By Don Quijones
The past week’s events in Europe were dominated by the pound sterling’s spectacular flash crash to its lowest point in 31 years. As is often the case with flash crashes, we will probably never know what exactly triggered the currency to free-fall by 6% during Asian trading hours, though the most cited cause, apart from a “fat finger,” is the gathering realization that a so-called “hard” Brexit is a very real possibility.
But it’s an eventuality that can be expected to play out in roughly two and a half years’ time, at the earliest, and in light of the powerful forces arrayed against it, it may never occur at all.
In the meantime, something far more dangerous is happening on the other side of the English Channel: the slow-motion meltdown of the Eurozone’s banking system.
In its Global Financial Stability Report, the IMF warned that banks in Europe were too weak to generate sustainable profits even if — and here’s the kicker — the region saw strong economic growth. That hasn’t happened for years.
The IMF also cautioned that the banks’ weak profitability, caused by subdued growth in the Eurozone and ultra low or negative interest rates — something the ECB vehemently denies, preferring to blame the crisis on Europe’s smaller regional or local banks — could further erode their financial buffers and undermine their ability to support economic recovery.
“In Europe, about one third of the system – representing some $7.5 trillion euros in assets – remains weak and unable to generate sustainable profits,” said IMF economist Peter Dattels as he presented the report in Washington. As such, European banks need “urgent and comprehensive action” to address a legacy of non-performing loans and bloated, inefficient business models, he said.
“Urgent” and “comprehensive” are two words you’d rarely associate with the Eurozone, especially at a time when the region faces a relentless gauntlet of political threats, from the rise of “populist” movements in central and northern Europe to December’s do-or-die constitutional referendum in Italy. That’s not to mention what promises to be tightly fought national elections in the Eurozone’s two biggest economies, France and Germany, scheduled to be held respectively in April and October, 2017.
The last thing either Merkel or Hollande needs during election season is a region-wide banking crisis, which is why every effort will be made to keep a lid on the problem until the votes have been cast. But that is not going to be easy, not with Germany’s flagship lender, Deutsche Bank, continuing to sink at an alarming rate.