By Don Quijones of Spain & Mexico, editor at Wolf Street. Originally published at Wolf Street
For a country that is on the brink of a gargantuan public bailout of its toxic-loan riddled banking sector, or failing that, a full-blown financial crisis that could bring down the European financial system, things are eerily quiet in Italy these days. It’s almost as if the more serious the crisis gets, the less we hear about it — otherwise, investors and voters might get spooked. And elections are coming up.
But an article published in the financial section of Italian daily Il Sole lays out just how serious the situation has become. According to new research by Italian investment bank Mediobanca, 114 of the close to 500 banks in Italy have “Texas Ratios” of over 100%. The Texas Ratio, or TR, is calculated by dividing the total value of a bank’s non-performing loans by its tangible book value plus reserves — or as American money manager Steve Eisman put it, “all the bad stuff divided by the money you have to pay for all the bad stuff.”
If the TR is over 100%, the bank doesn’t have enough money “pay for all the bad stuff.” Hence, banks tend to fail when the ratio surpasses 100%. In Italy there are 114 of them. Of them, 24 have ratios of over 200%.
Granted, many of the banks in question are small local or regional savings banks with tens or hundreds of millions of euros in assets. These are not systemically important institutions and can be resolved without causing disturbances to the broader system. But the list also includes many of Italy’s biggest banks which certainly are systemically important to Italy, some of which have Texas Ratios of over 200%. Top of the list, predictably, is Monte dei Paschi di Siena, with €169 billion in assets and a TR of 269%.
Next up is Veneto Banca, with €33 billion in assets and a TR of 239%. This is the bank that, together with Banco Popolare di Vicenza (assets: €39 billion, TR: 210%), was supposed to have been saved last year by an intervention from government-sponsored, privately funded bank bailout fund Atlante, but which now urgently requires more public funds. Their combined assets place them seventh on the list of Italy’s largest banks.
Some experts, including the U.S. bank hired last year to save MPS, JP Morgan Chase, have warned that Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca will not be eligible for a bailout since they are not regarded as systemically important enough. This prompted investors to remove funds from the banks, further exacerbating their financial woes. According to sources in Rome, the two banks’ failure would send shock waves through the wider Italian financial industry.
There are other major Italian banks with Texas Ratios well in excess of 100%. They include:
- Banco Popolare (the offspring of a merger of Banco Popolare di Verona e Novara and Banca Popolare Italiana in 2017 and then a subsequent merger with Banca Popolare di Milano on 1 January 2017): €120 billion in assets; TR: 217%.
- UBI Banca: €117 billion in assets; TR: 117%
- Banca Nazionale del Lavoro: €77 billion in assets; TR: 113%
- Banco Popolare Dell’ Emilia Romagna: €61 billion in assets; TR: 140%
- Banca Carige: €30 billion in assets; TR: 165%
- Unipol Banca: €11 billion in assets; TR: 380%
In sum, almost all of Italy’s largest banking groups, with the exception of Unicredit, Intesa Sao Paolo and Mediobanca itself, have Texas Ratios well in excess of 100%.
But, as Eisman recently pointed out, the two largest banks, Unicredit and Intesa Sanpaolo, have TRs of over 90%. As long as the other banks continue to languish in their current zombified state, they will continue to drag down the two bigger banks. And if either Unicredit or Intesa begin to wobble, the bets are off.
To stay on the right side of the solvency threshold, Unicredit has already had to raise €13 billion of new capital this year and last week it took advantage of the ECB’s latest splurge of charitable lending (formally known as TLTRO II) to borrow €24 billion of free money. But as long as the financial health of the banks all around it continues to deteriorate, staying upright is going to be a tough order.
This is where things get complicated. In order to qualify for public assistance, banks must be solvent. Presumably, that would automatically disqualify any bank with a Texas Ratio of over 150%, which includes MPS, Banco Popolare, Popolare di Vicenza, Veneto Banca, Banca Carige and Unipol Banca. The bailout must also comply with current EU regulations including the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive of Jan 1, 2016, which specifically mandates that before public funds are injected into a bank, shareholders and creditors must be bailed in for a minimum amount of 8% of total liabilities, as famously happened in the rescue of Cyprus’ banking system in 2013.
The Italian government knows that this approach could end up wiping out retail investors (otherwise known as voters) who were missold, in many cases fraudulently, subordinated bonds by cash-hungry banks in the wake of the last crisis, in turn wiping out the government’s votes. To avoid such an outcome, the government has proposed compensating those retail bondholders with public funds, just as the Spanish government did with the holders of preferente bonds. Which, of course, is in direct contravention of EU laws.
So far, the European Commission has stayed silent on the issue, presumably in the hope that the resolution of Italy’s financial sector can be held off until at least after the French elections in late April, if not the German elections in September. Then, if those elections go Brussels’ way, a continent-wide taxpayer funded bailout of banks’ NPLs can be unleashed, as already requested by ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio and European Banking Authority President Andrea Enria.
With no guarantee that Italy’s NPL-infested banks can hold out that long, it’s a dangerous waiting-and-hoping game. In the meantime, shhhhhhhh…