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Five Charts That Explain How European Banks Are Dealing With Their Bad-Loan Problem

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For European banks, it’s a headache that just won’t go away: the 944 billion euros ($1.17 trillion) of non-performing loans that’s weighing down their balance sheets.

Economists say the pile of past-due and delinquent debt makes it harder for banks to lend more money, hurting their earnings. European authorities are prodding lenders to sell or wind down non-performing credit, but they’re split on how to tackle the issue, and some investors are disappointed by the pace of progress.

Read more about the ECB data behind EU banks soured loans by country

There are various ways of calculating soured loans. The European Central Bank advises that non-performing asset indicators should be interpreted with caution because the definition of impaired assets and loss provision differ between countries. The data used below refers to domestic banking groups and standalone banks only, and excludes foreign subsidiaries and controlled branches.

“The data for the Czech banking sector consist of the banks that represent only 6 percent of credit extended by the banks operating in the Czech Republic,” the central bank said by email.

Here are five charts using the ECB data that help explain the non-performing loan issue and how banks are tackling it.

The problem is particularly acute in the countries that were hit hardest by the sovereign debt crisis. Greece, which has yet to exit its bailout program, tops the list of non-performing loans as a share of total credit, while Italy has the biggest pile of bad debt in absolute terms.

The Big League

Italian banks are sitting on Europe's largest pile of non-performing loans

Source: European Central Bank, FINREP banks

Italian banks have fixed goals for shrinking their bad credit levels by selling portfolios or winding down loans. Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, the country’s biggest bank by market value, got a head start on its rivals two years ago and plans to accelerate the reduction of non-performing loans, Chief Executive Officer Carlo Messina said last month. He says other Italian banks “are doing the right job” and should make further progress this year.

The Road Ahead

Italian banks are delivering on plans to reduce their bad debt levels

Source: Company filings

Note: Paschi's 2017 ratio would be 21% when including a major planned portfolio disposal

Italy amassed its pile of non-performing loans during years of little or no economic growth. The problem is compounded by the country’s legal system, where it takes lenders longer to liquidate collateral than in many other countries. Italy overhauled its bankruptcy rules in October to make them quicker and more efficient.

Getting a Grip

Europe has started to tackle its pile of bad debt

Source: European Central Bank

European banks overall have cut their non-performing loans by more than 280 billion euros since the end of 2014. The European Central Bank, which supervises most of the bloc’s big lenders, says bad debt is still “a major problem” which has to be addressed lenders while the economy performs well.

Steady Drip

The flow of bad loans in Italy is still higher than before the financial crisis

Source: Bank of Italy

The flow of new bad loans is declining in Italy, but the level remains above that seen before the financial crisis. The Bank of Italy says an improvement in the country’s real estate market is helping to reduce the risks for banks. According to the central bank’s most recent financial-stability report, key vulnerability indicators for lenders should continue to decrease over the next few quarters.

— With assistance by Samuel Dodge

(Updates with comment from Czech central bank in fourth paragraph.)
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