In an unexpected move, the European Union has decided to shut out some of the world's biggest banks from sales of bonds for the EU's COVID recovery fund, expected to be the largest supranational bond offering yet.
According to the FT, the EU excluded 10 banks - including JPMorgan, Citigroup, Bank of America and Barclays - from running bond sales as part of its €800 billion ($968.5 billion) recovery fund due to what the FT described as "historic breaches of antitrust rules". Specifically, the EU is seeking to punish the banks for their roles in the series of market-rigging scandals (which infamously started with rigging of the Libor before investigators moved on to currency and fixed income markets) that broke early in the last decade. The move is especially bold because many of the banks being shut out of the deal are some of the world's biggest players in international debt markets.
In other words, simply by shutting them out of this massive deal, the EU could shake up the league tables as the banks that win its business will undoubtedly be handsomely rewarded for their work. The borrowing spree - Brussels' biggest-ever - will begin Tuesday with the sale of a new 10-year eurobond to fund the NextGenerationEU pandemic program. 7 of the 10 banks excluded are among the biggest sellers' of European debt. Before they will be allowed to sell the bonds, the EU wants them to demonstrate that they have "taken remedial measures" to prevent this from happening again.
In other words, Brussels is serious about preventing banks from stuffing their pockets with public money.
Banks found to have breached EU competition rules “will not be invited to tender for individual syndicated transactions”, said a spokesman for the European Commission, which handles debt issuance on behalf of the EU. “The Commission implements a strict approach to ensuring that the entities with whom it works are fit to be a counterparty of the EU."
Banks found guilty of antitrust breaches will be required to show they have taken “remedial measures” to prevent them happening again before they will be allowed to bid for syndications, the spokesman added.
Bank of America, Natixis, Nomura, NatWest and UniCredit have been prevented from taking part due to a Commission antitrust ruling last month that they participated in a bond trading cartel during the eurozone debt crisis a decade ago.
Citigroup, JPMorgan and Barclays — in addition to NatWest — have also been barred due to a finding two years ago that they were involved in manipulating currency markets between 2007 and 2013, people familiar with the matter said. Deutsche Bank and Crédit Agricole are also excluded due to an April ruling that they were involved in a different bond trading cartel, the people said. All the banks declined to comment.
Despite this, Reuters reported earlier (citing a senior banker in charge of the deal) that the EU's first offering of €20 billion ($24.3 billion) in bonds was heavily oversubscribed. The popularity isn't that surprising, considering that Triple-A rated debt in the region can be hard to come by (since the ECB owns much of the market). And the EU bonds feature a slight yield premium to German bunds. Investors placed upwards of €140 billion in orders for the €20 billion of debt, according to bankers who spoke to Reuters.
The new EU bond, due July 4 2031, will price 2 basis points below the mid-swap rate, according to the lead manager. That is equivalent to a yield of around 0.06%, according to Reuters calculations, down from around one basis point over the mid-swap level when the sale started on Monday.
Since October, the EU has already issued 90 billion euros to help finance its unemployment support program SURE.
The EU is managing these bond sales like a national debt offering, which is appropriate since they will likely transform the bloc into the world’s biggest supranational debt issuer.
All ten banks are among the 39 approved "primary dealers" which have a responsibility to bid for bonds during government auctions. One anonymous source told the FT that the EU's decision to bar the top dealers could create unnecessary complications for the sales. "There’s a delicate equilibrium in the relationship between issuers and primary dealers, and this risks upsetting that,”" said a senior banker at one of the lenders barred from syndicated deals. "These issues they are bringing up are from a long time ago, and they have been settled."
The banks working on Tuesday’s inaugural recovery fund bond are BNP Paribas, DZ Bank, HSBC, Intesa Sanpaolo, Morgan Stanley, Danske Bank and Santander.
The EU is expected to sell two more syndicated bonds by the end of July.