In Shocking Development, ECB Demands Impairment For Senior Spanish Bondholders; Eurocrats Resist

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In a landmark shift in its bank "impairment" stance, the WSJ reports that "in a sharp turnaround" the ECB has advocated the imposition of losses on senior bondholders at the most "damaged" Spanish savings banks, "though finance ministers have for now rejected the approach, according to people familiar with discussions." The WSJ continues: "The ECB's new position was made clear by its president, Mario Draghi, to a meeting of euro-zone finance ministers discussing a euro-zone rescue for Spain's struggling local lenders in Brussels the evening of July 9. It marks a contrast from the position the central bank adopted during the 2010 bailout of Irish banks--which, like Spain's, were victims of a property meltdown--when it prevailed in its insistence that senior bondholders in bailed-out banks shouldn't suffer losses." Needless to say, if indeed the fulcrum impairment security is no longer the Sub debt, but Senior debt, as the ECB suggests, it is only a matter of time before wholesale European bank liquidations commence as the ECB would only encourage this shift if it knew the level of asset impairment is far too great to be papered over by mere pooling of liabilities (think shared deposits, the creation of TBTF banks, and all those other gimmicks tried in 2010 when as a result of Caja failure we got such sterling example of financial viability as Bankia, which lasted all of 18 months). It also means the European crisis is likely about to take a big turn for the worse as suddenly bank failures become all too real. Why? Senior debt impairment means deposits are now at full risk of loss as even the main European bank admits there is no way banks will have enough assets to grow into their balance sheet.

Obviously, the ECB's 'revolutionary' suggestion will be met by harsh criticism at the FinMin level across Europe because if taken seriously it would mean the threat of wholesale bank runs. Sure enough, as the WSJ reports:

The ministers rejected the advice out of concern that financial markets would react badly to the decision. A draft of the rescue agreement, which will provide as much as EUR100 billion ($122.5 billion) for the Spanish banking system, requires Madrid to force losses only on shareholders and junior bondholders in banks receiving bailout money, and doesn't mention creditors higher up in the pecking order.

 

A spokesman for the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said: "It is clear that senior bondholders won't be involved in burden sharing."

 

The ministers' decision confirmed a pattern in the euro zone for dealing with bank troubles, in which senior bondholders have been spared even in the most brutal failures. But the ECB's shift may also be a sign that the tides are turning on the issue, as the euro zone embarks on a fundamental overhaul of the way bank failures are dealt with within the currency union.

 

During the July 9 meeting, Mr. Draghi argued in favor of including senior bank creditors in burden sharing between taxpayers and investors in the case of Spain, three people familiar with the discussions said. Two said Mr. Draghi favored forcing losses on senior bondholders only when a bank was pushed into liquidation.

Of course, if Senior bondholders are impaired, even in one-off instances, revisionism, primarily out of Ireland will hit a fever pitch, where everyone will demand an answer why Ireland had to bailout Senior debt holders, while Spain, and soon Italy, will get away with bank impairment.

But a chief reason ministers decided not to make more privileged bondholders take losses was the Irish precedent, two people said. Dublin has had to pump more than EUR60 billion, equivalent to around 40% of its annual gross domestic product, into several struggling lenders, forcing it to request a EUR67.5 billion bailout from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

 

Forcing senior creditors to take losses in Spain would raise more questions in Ireland about why taxpayers were forced by the EU to take on the huge burden of repaying high-ranked bondholders.

So while Europe vacillates, there is still not definitive method to restructure failed and failing banks:

"We have general company law [on bankruptcy cases], but we have so far no bank-specific law," said Karel Lannoo, chief executive of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.

 

The EU is now trying to rectify this situation and in June proposed a new legal framework for dealing with failing banks, which is cited in the Spanish bailout accord as a model. Crucially, the new rules would force national authorities to force losses on--or "bail in"--all creditors, for instance by converting debt into shares, when a bank has to be recapitalized by its governments.

Yet the question of why the ECB would even propose this revolutionary shift to all out impairment remains: after all, as anyone who had done even one Chapter 11 corporate case knows, at the end a company's assets must be just greater than its liabilities for fresh start restructuring: something that the banking sector has not seen once since the Lehman collapse.

And while such a return to reality would mean the potential to actually fix the situation, it would also mean the possibility of not only continent-wide bank runs, but all out balance sheet impairments courtesy of daisy-chained balance sheets, where one bank's liabilities are rehypothecated as another banks' assets in a virtually infinite loop, and where even the tiniest impairment causes the house of cards to fall.

Draghi is well aware of this, and the only reason he could bring it up is if he knows that absent full loss recognition, initially at selected venues, but gradually everywhere, there is simply not enough cash-good assets for the European financial system to "grow into its balance sheet."

The only question is how long until depositors, whose €10 trillion in cash makes the backbone of European bank liabilities, also figure out that their cash is backed by worthless assets, and then how long until they decided to, well, simply withdraw it...