It's not just the ECB that was humiliated for holding Steinhoff bonds: so were all major US banks.
As we have documented this earnings season, one after another major US bank, from JPM, to Citi, to Bank of America and Goldman reported that they have suffered direct losses in the hundreds of millions on their exposure to the scandal-plagued company.
According to a Bloomberg summary, the 4 of the biggest US banks have revealed more than $1 billion in mark-to-market losses and charge-offs on margin loans and other debt tied to the embattled South African retailer in their Q4 results. Citigroup was at the top, with $370 million in losses, followed by Bank of America Corp.’s $292 million, JPMorgan with $273 million and Goldman with $130 million.
"Once in a while, something doesn’t turn out the way we want because that’s what the definition of taking risk is,” Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told reporters Wednesday, saying the incident wouldn’t change the lender’s risk appetite.
To an extent the losses and charge-offs were expected: one month ago we reported that global banks were on the hook for some $21 billion as part of the Steinhoff implosion. What is surprising, however, is seeing just how substantial the losses are when flowing through the P&L, and also how profound the artificial sense of security created among the banking community, in this case thanks to the ECB also being on the hook for losses due to its purchases.
The bigger question is what happens if and when other fallen angels suffer the same fate as Steinhoff, are downgraded from Investment Grade to junk, and are kicked out of the ECB's balance sheet, forcing US banks to take losses as they did with Steinhoff.
How much of a problem will this be for Draghi, and US commercial banks? As we showed last month, Using S&P’s historical rating transition matrices, BofA estimates that €7bn of corporate bonds that the ECB own will end up as Fallen Angels prior to maturity (by bonds impacted, this is equivalent to €38bn of total outstanding debt). The chart below shows that over the last decade, the price drop severity of Fallen Angels has been declining. But if the ECB become a motivated seller of downgraded credits, we feel this dynamic could reverse.
In conclusion, and in Bank of America recently warned, credit investors should anticipate more pronounced price drops in names that migrate from IG to HY next year.
"After all, there may now be a big buyer (ECB) behind some of these credits that chooses to become a seller upon downgrade."
The silver lining - if only for deep junk investors - is that Falling Knives, and further bank losses, may soon produce a source of technically cheap BBs for yield-starved investors to mull over. Then again, if for whatever reason the rug is pulled out from under the junk bond market, suddenly everything else will be surprisingly cheap too...