We have commented numerous times on the inexorable rise in Spanish non-performing loans (NPLs). Since the Spanish economy started to weaken at the end of 2006, NPLs have been rising sharply; but the subsequent collapse of the Spanish property market exacerbated the matter further, causing a spike in NPLs in 2007 and 2008. Since then, the Euro area crisis and subsequent sharp rise in unemployment have led NPLs at Spanish banks to make new record highs. However, they are not alone.
Italian banks did not suffer a property market collapse and so the rise in NPLs started later than in Spain and was not as severe. However, as JPMorgan notes, the sharp rise in unemployment we have seen since mid 2011 has led to an acceleration in NPLs at Italian banks (and this is a problem is unsustainable). What should be most worrying for incoming PM Letta, is that from the respective troughs for each country (the trough for Spain was a lot earlier than for Italy, about two years in actual fact), Italy is looking eerily similar.
The rise in NPLs at Spanish banks over the past two years has had a lot to do with the recession and rise in unemployment. To the extent that Italian unemployment has only started to rise sharply a year and a half ago, the future path for NPLs at Italian banks looks set to follow that of Spain. So why aren't bond spreads blowing wider? Answer below...
Non-Performing Loans as a share of total loans at Spanish and Italian banks
Cumulative rise in NPLs as a share of total loans starting from the trough for each country. For Spain this is Nov 2006 and for Italy this is Dec 2008.
But, of course, none of this matters for now. As politicians look on at their relative sovereign spreads and reflect on a job well-done.
The reason, however is simple...
Across countries France, Italy and Spain saw the highest deposit inflows in March at €16bn, €15bn and €11bn respectively. In principle, these deposit inflows boosts the surplus funds that peripheral banks have to repay existing LTRO borrowing, but it appears that these deposit inflows are channeled into domestic government bond markets instead. Both Spanish and Italian banks bought large amounts of domestic government bonds in March, €16bn and €11bn. This brings their Q1 purchases to around €30bn each. French banks follow with €16bn of domestic government bond purchases in Q1.
So, what happens when there is no more money for the local banks to reach-around and buy domestic bonds with? Or the domestic pension funds are 100% allocated to sovereign debt? There is a limit (both in the purchasing power of the marginal buyer, and the extent to which the marginal seller re-appears based on any real valuation measures)...