The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article this morning regarding the validity of the European stress tests. Their findings were alarming to say the least. Upon close inspection, they found that the stress tests severely underestimated the levels of debt the banks were holding:
An examination of the banks’ disclosures indicates that some banks didn’t provide as comprehensive a picture of their government-debt holdings as regulators claimed. Some banks excluded certain bonds, and many reduced the sums to account for “short” positions they held—facts that neither regulators nor most banks disclosed when the test results were published in late July.
Because of the limited nature of most banks’ disclosures, it is impossible to gauge the number of banks that excluded portions of their sovereign portfolios from their disclosures, or the overall effect of that practice.
But the exposure to government debt of at least some banks, such as Barclays PLC and Crédit Agricole SA, was reduced by a significant amount, according to industry officials and financial filings made by the banks. Adding to the haziness, the stress tests’ reported sovereign-debt levels differed, sometimes widely, from other international tallies and from some banks’ own financial statements.
The findings undermine a primary goal of the stress tests—namely, to reassure investors and bankers world-wide the soundness of Europe’s financial system. “That would certainly be unhelpful to people’s perceptions” of the tests’ credibility, said UBS banking analyst Alastair Ryan. Reducing banks’ reported holdings of government debt “was clearly helpful for the thing [regulators] were trying to achieve: convincing you that there’s not a problem.”
The stress tests were widely celebrated after the ECB’s bailout, however, the market hasn’t been so reassured over the last few weeks. CDS and yields have continued to surge as investors see through the tests at the weakness of the underlying assets:
The stress tests’ upbeat results—only seven banks flunked, and were deemed short of just €3.5 billion ($4.51 billion) of capital—initially soothed markets. But fears have flared up again as heavily indebted countries like Ireland and Greece continue to struggle. Among other warning signs, the costs of insuring many bank and government bonds against default in countries such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Italy have jumped above their pre-stress-test levels.
Just how much did the estimates miss the market by? In some cases they were woefully short:
But some banks’ figures didn’t represent their total holdings. Barclays, for example, excluded some government bonds it was holding for trading purposes. The rationale, according to Barclays officials, was that the bonds were directly related to transactions the big U.K. bank was performing for corporate or government clients, and that the holdings vary widely from day to day. Barclays didn’t disclose that it wasn’t listing its full holdings.
Excluding the bonds reduced Barclays’ portfolio of Italian sovereign debt—which the bank said was £787 million ($1.22 billion)—by about £4.7 billion, Barclays officials said. The bank’s holdings of Spanish government bonds, listed at £4.4 billion, shrank by about £1.6 billion.
Not the best way to instill confidence in the markets….
Mr. Roche is the Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Discipline Funds.Discipline Funds is a low fee financial advisory firm with a focus on helping people be more disciplined with their finances.
He is also the author of Pragmatic Capitalism: What Every Investor Needs to Understand About Money and Finance, Understanding the Modern Monetary System and Understanding Modern Portfolio Construction.