The Mortgage Crisis Hits France Front And Center: Are French Bank Nationalizations Imminent?

Name the plunging bond below:

If you said some sovereign or corporate issue based out of Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, or even Greece you would be close... but no cigar. No - the bond in question is an issue of Caisse Centrale du Credit Immobilier de France (3CIF), which together with its sister entity CIF Euromortgage (CIFE), is  a 100% subsidiary of Credit Immobilier de France Development (CIFD), which as Fitch describes it, is a French "housing loans specialist, with business exclusively directed to France." CIFD is in turn owned by Procivis Group, which just happens to be France's second largest full-service real estate group.

In other words, CIFD, together with its subsidiaries 3CIF and CIFE represent a critical glance into the functioning (or lack thereof) of the French mortgage market. The various CIF mortgage entities are related as per the following Org Chart:

A brief summary on the Procivis Group, of which the CIF entities are a part of, via Fitch (bear with us - this is important):



Mortgage financing in France continues to be predominantly distributed through the biggest retail and saving banks in the country. Specialist banks thus have a modest cumulative market share (10%-12%), but benefit from their wide range of products to maintain their franchise. CIFD offered 15 products at end-2011 and has developed some innovative services (eg, price insurance under which the difference between the sale price and the original price paid by the borrower, if negative, is covered up to EUR40,000 by the insurer). Its specialisation and its strong expertise in the French housing market represent key strengths compared with more global peers, as they enable the group to provide bespoke products to its customers. CIFD extends loans predominantly to private individuals, but also caters for investors' needs. The latter accounted for c.21% of the bank's loan portfolio at end-September 2011. While CIFD has its own widespread lending network, approximately 65% of the loans originated by the SFRs in 9M11 were brought in by intermediaries such as real estate agents, building property developers and brokers. CIFD is also trying to extend the number of bilateral partnerships it has with corporates. On top of loans to employees of the French groups Electricité de France and Gaz de France (EUR1.2bn loans combined at end-2010, 9M11 new loans up 30% yoy), the bank launched an offer with Crédit Social des Fonctionnaires in September 2011, targeting first-time home-buying civil servants. CIFD's SOFIAP subsidiary is dedicated to providing housing loans to SNCF employees (French railway company).




CIFD is owned by 56 Sociétés Anonymes Coopératives d'Intérêt Collectif pour l'Accession à la Propriété (SACICAPs), whose mission is assigned by the state despite their private-sector status, and which together with Procivis Immobilier make up the Procivis group. The SACICAPs use dividends up?streamed from their competitive subsidiaries to grant subsidised housing loans and build social housing in cooperation with local authorities and social housing entities. Procivis Immobilier is France's second?largest full-service real estate group.


The SACICAPs are held by numerous shareholders that, by law, have to include local authorities and social housing entities. Shareholders consist principally of local institutions. Fitch does not believe they can be relied on to support CIFD in case of need.


Solidarity Mechanisms Within CIFD


A cross-support mechanism has been in place since 2004, and covers all the entities of the group. Under this mechanism, each member's commitments are backed by the equity of all group entities, including non-controlling interests. CIFE benefits from this mechanism, but does not contribute to it. Additional solidarity requirements exist through the group's status as a "réseau" (equivalent to a network under French banking law), under which its central body –CIFD – has the power to enforce any measure that it deems necessary.


Corporate Governance


CIFD is not publicly listed, and the level and frequency of financial disclosure, although satisfactory, reflects this. The 12 members of CIFD's board of directors are representatives of the SACICAPs. The undiversified nature of CIFD's business and the moderate size of its operations help to facilitate control and oversight of the bank's operations by the executive team and the board of directors.




Given the prevailing depreciated economic and market environment, which weighs on lending volumes, interest margins and fees, the bank's profitability is likely to be under significant pressure over the next couple of years. Expanding its insurance solutions, leveraging alternative commercial channels (eg, bilateral partnerships), maintaining a high degree of specialisation, and continuing its cost integration are the cornerstones of CIFD's strategy.


Within a continued period of market turbulence, clear emphasis has been placed on maintaining sound liquidity and cautious risk monitoring.

* * *

For the longest time, CIF was well off everyone's radar. All that changed two weeks ago, on May 8, when trading of securities issued by 3CIF and CIFE was suspended at the request of French and Luxembourg regulators, the Autorité des Marchés Financiers and the Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier. The result was an immediate plunge as there was little to no additional clarification about the sudden trading halt, leading many to speculate the worst - namely that underlying operations had deteriorated substantially, to the point where little to no collateral and/or cash flow was left to service liabilities.

It subsequently surfaced that the halt was driven by a failure of the bank to file accounts by an April 30 deadline, which in turn prompted speculation that the group's rating would see multi-notch downgrades, something which as explained below, would have profound impact on the wholesale market-funded mortgage lender, as well as on the far broader French cover bond market

Peripheral news only made it worse. As IFRE reports, "A report on French news website Mediapart likened the bank to Northern Rock. Last month, the same news outlet had warned of the risk of a small French Lehman Brothers, without naming the entity, explaining that a severe downgrade could activate some expensive guarantee mechanisms similar to margin calls. Moody’s had indicated in February that it could downgrade 3CIF by up to four notches, as part of a sweeping European bank rating review. The second Mediapart story was published on Tuesday, a public holiday in France. Unsurprisingly, the senior bonds, which remained free to trade, came under huge pressure the following day."

Sure enough not only bonds of 3CIF, but more importantly, of covered-bond issuer CIF Euromortgage were likewise crushed beginning Tuesday:

But the biggest wildcard was what rating Moody's would cut 3CIF to as part of its wholesale bank downgrade initiative announced back in February. Well, on Thursday the rating agency released its updated view on 3CIF, which in many ways was a crushing blow to the company which now has no choice but to be nationalized:

Moody's Investors Service has today downgraded the standalone bank financial strength (BFSR) of Caisse Centrale du Crédit Immobilier de France (3CIF) to E/caa1, outlook developing, from C/a3 on review for downgrade. The rating agency is maintaining the review for downgrade initiated on 15 February 2012 on 3CIF's long- and short-term debt and deposit ratings of A1 and P-1, respectively.


The long-term ratings now incorporate 12 notches of systemic support (previously two notches), based on the rating agency's view that the French public sector is highly likely to provide both financial support over the short- to medium-term and assistance in orchestrating a longer-term adaptation of 3CIF's business model, which is currently unviable. Should such support not be forthcoming promptly, or should attempts to achieve a longer-term solution fail, Moody's would expect 3CIF's long-term debt rating to transition down close to Caa1 (the standalone financial strength rating implied by 3CIF's BFSR).

In other words, Moody's has given France a loud and clear notice that while it will has not yet downgraded the non-standalone ratings of 3CIF, so critical for various collateral call arrangements, absent explicit government support, or an acquisition of the troubled lender by a third party, this downgrade would be imminent as "The long-term ratings now incorporate 12 notches of systemic support (previously two notches), based on the rating agency's view that the French public sector is highly likely to provide both financial support over the short- to medium-term and assistance in orchestrating a longer-term adaptation of 3CIF's business model, which is currently unviable." 

To summarize: 3CIF has an "unviable" business model whose long-term rating would be 12 notches below the provisional and pending downgrade A1 currently retained, or roughly Caa1. Needless to say, a Caa1 rating would unleash a full blown AIG-type collateral call on every entity in the org chart shown above.

Sure enough, Moody's continues:

Should such support not be forthcoming promptly, or should attempts to achieve a longer-term solution fail, Moody's would expect 3CIF's long-term debt rating to transition down close to Caa1 (the standalone financial strength rating implied by 3CIF's BFSR).

It gets worse:

Moody's decision to downgrade 3CIF's BFSR to E/caa1 from C/a3 is based on the rating agency's assessment that the bank is no longer viable without ongoing financial support and ultimately a more durable solution. While 3CIF's interest margin and asset base have shown some resilience throughout the recent crisis, its business is entirely wholesale-funded, thus making it vulnerable to debt market disruptions and to loss of investor confidence. The firm currently has very limited access to private-sector financing, and the rating agency sees no prospect of that changing in the foreseeable future. Moody's notes that the trading of securities issued by 3CIF and CIF Euromortgage was suspended on 8 May 2012 at the request of the French and Luxemburg regulators, the Autorité des Marchés Financiers and the Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier.


The rating agency notes that the group has a policy of maintaining a liquidity buffer equivalent to at least six months of financing needs. This should leave the group with sufficient liquidity to meet maturing debt obligations for several months. However, given recent developments, Moody's believes that there is a high risk that this liquidity buffer will erode steadily over that period. These significant liquidity risks imply that the group is likely to become wholly reliant on liquidity support from the French public sector, and ultimately to require some form of more permanent solution, which would likely involve a merger, strategic investment, or other joint venture with a third party facilitated by the government. Moody's believes that the group's adjusted BFSR/standalone credit assessment at E/caa1 reflects this risk. The developing outlook reflects the uncertainty surrounding the strategy of the bank and the authorities' plan to address the weakness in the bank's funding profile, as well as the potential for the group's financial strength to be materially improved, if a credible strategy were to emerge.

Which means that France's new president has one option only: to step in and bail out a bank within days of his inauguration, or else see the first domino of the housing market tumble.

At the same time, Moody's has raised its assumptions of systemic support to reflect its view that the French public sector is highly likely to provide liquidity assistance over the short- to medium-term if required by 3CIF, in order to allow time for a longer-term solution to be identified and implemented. Moody's also considers it likely that the French public sector will provide assistance in orchestrating a longer-term adaptation of 3CIF's business model. The rating agency's expectation of a strong willingness on the part of the government to support 3CIF reflects the importance of the bank's lending activities to the French housing market, especially in assisting less privileged households, and the broader implications of further disruptions in 3CIF's operations. A further factor underpinning Moody's assumption of government support is 3CIF's public sector ownership via the 56 "sociétés anonymes coopératives d'intérêt collectif pour l'accession à la propriété" (SACICAPs), which are social housing companies that operate under private law with a locally-anchored and diversified ownership, spread across "colleges" including social housing associations ("organismes HLM") and local governments ("collectivités territoriales").

Moody's logic explained: everyone hates banks and bankers, but when their jobs is to "assist less privileged households" bailing everyone out is ok. Better still, would be if someone were to come and purchase CIFD outright. Sadly, as Retuers reports, this isn't happening:

The issuer has been put up for sale with HSBC acting as an advisor to the borrower, financial daily Les Echos reported last Thursday. HSBC has refused to comment.


The search for a buyer has so far proved fruitless. Caisse d'Epargne, part of the BPCE Group, and Banque Postale, which is currently looking to grow its retail covered bond business, were considered strong possibilities. BPCE, however, has ruled itself out, while Banque Postale has declined to comment.


An acquisition of 3CIF by La Banque Postale, a government-backed institution, could be an indirect nationalisation and would have the added bonus of avoiding any involvement from the French Treasury.

Alas, as IFRE adds, Banque Postale just denied any such speculation:

Caisse d’Epargne, part of the BPCE Group, and Banque Postale, which is currently looking to grow its retail covered bond business, are strong possibilities for a merger, a source said on Wednesday. However, a spokesperson for BPCE dismissed the suggestion that it might be a suitor.

Which leaves just one option:

A direct nationalisation would likely mean some form of capital injection - an unpalatable outcome given the new government rhetoric and the fact that the existing owners' stake would have to be wiped out. CIF is 100% owned by 56 regional cooperative entities.

Oops. And to think that Hollande was so dead set on an outright war with bankers... The realization that his very first act of any importance would be an outright nationalization just makes things so very amusing.

The saga could have political implications for newly-elected president Francois Hollande who promised the French electorate he would not bail out the country's financial institutions at the expense of the taxpayer.


"3CIF have no choice but to be nationalised," said a senior official at a French bank. "It has already done the rounds with French banks and it looks like no one wants to buy it."


The nationalisation option was echoed by other bankers, who point to 3CIF's conservative residential mortgage lending operations as well as its reliance on wholesale funding.

And while Hollande's dithering would likely have disastrous implications for one specialist mortgage provider, the reality is that the fallout would be far, far greater, if CIF Euromortgage were to suffer the same fate as its pari passu sister entity. Because as the following thoughts from BNP confirm, the fun is just getting started.

On 30 June 2011 CIFEUR had covered bonds outstanding with a total volume of €24.8bn. 74% of the collateral of these bonds consisted of CIF senior mortgage securitisation tranches, the rest of the cover pool comprised of a mix of Mortgage Promissory Notes, Replacement Assets and external European RMBS tranches. At the end of 2011, the over-collateralisation stood at 6.7%. The covered bonds are currently rated Aaa by Moody’s (on review for downgrade) and AAA by Fitch. The issuer states that its annual covered bond funding needs range between €3 to €4bn.


According to a report from Fitch from July 2011, proceeds from the senior securitisation tranches and external RMBS tranches are accumulated in an account held by 3CIF. The internal guidelines of CIFEUR specify that its exposure must be towards banks that are rated at least P1/F1, a downgrade of 3CIF below that level could therefore force CIFEUR to find a different account bank. This in turn would mean that cash flows accumulating from the asset side would have to be held outside the group. If 3CIF acts as swap counterparty for CIFEUR, a downgrade of 3CIF could also create the need to find alternative swap counterparties.


The suspension of the covered bonds, which is an unusual step, has caused spreads to widen both in the group’s unsecured and covered bonds.


We expect spreads in CIFEUR’s covered bonds to remain under pressure as long as the uncertainty about the reasons for the suspension and the speculation about the group prevails. Despite this uncertainty, we hope that the systemic importance of the covered bond product in France (market volume is in excess of €300bn) would be reason enough for official bodies to deal with this matter in a manner that avoids market disruption and reputational damage as much as possible.

Bottom line: absent Hollande breaking his key election promise, not only does the French mortgage market "get it" once Moodys follows up with the non-standalone rating downgrade (forget French Fitch - they will never issue a report that will results in the slow-motion death of the French mortgage market), but the contagion immediately spreads to the entire French covered bond market on the sudden uncertainty whether the French state will backstop the hundreds of billions in related bonds, putting the entire concept of a "covered bond" in jeopardy, with potentially sweeping consequences to a trillion+ market.

As to questions of how CIFD allowed its funding and liquidity to, stealthily, get to a point where the entity needs an immediate nationalization of its suddenly "unviable business model", here it is from Fitch:

Liquidity is managed through a significant ECB-eligible-for-repo asset portfolio (EUR1.8bn after a haircut at end-November 2011). Moreover, through CIFE, the bank has the ability to package covered bonds from its own loan portfolio, which could be used as collateral for repo with the ECB, although packaging would require a three- to four-week delay. The two sources of liquidity provided a combined EUR3.2bn buffer at end-November 2011, which would have allowed the bank to sustain an eight-month period without any access to wholesale markets while maintaining the projected new lending volumes at the same time (against an internally set six-month limit). Instances of closed secured funding exist (end of 2008), and CIFD has successfully used its packaged loans for repo transactions with the ECB. Since 2008, CIFD has stopped buying RMBS and now favours covered bonds.

Ah yes, nothing like the ECB quietly stepping in and providing "liquidity" in exchange for repoable collateral of worthless value... until the stakes get so high that the lack of even one cent in incremental pledgable collateral results in something nobody could have foreseen, namely a full blown bank run.

Something tells us we have seen this before... Oh yes - Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and of course Italy. In other words, as CIF was running out of real assets, the ECB allowed it to hypothecate via the repo market whatever dregs it could scrounge, (even if that meant bonds which are a liability yet promptly converted into an asset by the magic of shadow banking's repo operations), on and off balance sheet, and pledge to Mario Draghi in exchange for 100 cents to the Euro collateral value: precisely what prompted us to explain back on March 21, when the market was at its 2012 highs, "Why NOTHING Has Been Fixed In Europe (And Why LTRO 3 Is Not Coming)."

At the end of the day, Europe's main problem was, is and continues to be the active disappearance of any and all cash and money good assets, as well as collateral, as it is increasingly pledged (or re-pledged once repo mechanisms get involved) to other financial institutions, and primariliy to the ECB, in exchange for short-term funding (read loans, further explained here "Encumberance 101, Or Why Europe Is Running Out Of Assets").

Alas the can kicking time is now over. And what many took for sacred previously, such as the French mortgage market, has suddenly, just like every other contraption of modern financial markets, been shown to be simply the latest naked emperor in a city full of in kind dressed supreme rulers.

And what it all boils down to is this: will Hollande, for all his pompous rhetoric, immediately do what the market expects him to, which is to unleash the French nationalization machine, first with CIFD, and soon, many other insolvent banks, or, will he stay true to his word, and watch as risk assets crash and burn all around him. Perhaps the question is better posed to the French citizens: is their hatred of bank bailouts greater than the fear of facing the fair value of all assets absent central bank and sovereign backstops?

Which, incidentally, is the number one question that will once again face everyone in the "developed" world. Back in 2008 the answer was made clear, even with a solid dose of buyer's remorse in the years that followed. What will it be this time around? Because if Greece has so far been the only country willing to let it all go, and prepare to exist in a world unburdened by a bank-imposed status quo, the only reason for this is that Greek citizens have already lost so much, that the opportunity cost to overturning the status quo is virtually nil. What will it be the taxpayers of all other developed, pardon insolvent welfare-state, countries?

h/t Lizzie363