Banks prepare for Euro breakup

For the growing chorus of observers who fear that a breakup of the euro zone might be at hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a pointed rebuke: It’s never going to happen.

But some banks are no longer so sure, especially as the sovereign debt crisis threatened to ensnare Germany itself this week, when investors began to question the nation’s stature as Europe’s main pillar of stability.  On Friday, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Belgium’s credit standing to AA from AA+, saying it might not be able to cut its towering debt load any time soon. Ratings agencies this week cautioned that France could lose its AAA rating if the crisis grew. On Thursday, agencies lowered the ratings of Portugal and Hungary to junk.

While European leaders still say there is no need to draw up a Plan B, some of the world’s biggest banks, and their supervisors, are doing just that.

“We cannot be, and are not, complacent on this front,” Andrew Bailey, a regulator at Britain’s Financial Services Authority, said this week. “We must not ignore the prospect of a disorderly departure of some countries from the euro zone,” he said.
Banks including Merrill Lynch, Barclays Capital and Nomura issued a cascade of reports this week examining the likelihood of a breakup of the euro zone. “The euro zone financial crisis has entered a far more dangerous phase,” analysts at Nomura wrote on Friday.

Unless the European Central Bank steps in to help where politicians have failed, “a euro breakup now appears probable rather than possible,” the bank said.
Major British financial institutions, like the Royal Bank of Scotland, are drawing up contingency plans in case the unthinkable veers toward reality, bank supervisors said Thursday. United States regulators have been pushing American banks like Citigroup and others to reduce their exposure to the euro zone. In Asia, authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up their monitoring of the international exposure of foreign and local banks in light of the European crisis.

But banks in big euro zone countries that have only recently been infected by the crisis do not seem to be nearly as flustered. Banks in France and Italy in particular are not creating backup plans, bankers say, for the simple reason that they have concluded it is impossible for the euro to break up. Although banks like BNP Paribas, Sociéte Generale, UniCredit and others recently dumped tens of billions of euros worth of European sovereign debt, the thinking is that there is little reason to do more.

When Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s second-largest bank, evaluated different situations in preparation for its 2011-13 strategic plan last March, none were based on the possible breakup of the euro, and “even though the situation has evolved, we haven’t revised our scenario to take that into consideration,” said Andrea Beltratti, chairman of the bank’s management board.

European leaders last week said they were more determined than ever to keep the single currency alive — especially with major elections looming in France next year and in Germany in 2013. If anything, Merkel said she would redouble her efforts to push the union toward greater fiscal and political unity.

That task is seen as slightly easier now that the crisis has evicted weak leaders from troubled euro zone countries like Italy and Spain. But it remained an uphill battle as Merkel continued this week to oppose the creation of bonds that would be backed by the euro zone.

 Politically, even the idea of a breakaway Greece is increasingly considered anathema. Despite expectations that Greece — and the banks that lent to it — may receive European taxpayer bailouts for up to nine years, officials fear its exit could open a Pandora’s box of horrors, such as a second Lehman-like event, or even the exit of other countries from the euro union.

Europe’s common currency union was formed more than a decade ago and now includes 17 European Union members, creating a powerful economic bloc aimed at cementing stability on the Continent. The creation of the euro zone meant countless interlocking contracts and assets among the countries, but no mechanism for a country to leave the union. But as the crisis leaps to Europe’s wealthier north, banks have been increasing their preparedness for any outcome. For instance, while it would certainly be legally, financially and politically complicated for Greece to quit the euro zone, some banks are nonetheless tallying how euros would be converted to drachmas, how contracts would be executed and whether the event would cause credit markets to seize up worldwide.

In a recent survey of its clients, Barclays Capital said nearly half expected at least one country to leave the euro zone; 35 percent expect the breakup to be limited to Greece.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
GET IT
Comments (+)