The Central Banks’ problem with the profitability of banks

   During the press conference, which followed the 21st July’s meeting of the ECB Governing Council held in Frankfurt, Governor Mario Draghi declared that the European banking system currently has a “future profitability problem” rather than a “solvency problem”. He related profitability imbalances afflicting European banks with the high amount of non-performing loans (NPLs) in banks’ assets but he also said that he felt “confident that strong supervision and robust regulation, and better communication, indeed, by the supervisory authorities, the EBA and all this, will still improve the situation and the perception in the rest of the world’s eyes”.

   If we look at some stylized facts, we realize that the profitability problem of banks is serious indeed, not only in Europe but everywhere. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote of “the big-bank bloodbath”, estimating the total losses of the 20 biggest world banks (J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Scotland PLC, HSBC Holdings, Barclays PLC, Standard Chartered PLC, UBS Group AG, Credit Suisse Group AG, BNP Paribas SA, Credit Agricole SA, Société Générale SA, UniCredit SpA, Deutsche Bank AG, Banco Santander SA, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd. and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.) near half a trillion dollars, as plunging share prices in the first half of 2016 have erased a quarter of their combined market capitalization, according to FactSet data. The following FactSet chart shows losses for each of the twenty observed banks:


   On effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the ultra-expansionary monetary policies undertaken by central banks, especially the Fed, BOE, BOJ and ECB much has been written and continues to be written. Positions, amongst economists, are not aligned at all. While Keynesian economists see the monetary easing as the only possible remedy to heal the world economies hit by the crisis and stimulate consumers’ demand (George Cooper’s “pre-emptive Keynesianism”), the Austrian School of Economic has always condemned this type of stimuli, focusing on the perverse effects they generate on the real economy.

   In the recent 12th Gottfried von Haberler Conference, organized by and held in Vaduz (May 2016), Prof. John B. Taylor (Stanford University, USA) defined the actual world monetary environment as a “rule-free zone”, while historian Johan Norberg (Stockholm, S) described the actual financial crisis as a consequence of the “corrupting effects of easy money”. When the Euro was created, short-term interest rate decreased for peripheral countries like Spain and Ireland, whose economies ended in huge, inflated housing bubbles. Norberg reminded us as the average Spanish mortgage rate had collapsed from 18 to around 5 percent after the introduction of the single currency, and debt in proportion to income doubled for the average Spaniard between 1997 and 2006. At its peak, Spain built more than Germany, France and Italy combined. After the burst of the housing bubble, building companies collapsed and banks as well, being packed by NPLs in their balance sheets. Those same NPLs which governor Draghi accused of being the cause of the current troubles of the European banking system, without considering that the ECB is one of the architects which create this moral hazard problem in the peripheral economies.

   The creation of a gigantic financial bubble is not the only consequence of the “easy money” policy undertaken by the ECB. A recent empirical paper by Borio et al. (2015)1 published by the Bank for International Settlement accelerated the existence of a correlation between the interest rate structure and banks’ net interest income and discovered that, over time, unusual low interest rates and flat term structure erode bank profitability.

    In order to comprehend this second point, it’s useful to remind that the lion share of a bank’s profit comes from the interests that the bank charges for its services and the interest that it earns on its assets. The figure below depicts the average net interest margin for all U.S. banks since 1984 compared to the one-year constant maturity yield on U.S. Treasury securities, a proxy for the general level of short-term market interest rates.

Net interest margins (red) and one-year Constant maturity yield on U.S. Treasury securities (blue)
Net interest margins (red) and 1-year Constant maturity yield on US Treasury securities (blue)

    To understand the relationship between market interest rates and net interest margins (NIMs) one has to consider that the optimal asset-liabilities management for a bank is synthetized by “lend long and borrow short.” This happens when the average maturity of the banks’ loans exceeds the average maturity of deposits and other type of debt. Hence, when market interest rates fall, banks’ funding costs usually fall more quickly than their interest income. As a result, NIMs rise. Over time, however, as banks repay or renew loans at lower interest rates, NIMs reduce. Thus, in the medium-to-long term, NIMs are largely unrelated to the general level of market interest rates. The point is that all this happens only under normal conditions. From 2010 something of abnormal happened, as NIMs have continued to fall while the yield on one-year Treasury securities and other market rates has been relatively stable at historically low levels, as a consequence of the ultra-expansionary monetary policies. Over this period we can observe that bank-funding costs have been exceptionally low, while the average rates of return on bank assets have fallen at a more sustained pace. If before the crisis banks underwrote loans at relatively high interest rates, during the crisis they have been obliged to underwrite new loans at lower interest rates.

   In conclusion, the extraordinarily loosen monetary policy undertaken by central banks, such as the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) associated with Quantitative Easing programs has put downward pressure on banks’ NIMs. Figure 1 shows how, over the past 32 years, banks’ NIMs have fallen by nearly -11,5%. The decline of this indicator at large banks is driven by two main factors always linked to the ZIRP environment. The first factor is due to banks’ liabilities, as funding costs at small banks strongly decreased, and accounts for the majority of the gap in the behavior of NIMs between large and small banks. The second factor comes from the other side of banks’ balance sheet. Specifically, over the last years large banks have been hit by bigger decline in the interest income that they earn on “other” assets, such as assets held for trading purposes.


*Dr. Emanuele Canegrati is a PhD at Catholic University of Milan, economist at Department of Treasury, Head Market Analyst at BlackPearlFX and Fellow of the Liechtenstein Academy Foundation.

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