"In the future, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, 'banks must save themselves.'
---Der Spiegel, April 1, 2013
"We strive to be the most respected Investor Relations team by delivering financial transparency and outstanding communication."
--Deutsche Bank Investor Relations
Europe has solved the problem of failing banks dragging down their governments with the cost of bailouts. Henceforth, the costs of bank resolution will be borne by bank bondholders and depositors, instead of by German taxpayers.
This is a very clean solution to a complex problem. If the eurozone's banking system were viewed as a contingent liability of Germany, Germany would no longer be rated AAA, since the potential ongoing bailout costs are enormous.
By severing the link between governments and their banks, the size of Germany's contingent liability (and hence the cost of defending the euro) becomes manageable. It is clear that the ongoing bills for maintaining the solvency of the eurozone banking system will continue to be large. These bills must be paid upon presentation because the ECB won't lend to "insolvent" banks (an incredibly stupid policy). Hence there is a limit to the degree that such bills can be postponed. (Remember that the Cyprus bailout was precipitated by an ECB ultimatum.)
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Prime Minister Angela Merkel have been vocal in welcoming this new paradigm. It solves their biggest problem: how to hold the eurozone together without bankrupting Germany. And, in addition, the Germans like the new policy because it hands the bill to the guilty parties. As Schaeuble said: "We decided to have the owners and creditors take part in the costs of the rescue - in other words those who helped cause the crisis." (I will observe that, in all known cases of bank insolvency, the guilty parties are defaulting borrowers, not bondholders and uninsured depositors, but that's a quibble.)
Now that European bank resolution policy has changed from "Too Big To Fail" to "Too Expensive To Rescue", a bank analyst must turn his gaze towards those eurozone banks likely to need assistance, who are now candidates for defaulting on their liabilities (sorry, for bailing-in their creditors). One might start by asking if there are any solvent banks in the eurozone, given the combination of the banks' large exposures to troubled sovereigns/banks, plus their rotten real estate portfolios. The short answer, of course, is that there is no way of knowing which eurozone banks are insolvent because of the uselessness of European financial reporting.
Take Deutsche Bank (DB), the avatar of German banking excellence. At year-end, it had "core capital" ratio of 8% on the basis of Tier One Capital to Risk Weighted Assets. But its ratio of equity to book assets was 2.3%, with EUR 57B in equity supporting EUR 2.2 trillion in book assets . This puzzling anomaly results from the fact that Deutsche's risk-weighted assets are EUR 334B, or 15% of book assets. Potential depositors should pay no attention to the EUR 2.2 trillion in book assets, which have no analytic information value! Deutsche Bank must have a really high-quality balance sheet to be so riskless. Or does it?
The rather obvious analytic schedules that a diligent uninsured depositor might desire are:
1. A schedule of eurozone government bond and bank exposure by country, showing face, MTM, and carrying values.
2. A schedule of loan and problem loan books by industry and country, showing face, MTM (where available) and book values.
I couldn't find these on DB's financial reporting, and I looked. I'm not saying they're not disclosed somewhere; I'm saying I couldn't find them and I'm not a layman. Maybe they're not translated into a foreign language; I wouldn't know.
My understanding is that under European accounting rules, eurozone government bonds are carried at face value until legally impaired (as in the case of Greece). If this is correct, this would mean that Deutsche is carrying all Club Med government bonds (except Greece, but including Cyprus) at full value, rather than at market or at impaired value. In other words, under eurozone bank accounting, all eurozone government debt is AAA until it defaults; no impairment or MTM is permitted. This renders regulatory capital ratios useless. It also means, if this is indeed the case, that Deutsche's risk asset calculation doesn't include any of the PIIGSC except Greece. I would be happy to be corrected on this supposition. You would think that, if I am wrong, Deutsche's IR department would make a point of showing how it carries eurozone government bonds. If it does, I didn't see it.
How well is DB's massive global real estate portfolio provisioned (or marked)? Unless there is a schedule that I couldn't find, it's a secret. In fact, I couldn't even find out the size of DB's RE portfolio, although I am not saying it isn't disclosed somewhere in all that fabulous transparency.
How can a bondholder or uninsured depositor really be confident that Deutsche Bank's EUR 57B of equity is sufficient to absorb the entire expected loss of a EUR 2.2 trillion balance sheet, especially given the opacity of that balance sheet?
If it were your money, would you keep uninsured deposits there?
An old rule of thumb in analyzing capital adequacy and leverage is: does the bank have sufficient free funding (equity) to be consistently profitable throughout the entire credit cycle? If the bank was always profitable, you could conclude that its capital was adequate for the kinds of risks that it took. It was a backward-looking but very effective way to assess capital adequacy. Has Deutsche been profitable throughout the entire credit cycle? No, it lost EUR 3.9B in 2008. That was after reporting a 6.5B profit in 2007 (how things change!). FY 2012 wasn't great either.
Despite my intellectual defects, I am an experienced bank analyst relying on Deutsche Bank's public disclosure in order to render a risk assessment for a potential uninsured depositor. I can only say that, in the absence of TBTF, I would have my money elsewhere. Now we all know that Deutsche is really TBTF because of its systemic importance in Germany. This goes for Germany's other problem children such as HSN Nordbanken and DEPFA, the issuer of those amazing risk-free pfandbriefe. All German banks are solvent by virtue of their address. I don't doubt this, no matter what Merkel and Schaeuble might say on any given day. German banks don't default on their senior debt or on their uninsured deposits (maybe because this is good public policy?).
But do we know this about the other problem banks in the eurozone, such as Banca Monte dei Paschi (BMDPY.PK) or Bankia (BNKXF.OB)? Both are disaster areas that will require ongoing bailouts from someone. Are Spain and Italy inside the TBTF zone, or are they outside it, in the dreaded "Cyprus zone"? That we will find out, when Spain or Italy ask Germany for bailouts.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.