Germany’s banking system was shown to be far weaker than previously thought in a new round of European stress tests, raising the prospect of further taxpayer bail-outs.
The European Banking Authority said late on Thursday that German banks had a capital shortfall, which must be made up by next June, of €13.1bn – nearly triple the result of a previous test in October – pushing up the Europe-wide deficit from €106bn to €115bn.
Analysts said Commerzbank, Germany’s second-biggest private sector bank, which emerged with a capital shortfall of €5.3bn from the test, up from €2.9bn six weeks earlier, was now facing the prospect of nationalisation. The German banking association said the EBA had “lost credibility”.
“The stress test hasn’t contributed to market stabilisation,” said Michael Kemmer, general manager of the BDB association of German banks, adding that the process had been “arbritary, lengthy and seemingly chaotic”.
Commerzbank shares plunged 11 per cent in late trading as rumours of the shortfall spread ahead of the official announcement after markets closed.
German banks’ aggregate capital shortfall, which also includes a €3.2bn gap at Deutsche Bank, jumped from €5.2bn to €13.1bn.
The reaction compounded the market’s disappointed response to earlier remarks by European Central Bank president Mario Draghi, who played down the prospect of a boost to ECB sovereign bond purchasing. That overshadowed the ECB’s announcement of a host of new non-standard measures aimed at supporting the region’s ailing banks.
The ECB also cut interest rates, from 1.25 per cent to 1 per cent. Mr Draghi cited the risks of a spill over from the financial sector into the real economy as one of the “substantial downside risks” facing the eurozone.
The ECB would start offering unlimited loans lasting three years to eurozone banks. To improve access to its liquidity, the bank also broadened significantly the pool of assets it would accept as collateral. Loans to small and medium-sized enterprises were made acceptable for the first time.
The EBA views its stress test, which demand that 71 of Europe’s banks hit a new 9 per cent core tier one capital ratio by June next year, as a key part of the broader measures to repair the eurozone set to be announced as early as Friday by European leaders, who were meeting in Brussels.
The test is based on bank balance sheet data to the end of September, updating the numbers published in an October exercise on the basis of information to the end of June. Banks have until January 20 to outline plans to make up any capital shortfalls.
Some analysts had expected the overall capital deficit to fall from the €106bn October figure, as banks have hoarded profits, begun converting some debt to equity-like instruments and “deleveraged” – selling asset portfolios and shrinking lending.
There has also been a concerted sell-down of some banks’ exposure to the sovereign debt of peripheral eurozone countries. The central tenet of the EBA’s test involves writing down those exposures in line with market valuations.
That, together with a stricter definition of capital for investment banks’ trading operations, under so-called Basel 2.5 rules, is behind many banks’ capital shortfalls.
Deleveraging and profit retention reduced the shortfall of French banks by €1.5bn to €7.3bn, with Portuguese banks’ deficit also down by nearly €1bn to €7bn. But Belgium, home of failed lender Dexia, has a €6.3bn deficit, up more than €2bn.
Spain’s Santander, with a capital deficit of €15bn, remains the bank with the biggest single gap to close, though it has undertaken a number of measures – including disposals in Latin America and moves to convert debt to equity.
But for Commerzbank, which already has the German government as a minority shareholder, the outlook is particularly bleak.
One analyst questioned the bank’s ability to make up the deficit through shrinkage or other means. “It certainly seems hard for them to come back with another equity raise from the market, so if all else fails it looks like the government is the answer.”
But the bank insisted this was not part of its plan. Eric Strutz, finance director, said: “We stand by our intention not to make use of additional public funds.”
Germany’s government has already said it will reactivate a bank rescue fund that was used to bail out several banks, including Commerzbank, during the crisis.
Additional reporting by James Wilson in Frankfurt and Tracy Alloway in London