Anyone looking at a heatmap of European markets today will see a sea of green punctuated by a very red island in the middle. The culprit: Austrian mega bank Erste, which issued an ad hoc and very unexpected press release, in which it warned that losses in its Hungarian and Romanian books would lead to a 14% hit, or €1.1 billion, to tangible book value, something that in itself is not a surprise to anyone (except the stress test). After all, since early 2010, most have known that due to Swiss Franc-based mortgage exposure, Hungary is next to follow in the PIIGS footsteps, and its collapse has so far been delayed due to lower overall public and private sector leverage. What was, however not only a surprise, but a shock, was that Erste disclosed some major losses on its €5.2 billion CDS portfolio, consisting of "EUR 2.4 billion related to financial institution exposures, and EUR 2.8 billion related sovereign exposures". Why is this a surprise? UK-based financial advisory Autonomous explains: "The fact that Erste had a sovereign CDS portfolio which was not marked-to-market has left many investors scratching their heads. As a reminder the EBA stress test data showed Erste to have zero sovereign CDS exposure within its sovereign mix compared to the €2.8bn it now appears to have ‘fessed up’ to (taking a cumulative €460m hit). They also have €2.4bn exposure to banks via writing of CDS. The bulk is non-PIIGS but banks spreads have moved in the same manner as sovereigns (albeit wider and more volatile)." And there you have it: the bogeyman that everyone has been warning about, yet nobody has seen, CDS written (as in sold) in bulk against other sovereigns and other banks which up until now were only mythical, as they, to quote the EBA (which had Dexia as its safest bank) simply did not exist. Oh, they exist all right, and what they do is create a toxic spiral of accentuating losses whenever the risk situation deteriorates, creating positive feedback loops of ever increasing losses until the next Dexia appears... and then the next... and the next. Expect the market to latch on to this dramatic revelation like a rabid pitbull once the hopium high from today's EURUSD short covering squeeze wears off.
Still, this does not answer the question how Erste managed to squeeze this information by its auditors and the regulators, without having broken most public company, not to mention bank, laws. The answer is simple: the accountants let them do it.
Autonomous with more:
Note the EBA only required banks to declare CDS exposures in its trading book (Erste was not trading these but rather holding them as “credit surrogates”) so they could argue their exposures were strictly speaking correctly disclosed to the EBA. It seems Erste has changed their classification following an IASB paper from July. There is a link to the paper below where the relevant paragraphs appear to be 59-63 - Erste believed previously they were ‘financial guarantees’. With reference to paragraph 62 specifically, our in house accounting expert, notes that CDS do not meet the criteria for designation as a guarantee (as a guarantee must apply to a specific referenced asset held by the buyer rather than simply a referenced name). This isn't something there should expect confusion over - the starting point for all derivatives accounting is FVTPL, with any hedge accounting simply changing where the movements are recorded. Thus the decision to treat these positions as ‘guarantees’ should be considered a very “aggressive” approach.
And, logically, the two immediate follow up questions are 1) who else and 2) how much:
It also raises two broader questions - the scale of protection that has been sold by other banks across Europe and how many other banks have deployed Erste’s accounting approach (and will now be forced to move to mark-to market)? On the latter we have calls in with all the banks we cover cross Europe (more later). On the former I remind you the disclosure on sovereign CDS was a major disappointment in the EBA stress test in July. Despite investor hopes / market pressure at the time, the EBA presented the data in a way which rendered the information almost meaningless. It showed the net of positive market values and negative market values with no data on the notional value of positions. Market values of PIIGS derivatives exposures according to the EBA data ranged between €1.5bn for BNP Paribas and (€800mn) for LBBW.
As we identified in our note at the time (see page 15 - link below) the problem is that the net market value can change very quickly and unfortunately we remain totally in the dark on who has written what. The BIS data is equally as unhelpful - in its latest Quarterly Review (link below), the BIS explained how complicated the data is and how impossible it is to unravel who has written what. This is an obviou
So while Erste group is getting pummeled for being the first to be truthful, granted under duress, with its book exposure, this is merely the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of banks that it will be revealed in the coming weeks and months wrote hundreds of billions of CDS on sovereigns that have since soared to stratospheric levels. While on one hand ISDA may show up and once again make it clear that it only works for bank interests, reconfirming it would never declare a sovereign credit event (for more on the traditional CDS triggers see table below), the truth is that Erste, and soon many other banks' counterparties will demand a pound of flesh in daily variation margin, for even the tiniest amount of CDS exposure, which in turn will lead to a sudden and very dramatic liquidity crunch as unlike quarterly reporting where banks can fudge numbers and data all they want, when it comes to counterparty exposure, other banks know better than anyone just how bad the bank on the other side of the phone is. And will act accordingly.
Expect many more risk flaring episodes in the weeks ahead once this revelation is properly digested.
And as noted above, while probably very much irrelevant now that IDSA has made it clear in the aftermath of Greece it is merely a figurehead for various banking interests, and will never pronounce a sovereign EOD, here is what in theory, should trigger credit events for various types of CDS.
And from the Erste press release, here are the long-overdue details on its CDS exposure:
Background on the CDS portfolio (protection sold)
In the years up to 2008 Erste Group built up a diversified portfolio of off-balance sheet sovereign and bank risk positions (CDS sold), which – as credit surrogates (financial guarantees) – were held at amortised cost. As at 30 September 2011 the total volume amounted to EUR 5.2 billion (at amortised cost):
- EUR 2.4 billion related to financial institution exposures, and
- EUR 2.8 billion related sovereign exposures
- About 14% or EUR 0.7 billion of the total volume is related to banks and the sovereign in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy
Following an interpretation issued in a staff paper of the IASB dated 28 July 2011 concerning the classification of CDS as derivatives versus financial guarantees, the management board of Erste Group decided to reclassify the aforementioned portfolio as of 30 September 2011, resulting in a mark-to-market valuation of the entire portfolio. Historical accounts will be adjusted as follows: the cumulative effect of EUR -149 million for the business years prior to 2010 will be booked against equity at the start of 2010; in the business years subsequent to 2009 the valuation result of this portfolio is included in the line item "Net Trading Result”. The overall impact from the reclassification amounts to EUR -176 million pre-tax (EUR -132 million post-tax) in 2010. In 1-9 2011 the negative impact from valuations and from losses on disposal amounted to about EUR -234 million (about EUR -180 million post-tax).
With a view to minimise income statement volatility, Erste Group plans to sell these assets in an accelerated manner, taking advantage of windows of opportunity as and when they arise. As a substantial part of these assets are sovereign exposures, the disposal will have a correspondingly lower impact on risk-weighted assets.
Erste Group has also significantly reduced – mainly as a result of asset disposals – its net exposure (sovereign, bank, corporate and retail) to Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy from EUR 5.1 billion at year-end 2010 to EUR 3.6 billion at 30 September 2011; 81% of this exposure is related to Spain and Italy. Sovereign exposure to Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy was reduced from EUR 1.9 billion to EUR 0.6 billion, while bank exposure declined from EUR 2.3 billion to EUR 2.0 billion; corporate and retail exposure remained unchanged at about EUR 0.9 billion (mainly Spain and Italy). As of 30 September 2011 95% of Erste Group’s sovereign exposure to Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy is carried at market value.
PS: You know the drill: Austria-Erste CDS compression trade...