Portugal’s Rickety Banking System
After the unseemly bankruptcy of the Espirito Santo Group and the associated bank, then Portugal’s second biggest (likely a result of not praying enough, see: “Big Portuguese Bank Gets Into Trouble” and “Fears Over Banco Espirito Santo Escalate” for the gory details), Portugal’s state-run deposit insurance fund basically ran out of money.
It turns out that Europe’s new Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD for short) came just in time for Portugal. At the end of 2015, another Portuguese bank bit the dust, the country’s seventh largest lender by assets, Banif. Portugal’s government once again decided to bail the bank out, but with strings attached. Subordinated bondholders and shareholders were essentially wiped out, which is as it should be.
Banif SA, weekly. Although this is hard to see on this linear chart, the stock rose by 40% today, to €0.002. Shareholders are allegedly planning to throw a wild party in Lisbon over the weekend (we were unable to confirm this rumor) – click to enlarge.
Senior bondholders and depositors were spared however, with Portugal’s overburdened taxpayers once again footing the bill. According to the FT:
Portugal has agreed a €2.2bn state rescue for Banco International do Funchal (Banif), splitting the Madeira-based lender into “good” and “bad” banks and selling its healthy assets to Spain’s Santander for €150m in the country’s second bank bailout in less than 18 months.
António Costa, Portugal’s new socialist prime minister, said the bailout would involve “a high cost for taxpayers” but had the advantage of being “a definitive solution”. Branches would open normally on Monday, he said. The rescue, which “bails in” shareholders and subordinated creditors, follows the €4.9bn bailout in August last year of Banco Espírito Santo, once Portugal’s largest listed bank, whose healthy assets, split off into Novo Banco, remain unsold.
In a statement late on Sunday night, the Bank of Portugal said the rescue of Banif would involve “total public support” estimated at €2.25bn to cover “future contingencies”, of which €1.76bn would come directly from the state and €489m from a bank resolution fund, to which all banks contribute. The bailout protects depositors and senior creditors and ensures that Banif’s operations, transferred to Santander Totta, the Spanish group’s Portuguese subsidiary, will continue to “function normally”, the central bank said.
Shareholders and subordinated creditors would be left in Banif, retaining “a very restricted group of assets” that are to be liquidated, the Bank of Portugal said. “Problematic assets” would be transferred to a special asset management vehicle. The rescue partly mirrors the 2014 bailout of BES, which was split into “good” and “bad” banks after its profits were hit by exposure to the heavily indebted Espírito Santo family business empire.
Banif is Portugal’s seventh largest lender with total assets valued at €12.8bn in June, equivalent to about 7 per cent of Portugal’s gross domestic product, and deposits totalling €6.3bn. The bank is the dominant lender in the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores, where it accounts for more than 30 per cent of total deposits.”
Since no deposits were wiped out as a result of the bail-out, Portugal’s money supply won’t be affected. However, Banif’s downfall is a reminder that Portugal’s banking system remains quite rickety. We dimly remember someone saying that the bail-out of BES would be the last such problem. Evidently it wasn’t.
Still, there is nothing overly unusual here – the socialist prime minister decided that it would be better to spare senior bondholders and depositors and let taxpayers eat the losses, but at least it was decided to bail someone in. However, what happened next was a lot less benign.
Governments Trying to Subvert the Law
The first euro area government that has tried to subvert the law governing the relations between creditors and borrowers was that of Austria. It was recently ignominiously stopped from doing so by the country’s Constitutional Court, which declared the so-called “Hypo Alpe Adria Special Law” unconstitutional.
What the government tried to do in this case was to stiff certain classes of creditors in spite of the fact that their bonds had been guaranteed by the now essentially insolvent province of Carinthia. As one can easily imagine, this decision didn’t go down well with the affected creditors and they sued the government. Austria’s Constitutional Court rightly concluded that the government had attempted to subvert essential legal principles and repealed the law in its entirety.
Specifically, the court cited in its ruling that reversing the guarantees to bondholders was in conflict with the constitution, that the law represented an unacceptable breach of property rights and that it treated creditors holding guarantees unfairly by dividing them into different classes, in spite of the fact that they should be treated pari passu.
As deeply embarrassing as this ruling was for Austria’s government, the attendant sighs of relief of bondholders could be heard across Europe. By desperately trying to avert a bankruptcy of the province of Carinthia (an event for which no legal provisions exist!), the government had created a huge question mark over government debt guarantees all over Europe. If one government could get away with suspending them by legislative fiat, couldn’t all of them expected to do so if push came to shove?
The fancy HQ of the former Hypo Alpe Adria Group (now known as “Heta Asset Resolution”, which isn’t merely a “bad bank” but easily the “worst bank” ever) in Klagenfurt, Carinthia.
As a first test of the BRRD, the HAA special law turned out to be a costly failure. The cost cannot simply be measured in terms of the additional amounts the country’s taxpayers are now forced to fork over – the real cost is hidden, and comes in the form of lost trust. As the FT noted at the time:
“Germany’s VOeB association of public banks said that the law would have led to incalculable costs by undermining investor confidence in Austria. The country now faced “the considerable task of winning back the lost trust of national and international investors — which could be regarded as a Herculean task”, said Liane Buchholz, the VOeB’s managing director.”
Giving it Another Try in Portugal
But we know governments. We have already seen the lengths to which assorted Greek governments and the government of Argentina have gone in recent years to stiff their creditors. More recently, Ukraine got in on the act as well. So given the fact that the banking system, governments and central banks are engaged in a complex three-card Monte designed to fund welfare/warfare statism by issuing mountains of unsound and unpayable debt that “backs” an equally fast growing mountain of irredeemable “money”, we knew it would only be a question of time before someone tried to pull the same stunt again.
Who better suited for this task than Portugal’s new socialist government? Remember the bailout of BES and the creation of a “good bank” and a “bad bank”? Take a gander at the following chart from Bloomberg:
Five senior BES bonds that had hitherto been assigned to the “good bank” are reassigned overnight, without warning, to the “bad bank”. Bondholders lost 80% of their money between the evening of December 29 and the morning of December 30 – click to enlarge.
As Bloomberg notes, this is “setting a dangerous precedent” – indeed, it is not much different from the precedent almost set by Austria’s government. Here is the problem in a nutshell: the government, or rather the ECB, suddenly “discovered” – and this shouldn’t really surprise anyone – that the financial hole that has been torn into BES is actually gaping a lot wider than had been hitherto assumed. According to Bloomberg, this caused Portugal’s government to opt for instant expropriation – a new year’s surprise present for BES bondholders, so to speak:
“If you owned any of those five bonds on Tuesday, you were owed money by Novo Banco, the good bank. On Wednesday, you were told that your bonds had been transferred to BES, the bad bank. The Portuguese central bank selected five of Novo Banco’s 52 senior bonds, worth about 1.95 billion euros ($2.1 billion), and reassigned them — thus backfilling a 1.4 billion-euro hole in the “good” bank’s balance sheet that had been revealed in November by the European Central Bank’s stress tests of the institution.”
The core problem with this decision should be glaringly obvious: once again, the government is arbitrarily picking winners and losers. Senior bondholders are no longer treated pari passu – certain types of bonds suddenly seem to confer different property rights than others – in spite of the fact that all these bonds are part of the class of “senior bank bonds”.
There is in principle absolutely nothing wrong with bailing in bondholders – in fact, this is precisely the way to go. However, the essential principle that creditors holding instruments of the same seniority have to be treated equally is something the bond markets of the whole world are relying on. Without this principle, what point is there in creating different levels of seniority, which are attended by different levels of risk and hence involve different costs and rewards?
One wonders of course on what grounds precisely these five bond issues were selected and not any of the others. That’s simple, actually – as Bloomberg explains:
“It seems likely that Portugal’s choice of bonds wasn’t completely arbitrary; the documentation for the selected securities says they are governed by Portuguese law, rather than U.K. or U.S. law.”
In short, the government already knows it would lose its case in London and New York courts – because, naturally, the bondholders are preparing to sue. So it has picked bonds the covenants of which are governed by Portuguese law, in the hope that the courts in Lisbon will be sympathetic to acts of selective expropriation by the Portuguese government.
As Bloomberg remarks, the consequences of this decision are nigh incalculable – and bank bondholders across Europe are likely to once again hold their collective breath:
“Portugal isn’t the only country refurbishing its banking industry. Germany’s savings banks will need to bolster their capital in the coming months under the new EU rules, and the fourfold increase in bad loans held by Italy’s banks since 2008 means the central bank there has some housecleaning of its own to do. Consolidation — in the form of forced intermingling of stronger and weaker banks — is likely in both countries. Investors who own debt issued by German or Italian banks will no doubt reflect carefully on what just happened in Portugal.”
If we were holding any of these bonds, we’d shoot first and ask questions later. Surely if ever there was a time to get out of Dodge, this is it.
In principle, the BRRD, or “bail-in directive” as it is also known, is quite a good idea. The fact that lending money to fractionally reserved banks or even merely depositing it with them, involves risks needed to be firmly reestablished. One simply cannot expect that banks and their creditors will be bailed out by taxpayers at every opportunity. Besides, the admission that there are risks in banking that have hitherto been glossed over or have even been lied about was long overdue. However, Europe’s governments are now likely to find out that the current monetary system with its fractionally reserved banks is actually incompatible with this admission, so to speak.
By arbitrarily meting out unequal treatment to similar classes of creditors, they are unwittingly hastening this process of recognition. In that sense, we actually welcome the Portuguese government’s attempt to stiff certain BES bondholders (although we still regard the case as such as plainly illegal and contemptible). It will now become even more difficult to keep assorted banking zombies on artificial life support. A lot of unsound credit is likely to be liquidated faster than had been expected to date. Artificial credit expansion is going to become even harder to implement. Unfortunately none of this is going to keep governments from trying to confiscate as much wealth as possible in a doomed attempt to keep the unworkable system of “third way” socialist regulatory statism going.
In this context, we want to leave you with a few quotes by Ludwig von Mises, which go to the heart of matter and some of which we are convinced will once again turn out to be prophetic – especially the ones that proclaim that the so-called “mixed economy” is just as certain to fail as the communist economies were. (from: Bureaucracy, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Human Action, Planned Chaos and Planning for Freedom).
“Sorry boys and girls, you will have to choose. You can either have capitalism, freedom, prosperity and personal responsibility,or you can have socialism, tyranny, poverty and ‘security’. You cannot have both.”
“The Welfare State is merely a method for transforming the market economy step by step into socialism.”
“An essential point in the social philosophy of interventionism is the existence of an inexhaustible fund which can be squeezed forever. The whole system of interventionism collapses when this fountain is drained off: The Santa Claus principle liquidates itself.”
“The issue is always the same: the government or the market. There is no third solution.”
“Capitalism and socialism are two distinct patterns of social organization. Private control of the means of production and public control are contradictory notions and not merely contrary notions. There is no such thing as a mixed economy, a system that would stand midway between capitalism and socialism.”
“Contrary to a popular fallacy there is no middle way, no third system possible as a pattern of a permanent social order. The citizens must choose between capitalism and socialism.”