and to what extent, in the event of institutional failure. You can then understand the risks and decide accordingly.

Within Europe the level of investor protection from institutional failure varies significantly between each country and between the type of institution – e.g. bank, insurance company etc. The difference can be significant; protection can be as low as nil. Luxembourg, on the other hand, offers one of the best investor protection regimes ? its state controlled protection law is designed to provide maximum security to investors without limit. If you have an investment bond issued by a Luxembourg regulated insurance company, your investment assets are completely protected from the failing of the insurance company.

In all cases you should seek professional advice from an authorised advisory firm such as Blevins Franks Financial Management Ltd.

By Bill Blevins, Managing Director, Blevins Franks

21st March 2010

Tax rates, scope and reliefs may change. Any statements concerning taxation are based upon our understanding of current taxation laws and practices which are subject to change. Tax information has been summarised; individuals should seek personalised advice.