European Banks Under Assault in Markets Reminiscent of 2008

Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann
Josef Ackermann, chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank AG, said market conditions remind him of late 2008, and urged lawmakers to act to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis. Photographer: Hannelore Foerster/Bloomberg

Three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., financial shares in Europe are under assault, the cost of insuring bank debt is at records, and bankers see worrying parallels to that time.

A Bloomberg index of European financial stocks fell as much as 2.9 percent to the lowest level since March 2009, while a measure of banks’ reluctance to lend to each other was at the highest since April of that same year.

The chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank AG, Josef Ackermann, said yesterday market conditions remind him of late 2008, and urged lawmakers to act to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis, which spawned the worst global recession since the Great Depression. Investors drove yields higher on the bonds of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy yesterday on doubts Europe’s leaders will be able to stop the sovereign debt contagion.

“Investors are not only asking themselves whether those responsible can summon the necessary willpower to overcome this crisis, but increasingly also whether enough time remains and whether they have the needed resources available,” Ackermann, 63, said at a conference in Frankfurt. “As long as uncertainty holds whether the agreements can be quickly and fully implemented, the nervousness on the market will remain.”

Demands led by Finland for collateral for new Greek loans, deteriorating economic growth in Europe and the U.S. and wavering commitment to austerity packages from euro members such as Italy risk derailing efforts to contain the crisis.

This “is not just a financial crisis,” UniCredit CEO Federico Ghizzoni said in Frankfurt today. “For the first time, the European system is really at stake.”

‘Political Direction’

The disarray in financial markets will raise pressure on finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven nations to take further steps when they meet in Marseille, France, on Sept. 9 and 10.

“If there’s not a clear political direction to find a solution for Europe’s problems, then we will enter a very difficult market situation,” said Wolfgang Kirsch, head of DZ Bank AG, Germany’s biggest cooperative lender, in an interview at the Frankfurt conference yesterday.

The Bloomberg Europe Banks and Financial Services Index of 46 stocks dropped 12 percent in the past three sessions, to the lowest level since March 31, 2009. The Markit iTraxx Financial Index linked to senior debt of 25 banks and insurers rose as much as 7 basis points to 277, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. The difference between the three-month euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor, and the overnight indexed swap rate, a measure of banks’ reluctance to lend to each other, was 0.765 percentage point, the widest gap since April 2009.

‘Going Lower’

European stocks fell for a third day, following the biggest two-day drop in the Stoxx Europe 600 Index since March 2009, as investors speculated that support for bailing out Europe’s indebted nations may fade.

“We’re likely to keep going lower unless governments step in, in a big way,” said Lex van Dam, a London-based fund manager at Hampstead Capital LLP, which oversees $500 million.

The collapse of New York-based Lehman Brothers froze credit markets and forced taxpayer-funded bailouts of banks from Washington and London to Berlin. At that time, the concern was over U.S. mortgage-backed securities. This time, it’s about the bonds of Europe’s debt-ridden governments.

‘More Dramatic’ Than 2008

“The situation is much more dramatic than in 2008,” Ulrich Schroeder, head of Germany’s state-owned development bank KfW Group, said at the Frankfurt conference yesterday. Many countries wouldn’t be in a condition to rescue their lenders in a similar crisis because of their deficit problems, he said. “The banks aren’t out of the danger zone.”

Many European banks “obviously” wouldn’t be able to shoulder writedowns on sovereign debt held in their banking books based on market values, Ackermann said. Greek two-year notes traded yesterday at less than 50 percent of face value.

Still, measures taken by the European Central Bank have made it possible for banks to finance their operations even when other banks and investors have cut off funding, preventing a credit freeze similar to the one that followed Lehman Brothers’ collapse, DZ Bank’s Kirsch said.

The Frankfurt-based ECB provides euro-area banks with unlimited liquidity in its refinancing operations, and started buying Italian and Spanish government bonds on Aug. 8 to stem a market rout.

The difference between the three-month euro interbank offered rate and the overnight indexed swap rate is still less than half the peak in October 2008, according to Bloomberg data.

‘Crucial Moment’

“Europe is at a crucial moment and if we are to survive this, northern countries like Germany need to step up and support the weaker members, something they just don’t want to do,” said Neil Phillips, a fund manager at BlueBay Asset Management Plc in London, which oversees about $45 billion.

Collateral demands as a condition of participating in the next Greek rescue plan have complicated the program’s prospects, the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based banking group that Ackermann chairs, said in a report yesterday. This has “visibly reduced” the chances that euro-region countries would come together to rescue another nation in distress, the IIF said.

Euro-area governments pledged 109 billion euros ($153 billion) in public money for Greece on July 21, accompanied by 50 billion euros through an IIF-coordinated private-investor debt swap and bond buyback program. Negotiations will continue today, with a meeting of the Finnish, Dutch and German finance ministers in Berlin.

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