Put Europe’s Banks to the Test
European banks must conduct stress tests to ease worry about the financial system. Pro or con?
Pro: A Survival Mechanism
It makes good sense for Europe to conduct a series of stress tests on its banks so that countries and companies have some better sense of their risk exposure.
Financial institutions use stress tests to determine the degree to which a bank or financial institution can withstand a shock of a given magnitude. For example, instead of doing a projection on a best-estimate basis, the bank does a scenario analysis looking at negative variables: What happens if interest rates rise to X percent? What happens if loan defaults rise to X percent? What happens if gasoline prices rise to $X?
But stress testing has relevance for other entities as well. One can apply stress tests to an entire nation. For example, what is the impact on the U.K. if the euro falls 25 percent? Or what happens to Germany if Greece defaults on its national debt? Stress testing also works with nonbank companies—say, a manufacturer or a retailer: What happens to Nestlé (NESN:VX) if the dollar rises and exports to the U.S. become more expensive?
The G-20 Financial Stability Board is urging European nations to publish the stress-testing results of its banks, and cites the openness of stress testing in the U.S. as a factor beneficial to restoring market confidence. Conservative or progressive, we can all agree that more stability in markets is a very good thing.
Con: Faulty Mechanics
Given the success of the bank stress tests run here in the U.S., should the same tests be administered in Europe as a precursor to economic recovery? Only if you believe in shell games, manipulating vigorous accounting principles, and the concept of "too big to fail." Aside from that, I believe our bank stress tests were largely a charade, and the same would likely transpire in Europe.
For any financial test to be deemed credible, the test itself needs to be truly robust. Those in America may claim our bank stress tests were truly successful, but I firmly believe the tests should be graded incomplete at best.
Why do I make this claim? Let’s enter the world of HELOCs (home equity lines of credit). The base-case assumption used in our bank stress tests was for cumulative losses on this product of 6 percent to 8 percent with a worst-case scenario of 8 percent to 11 percent. Those assumptions were ridiculously low. Our banking system continues to be chock-full of likely hundreds of billions in losses on this product. Those losses were largely overlooked in our tests.
Would European bank stress tests fully expose the nature and value of a variety of loans held on their books or merely disguise them in the same manner as the U.S. tests? If European governments want to play that game, then they should go right ahead and run the same tests and play the same charade, but do not expect real transparency and integrity along with them.