Two weeks after the first, and biggest, European bank bail-in took place under the relatively new European bank resolution mechanism, the EBRD, when Spain’s Banco Popular wiped out the holders of its most risky securities, including equity and AT bonds, and then selling what was left of the bank to Santander for €1 – a process that took place without a glitch – Italy may have just killed any hope of a European banking union, when the bailout of two small banks made a “mockery” of Europe’s new regulation.
Late on Sunday, Italy passed a decree that will effectively sell the good part of the two banks to Intesa, Italy’s second-largest and best-capitalized bank. Intesa said last week that it would be willing to buy the best assets for a token price of €1 as long as the government assumed responsibility for liquidating the banks’ large portfolio of sour loans. As a result, Italy said it would commit as much as €17 billion in taxpayer funds to clean up the two failed “Veneto” banks in one of Italy’s wealthiest regions and support the takeover of their good assets by Intesa Sanpaolo SpA for a token amount. After an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday, Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said the Italian government will provide Milan-based Intesa with about €5.2 billion euros to allow it to take on Banca Popolare di Vicenza SpA and Veneto Banca SpA assets without hurting capital ratios, The European Commission, in a separate statement, said it approved the plan for the two banks and that it is in-line with state-aid rules.
Unlike the Banco Popular bail-in by Santander, however, Intesa would only take on the good assets. PM Gentiloni said the lenders will be split into good and bad banks and that the firms, with taxpayers on the hook for the bad banks. The process was rushed to allow the failed banks to reopen on Monday and avoid a depositor panic and bank run. The intervention is necessary because depositors and savers were at risk, Gentiloni said. The northern region where they operate “is one of the most important for our economy, above all for small- and medium-size businesses.”
In addition to the €5.2bn handed to Intesa, an additional €12bn will be available to cover potential further losses at the bad banks, Padoan said, while the Italian Treasury estimates the fair value of the losses at about €400 million. The final number will be far greater.
Just like in the case of Banco Popular, the government tried for months to find a way to keep the banks afloat, including an appeal to wealthy businessmen in the region to contribute to a rescue according to Bloomberg. Those efforts ended on Friday when the European Central Bank said the two banks are failing or were likely to fail and turned the matter over to the Single Resolution Board in Brussels for disposal. The SRB, in turn, passed the issue back to Italian authorities to allow the banks to be wound down under local law. In the subsequent 48 hours, culminating with today’s announcement by the prime minister, which also required a change to Italy’s bankruptcy law, Italy rushed to assemble the measures to carry out the plan because a local regulatory framework was required to allow the banks to open on Monday.
Ultimately, the plan unveiled by the government is virtually the same as that suggested earlier in the week by Intesa, which “offered” to take on the assets of the two Veneto banks on the condition that it wouldn’t harm its own capital and dividends, in some ways mirroring an FDIC-backed bailout of a US bank, in which a safe lender assumes all the deposits and loans, which the insurer plugs the capital shortfall. Only in this case, the NPLs are spun off into a separate entity: Intesa’s proposal excluded soured debt, higher-risk performing loans and subordinated bonds, along with shareholdings and other “legal relationships.” A purchase would only move forward if it didn’t lower Intesa’s common equity Tier 1 ratio, the bank said.
But where the rest of Europe will be infurated, is that unlike the recent bail-in of Popular in which billions in unsecured liabilities were wiped out, in the case of the Veneto banks the proposed bail out ensures that senior creditors and depositors of Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca would be protected in the wind-down under national insolvency law, and customers would see no interruption in service. Retail junior bondholders involved in the burden sharing – who can be reimbursed up to 80 percent according to rules – will be totally refunded because Intesa said it can fill the gap.
And, as the WSJ adds, “the decision over the weekend to spare two failed Italian lenders from the full force of those new rules raises questions about the effectiveness of the banking union.”
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The decision to create a banking union was the decisive moment in the eurozone’s response to the global financial crisis. The establishment of common banking rules and oversight institutions were intended to help restore trust in a system badly shaken by concerns that weak national supervisors in thrall to local political pressures were colluding to hide from investors the full scale of bad debts.
It also formed the centerpiece of a grand political bargain: By committing to sever the link between weak banks and over-indebted sovereigns, governments prepared the way for European Central Bank president Mario Draghi’s 2012 promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone, including buying government bonds.
The centerpiece of the new regime was the Bank Resolution and Recovery Directive — rules to ensure that no taxpayer money is used to bail out banks and that losses fall on private-sector creditors — and the creation of the Single Resolution Board to oversee the process.
There was relief last month when this new regime was tested for the first time by the failure of the Spanish lender Banco Popular, which was sold to Santander for one euro after its shareholders and junior bondholders had been wiped out, with no adverse effect on the market. But Veneto Banca and Banco Populare di Vincenza will be spared the same treatment. Using a loophole in the BRRD, the Single Resolution Board has ruled that the two banks are not systemically important and therefore can be liquidated under Italian insolvency rules, which permit the use of government cash without the need for senior bondholders to take losses.
As noted above, the plan is that the good assets of the banks will be transferred to Intesa Sanpaulo for a euro, but the bad assets and the cost of redundancies will be left with the government, which faces losses of up to €10 billion.
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As the WSJ’s Deborah Ball observes, the case of the Veneto banks is yet another example of Italy wriggling out of strict EU rules built after the financial crisis to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill in the event of the collapse of such institutions as banks. When the EU authority in charge of winding down the bloc’s failing banks—the Single Resolution Board—decided it wouldn’t take the case, it handed all power over to Italian authorities. This was followed by a Friday announcement by the SRB that it wouldn’t take action because neither of the banks would have “a significant adverse impact on financial stability” which is ironic becauase the whole point of the bailout – and not bial in – is to avoid a bankrun at the two banks which could then spread to the rest of the Italy’s banking system.
So the two banks will be closed down under national insolvency procedures, and the painful process of EU bail-in—under which junior and senior bondholders absorb the losses—is averted. In Italy, a majority of bonds are in the hands of mom and pop investors.
Ironically, the EU Commission which pushed hard for the BRRD insists this is not a loophole and that the possibility of using national as opposed to eurozone-level insolvency regimes was clearly envisaged under the Bank Resolution and Recovery Directive. It points out that a number of failed banks have been liquidated using national insolvency regimes since 2015.
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Even so, the WSJ notes that this decision has taken most observers by surprise. The two Italian banks, though smaller than Banco Popular, were large enough to be supervised by the European Central Bank. It therefore was widely assumed that their resolution would also be handled at the European level. Instead, it now appears that the SRB has discretion as to whether to apply the BRRD rules. Meanwhile the eurozone finds itself in the paradoxical situation where systemically unimportant banks are eligible for state aid, while systemically important banks must be subject to full bail-in.
And, as the WSJ correctly adds, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the SRB’s decision to spare senior bondholders in the two lenders is primarily political.
Adding insult to injury, and even more questions about whether the BRRD is even relevant any more, back in March Italian authorities tried in March to use another exception in EU rules to prop up the two Veneto banks. Under so-called precautionary recapitalization, Italy could have injected state money into the ailing lenders, but the commission didn’t approve the plans.
More from the WSJ:
The Italian authorities have been fighting a rear-guard action to save the two banks from insolvency for two years, not least because they are major employers in the region and because many of the bondholders are retail customers of the banks who may not have known of the risks they were taking when they bought what were marketed as high interest savings products.
Liquidating the banks under national rules at least removes the risk that 300, 000 retail investors might be hit by substantial losses less than a year before a general election is due.
No one wants to reignite a new political crisis in the eurozone just as the economy, including that of Italy, appears to have finally turned a corner.
Maybe, but Berlin, Europea’s paymaster who had pushed hard for a uniform bank resolution mechanism and now finds Italian banks abusing one after another loophole to get bailed out instead of in, is not happy.
Speaking to Germany’s Die Welt, Isabel Schnabel, a member of Germany’s Council of Economic Experts said that the wind-down of Italy’s Veneto Banca and Banca Popolare de Vicenza under national insolvency law is “a serious blow to the European settlement regime.” and added that “the cases show that European settlement regime offers too many loopholes” as in the end bank senior creditors will be completely spared from losses while Italian taxpayers will foot the bill. According to Scnabel, the Single Resolution Board’s authority should be expanded to include smaller banks in order to avoid situations where “creditors of banks are being spared from losses according to the convenience of the host countries.”
For now, however it is too late, and Rome has once again outsmarted Berlin.
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So with yet another gross evasion of Europe’s bank resolution mechanism, where does that lead the banking union?
As WSJ writes, “the decision to put the liquidation into the hands of the Italian authorities is not being questioned by Germany. From Berlin’s perspective, it is enough that it has headed off a long-standing attempt by Rome to try to keep the banks alive by injecting government capital using another controversial BRRD loophole known as precautionary recapitalization.”
The decision to spare senior bondholders represents a pragmatic compromise to a saga that has cast a shadow on the Italian and eurozone banking system for too long — and which German officials believe should have been addressed years ago. Nonetheless, Berlin wants reassurance that this deal doesn’t set a precedent and that the state aid rules will be rigorously applied to minimize the use of taxpayers’ money, according to German officials.
In recent weeks, there has been much speculation about a fresh political push to strengthen the eurozone, including the creation of new mechanisms to pool banking risks via a common backstop to the eurozone’s Single Resolution Fund and a common deposit-insurance scheme.
But the Italian episode highlights that before any steps can be taken to complete the banking union, new measures may be needed to strengthen the rules already in place.
A much more harsh assessment was offered earlier over the weekend by Bloomberg commentator Ferdinando Giugliano who wrote that as a result of today’s bailout, “Europe’s Banking Union Is Dying in Italy“
and that “Italy’s plan to rescue two small banks makes a mockery of Europe’s new regulations.”
This plan is a slap in the face of Italian taxpayers, who according to some estimates could end up paying around 10 billion euros ($11.1) for it. The government could have taken a less expensive route, involving the “bail in” of senior bondholders. It chose not to: Many of these instruments are in the hands of retail investors, who bought them without being fully aware of the risks involved.
The government wants to avoid a political backlash and the risk of contagion spreading across the system. However, 10 billion euros is a whale of a premium to pay as an insurance against a contagion. And Rome may still face a backlash — from taxpayers who will feel defrauded.
Most importantly, this plan is a dagger in the heart of the euro zone banking union. This was one of Europe’s main responses to the sovereign debt crisis, designed to limit the contribution of taxpayers to bank rescues and to ensure all euro zone lenders faced a coherent set of rules…. This means the European Commission must take a hard look at it and decide whether it really fits within existing laws. Intesa Sanpaolo is cherry-picking the assets it wants and leaving the bill to the government: It’s hard to see how this doesn’t involve state aid, which the EU forbids.
Ultimately, however, as the WSJ notes the decision to bail out the two banks and their stakeholders was entirely political (involving fears over a popular backlash of impaired senior bondholders), which means that Italy’s government will continue bailing out those exposed to bank risk as long as Italy’s taxpayers – and voters – keep silent; after all the risks from the alternative: depositors runs, contagion, bank crisis, are just too high and could remind Europe that 7 years after the first Greek bailout, absolutely nothing has been fixed in Europe, where the artificial sense of calm is only at the behest of a European central bank which now owns a record €4.2 trillion in assets and rising every week.