Joined Nov 11, 2007
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Jubak: Get ready for the next crash

Jim Jubak at MSN has out an assessment of the EU crisis and banking issues, in his regular, esteemed form. You really must read the thing in its entirety.

Financial markets are behaving as if they expect a European banking crisis that would require the bailout or nationalization of some European banks. That would feel like a replay of the financial crisis that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008. Only this time, the epicenter would be Europe instead of the United States, and the ripples would expand from the eurozone outward into global financial markets.

How realistic is that fear? Very, I’m afraid. European banks are facing a very real liquidity and capital crisis that could lead to the need for a government rescue of some globally significant banks.

But the crisis isn’t an exact replay of the 2008 crisis. The effects of the crisis would not be limited to Europe, but the likelihood that a European crisis would take down a major U.S. bank — in a mirror image of the 2008 crisis where problems originating in the United States did lead to the bailouts of banks in the United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium — is relatively small. On the other hand, the crisis is potentially worse this time around because the European Central Bank is much less able to intervene as a lender of last resort than the U.S. Federal Reserve was in 2008.

Understanding this crisis
The current European banking crisis is rooted in the Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish debt crises. But the repeated collapse-bailout-collapse-again pattern of the prices of bonds of those countries wouldn’t have produced the current mess without a series of missteps by banks, bank regulators and central banks.

European banks hold a huge amount of government debt from the countries involved in the crisis. German banks, for example, held $22 billion in Greek government debt at the end of 2010, according to the Bank for International Settlements. If you add holdings of Greek government debt to holdings of private-sector Greek debt, the exposure gets much higher. For example, in May, Fitch Ratings said that French bank Credit Agricole (CRARY +3.59%, news) had $35 billion in exposure to Greek government and private debt. BNP Paribas (BNPQY -0.82%, news) and Société Générale (SCGLY +6.83%, news) had exposure of about $11 billion each.

The exposure of European banks to Greece, however, is small souvlaki compared with exposure to the much larger Italian economy. BNP Paribas, for example, has an estimated $31 billion in exposure to Italian government and private-sector debt. Even where the total for Italy is not as high as for Greece, the additional exposure is big enough to add to worries. Credit Agricole has an estimated $17 billion in Italian exposure.

But the current banking crisis owes as much to the reaction of banks and bank regulators to the problem as to the size of this exposure. Nobody now expects that Greece will be able to avoid a default in the end. Even Sunday’s announcement of new measures to close a $3 billion budget gap just served to convince financial markets that the more Greece cuts, the more the economy will slow, and the fewer taxes the government will collect. Like last year’s rescue package, this year’s deal, if ultimately approved, only buys time.

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