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欧洲银行系统病入膏肓

欧洲银行系统病入膏肓

Colin Barr 2011年06月22日
 一根羽毛就能压垮某些欧洲银行

特里谢的噩梦?

   

    欧洲大陆的金融机构与2008年倒台前的雷曼兄弟(Lehman Brothers)有一个惊人的相似之处:它们都过于依赖借款,特别是在市场震荡中易受冲击的廉价短期贷款。

    希腊违约目前看来已经不可避免,这一特征绝难让人心安。上周末,欧洲的决策者们未能就下个月向希腊拨付120亿欧元(170亿美元)救助贷款达成一致,警告称希腊政府必须率先表明其紧缩财政的诚意。显然,骚乱还不足以促使他们下定决心。

    值得注意的是,大多数不顾后果的银行——至少从这些指标来看——并非处于疯狂的希腊或挥霍的葡萄牙,而是处于所谓“负责任的国家”和所谓的“欧洲核心国”的德国和法国。这些银行面临的希腊违约风险最大,涉及金额可能高达900亿欧元(1,290亿美元)左右。

    虽然近期的报纸商业版一直在谈论德国的经济复兴,但节约和谨慎似乎并不是德国银行业的特点。国际货币基金组织(International Monetary Fund)的数据显示,德国银行业手头每持有1欧元资本,就会放出32欧元贷款。如果你手头还有记录的话,就会知道当初雷曼兄弟倒台时的杠杆比率也只有31-1。无论如何,这意味着一旦出现3%的损失,就可能出现由纳税人买单的结局。没错,再来一次。

    德国银行业并不是雷曼唯一的难兄难弟:国际货币基金组织的数据显示(见右图),比利时银行业的杠杆比率是30-1,而法国银行业是26-1。总计,欧元区17国银行业的平均杠杆比率为26-1——是美国的两倍。相比之下,美国银行业看来情况还不错。

    欧洲银行业的杠杆比率可能听起来有些耳熟,因为它们和2007年金融市场开始暴跌前的美国大型投资银行的杠杆比率相符。在泡沫时期大举发展房地产金融业务的小型投资银行——雷曼兄弟和贝尔斯登(Bear Stearns)的杠杆比率都超过了30-1,而高盛(Goldman Sachs)、 摩根士丹利(Morgan Stanley)和美林(Merrill Lynch)等大型投行都在20多倍。

    另一个相似之处是欧洲银行业都高度依赖短期市场资金,且资金来源都是类似美国货币基金这样的全球最大的批发借款人。历史显示,市场恐慌能令这些资金瞬时消失,让早已倍感压力的欧洲央行(European Central Bank)更加为难。

    目前,仍不清楚欧洲银行业是否已意识到今年可能重蹈2008年覆辙。尽管德国已不再要求私营部门借款人必须接受调低后的偿付条款,但并没有迹象显示欧洲领导人短期内就会恢复理智,制定出终结危机的一揽子方案。

    这样的走钢丝式行为让国际货币基金组织捏了一把汗,上周他们警告称,“虽然银行体系修复取得进展,但进度过于缓慢。”

    眼下,没有理由相信违约的风险已经迫在眉睫,或者说银行业一定无力应对希腊风暴。目前,流动性依然充足,金融系统也不像3、4年前那样亢奋。不过,危机当前,银行过度放贷的现象绝对无法让人心安,不管这种现象多么司空见惯。

    Financial institutions across the Continent share a terrifying trait with Lehman Brothers before its 2008 collapse: they rely too much on borrowed money, especially the cheap, short-term loans that are vulnerable to a market shock.

    That's not exactly a handy characteristic when a Greek default seems almost inevitable. European policymakers this weekend failed to agree to terms on a 12 billion-euro ($17 billion) bailout loan due next month to Greece, warning that the Greek government must first show it is taking austerity seriously. Apparently mere riots aren't enough for these guys.

    What's notable is that the most reckless banks, by these measures at least, reside not in gonzo Greece or profligate Portugal, but in the allegedly responsible states at the so-called core of Europe, Germany and France – the very banks that are most exposed to a Greek default, with some 90 billion euros ($129 billion) at stake.

    Though it's hard to open the business section lately without finding a story about Germany's economic renaissance, thrift and prudence don't seem to characterize German banks. They hold 32 euros in loans for every euro of capital they have on hand, according to International Monetary Fund data. Lehman's leverage at the time of its collapse was 31-1, if you're keeping score at home. Either way it means a 3% loss leaves the taxpayers picking up the tab. Yes, that again.

    The Germans aren't alone in Lehmanville: Belgian banks are using 30-1 leverage and French ones 26-1, the IMF numbers (see chart, right) show. All told, banks across the 17-country euro area average 26-1 leverage – double the ratio in the United States. Against all odds, European institutions have managed the nifty trick of making U.S. banks look good.

   If the European leverage numbers sound familiar, it's because they are in line with the leverage ratios seen at the big U.S. investment banks before the financial markets started their nervous breakdown in 2007. Lehman and Bear Stearns, the smallish investment banks that gorged on real estate during the bubble, were both leveraged at more than 30-1 while Goldman Sachs (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS) and Merrill Lynch were well into the 20s.

    And in another similarity, the European banks are heavily reliant on short-term market funding, from sources such as the U.S. money funds that are among the biggest wholesale lenders on the planet. History shows that a market panic can make those funds suddenly unavailable, potentially putting an already stretched European Central Bank even more on the spot.

   Yet it's not clear the Europeans have picked up just yet on how this year might come to rhyme with 2008. While Germany has backed away from its demand that private sector lenders be forced to accept reduced repayment terms, there is still no sign that Europe's leaders will soon come to their senses and hammer out a package that ends the siege once and for all.

    All this tightrope walking is unnerving the staff at the IMF, which warned last week that "though there has been progress on banking system repair, the pace is too slow."

    For now, there is no reason to believe a default is imminent or that the banks would be unable to handle the Greek storm. Liquidity is still ample and the financial system isn't as hyped up as it was three or four years ago. But the sight of overextended banks in the middle of a crisis is never reassuring, no matter how familiar it may be.

 

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