Monday, September 5, 2011

05/09/2011: Ackermann: cover us

Deutsche Bank CEO, Josef Ackermann, speaking today at a conference "Banks in Transition", organized by the German business daily Handelsblatt in Frankfurt, made some far reaching comments on the state of European banking system.

"We should resign ourselves to the fact that the 'new normality' is characterized by volatility and uncertainty... All of this reminds one of the autumn of 2008." And as a reminder of these very days 3 years ago, the ECB reported that banks have raised their overnight deposits with ECB to €151 billion - the highest level in more than 12 months. Overnight deposits with ECB are seen as a safe haven as opposed to lending money in the interbank markets, with latest spike suggesting that even European banks are now becoming weary of lending to each other.

Crucially, according to Ackermann, "it is an open secret that numerous European banks would not survive having to revalue sovereign debt held on the banking book at market levels" to reflect their current market value. This is an interesting point - not because it is novel (every dog in the street knows that to be true), but because it is being made by the man who leads the largest banking institution in the land where banks have vigorously fought EBA on methodology and disclosure of stress test results. The battle line drawn back then was precisely their sovereign bond holdings.

And there is an added contradiction in what Ackermann was saying - if banks in Europe will not survive mark-to-market revaluation of their books, then how come Mr Ackermann claims they don't require urgent recapitalization?

In truth, Ackermann was really saying that were the banks in Europe forced to mark-to-market their holdings of PIIGS and Belgian bonds, they would take such losses that can lead to destabilization of banks equity valuations across the EU, thus triggering calls on governments' funding, which will therefore destabilize the bonds markets. Truth hurts, folks. It hurts over and over again when it is denied.

Mr Ackermann also appears to be saying: "Hey politicians. Don't force us to fix our books to the market. Fix the market for us."

Ackermann also repeated his earlier statement that calls for robust and rapid recapitalization of the banks were "not helpful" and threatened to undermine European efforts to assist crisis-stricken euro-zone sovereigns. In his view, such a recapitalization would send the message that the EU had little faith in its own strategy for dealing with the crisis. In other words, in Ackermann's view, if banks need urgent capital to cover losses on sovereign bonds, then the current valuations of these bonds in the market are irreversible. Which, of course, would mean that all efforts of the EU to roll back sky-high yields on PIIGS + Belgian debt are not likely to produce long-term results any time soon.

Which brings us to the point of asking: if so, why the hell are we burning through tens of billions of ECB and taxpayers' funds to buy out sovereign bonds and repay banks bond holders? Is it simply an exercise of buying time?

Another interesting comment from Ackermann relates to longer term prospects of the banking sector: "Prospects for the financial sector overall ... are rather limited... The outlook for the future growth of revenues is limited by both the current situation and structurally." What this means is that with regulatory tightening, new capital requirements (both on quality and quantity of capital) and with devastated savings and investment portfolia of investors, plus rising taxes on income and capital, margins in the banking sector will be depressed over long term horizon, while more risk averse investors will be weary of buying into higher margin high risk structured products.

In other words, all that Mr Ackermann's speech today amounts to is a call by a banker on the European governments to cover up the banks' cover up of losses: "Print money, buy out our bonds, but don't restructure or recapitalize us".

But Ackermann's warning presents an even more dire warning for the Irish officials who have made significant bets (using taxpayers money) on Irish banking sector returning to high rates of profitability soon. If Ackermann is correct and long term profitability of the entire sector is on decline, Irish banks will be unlikely to recover without a dramatic restructuring of their books.

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