Italian Banks on the Brink

There’s an old saying: ‘What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’ The meaning is obvious — if you insist on something for others, you have to be prepared to hold yourself to the same standard.

A version of that is playing out in Europe today.

And, right now, the strongest signal is not coming from Germany — it’s coming from Italy. Italian banks are in deep financial distress (as were banks in Cyprus and Greece from 2011 to 2015). This involves the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (BMP), the world’s oldest bank still in operation, founded in 1472.

Monte Paschi’s troubles began in 2007, when it agreed to buy another Italian-based bank, Banca Antonveneta SpA. It offered €9 billion in an all-cash deal just as the global financial crisis was unfolding. The deal proved a disaster for Monte Paschi. It damaged its ability to withstand losses following the 2008 crisis.

Investment bankers then stepped in and sold Monte Paschi derivatives contracts that ended up hiding the bank’s surging losses from regulators. These deals only weakened the bank’s shaky finances.

BMP’s derivatives blew up because they made losing bets on the value of Italian government bonds. The bank has suffered €15 billion (AU$21 billion) in losses since 2009, and has seen its stock fall 99%.

BMP was the only major bank to fail the European Central Bank’s (ECB) recent stress tests. It was required to raise capital as a result. The efforts to raise capital have been led by JP Morgan and a syndicate including Goldman Sachs and some Chinese banks. JP Morgan won out over a rival plan by veteran Italian banker Corrado Passera.

The plan called for selling about €28 billion (AU$40 billion) in bad loans and raising €5 billion (AU$7.2 billion) in new capital. But reports suggest that the capital raising effort has not gone according to plan.

Monte dei Paschi needs to complete the effort by the end of December. That seems unlikely now that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has resigned, following defeat in Sunday’s referendum.

Italy wants to bail out BMP with taxpayer money. That’s the standard playbook which governments used in 2008. But the rules have changed.

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is taking a hard line by insisting that there will be no more government bailouts of banks. In fact, that’s the official position of the entire G20 — as disclosed in the final communiqué from Brisbane in November 2014.

They decided that bailouts would be replaced by ‘bail-ins’. In a bail-in, taxpayer money is not used to recapitalise sick banks. Instead, bondholders and depositors take haircuts and are involuntarily converted into equity holders.

Imagine if you had $500,000 on deposit at the bank and you got a notice in the mail that said your deposit was now $250,000 (the insured amount), and that the other $250,000 had been converted into stock in a ‘bad bank’, which may, or may not, produce returns in the future. That’s what happens in a bail-in.

If you read their final communiqué, you’ll find the blueprint. In the next financial crisis, when these global ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks are under stress, they’re not going to get bailed out with taxpayer money because the leaders know that’s too unpopular. There’s going to be a bail-in.

In a bail-in, the government says, ‘No, we’re not going to help you. We’re not going to use government money. We’re not going to use central bank money. We’re going to take the money that’s in the bank and convert it to equity in the bad bank, where, if you’re a bondholder, you’re not going to get 100 cents on the dollar. You’re going to get 80 cents on the dollar, etc., etc.’

They’ll use the money already in the bank — whether it’s depositors’, bondholders’, or equity holders’ money — and use that money to repair the balance sheet.

We’ll see financial institutions taken over, and losses will be apportioned between depositors, stockholders and bondholders. This means bondholders take haircuts, uninsured depositors get new equity, and existing equity holders get wiped out.

There’s only one problem: Merkel is applying this rule to Italy, but now the biggest bank in Germany, Deutsche Bank, is the one that’s in trouble. In order to maintain her hard line, Merkel will have to apply the bail-in method to Deutsche Bank. That means a bloodbath of losses the market is not ready for. It’s time to get ready, because a panic is coming.

If Germany forces Italy to bail-in BMP, then Italy will insist that Germany also bail-in Deutsche Bank when the time comes. Both banks are too-big-to-fail and are failing, but BMP is closer to the brink.

It’s the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for Deutsche Bank.

Germany won’t like that, but, if they don’t bail-in Deutsche Bank, the European Union will come apart because of acrimony between Italy and Germany.

Compared to this dispute, the UK’s Brexit is a sideshow. Greece is a sideshow of a sideshow. Italy is the real deal. If Germany and Italy can’t cooperate, then there is no European Union.

Markets won’t wait while German and Italian politicians tiptoe around the bail-in question. They will draw their own conclusions and start a run on Deutsche Bank. That will take the stock down another 90% on top of the multiple crashes that have already occurred.

The German government will let Deutsche Bank’s stock fall to €2 before they intervene. That’s how existing stockholders make their ‘contribution’ to the bail-in. Deutsche Bank won’t fail, and the stock won’t go to zero. But there’s still plenty of room to fall.

First Brexit, then Trump, and now the next anti-establishment shoe to drop is in Italy, with the ‘No’ vote winning in the referendum.

It won’t necessarily lead to the collapse of the euro, or the immediate demise of the European Union, but it’s clear the revolt against the globalist agenda continues.

The question is: How hard will the elites fight back?

All the best,

Jim Rickards,
For Money Morning

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James G. Rickards is the editor of Strategic Intelligence, the newest newsletter from Fat Tail Investment Research. He is an American lawyer, economist, and investment banker with 35 years of experience working in capital markets on Wall Street. He is the author of The New York Times bestsellers Currency Wars and The Death of Money. Jim also serves as Chief Economist for West Shore Group.

Money Morning Australia