Are banks on the edge of another 2008-style precipice?
Northern Rock, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial and Alliance & Leicester. Back in late 2007 and early 2008, when they all failed or were rescued, none of the above was systemically important. And few observers would have predicted the nightmarish crisis that was to strike within the year, felling behemoths from Wall Street’s venerable Lehman Brothers to Royal Bank of Scotland, then the biggest bank in the world.
Fifteen years later, after a week in which four banks — Silicon Valley Bank, Signature and First Republic in the US, and Credit Suisse in Europe — teetered and were propped up in one way or another, it is no wonder that investors are questioning whether we are facing 2007-style problems that could soon spiral into another full-blown 2008-style disaster.
There are good reasons to hope not. The primary causes of the 2008 crisis — a glut of poor-quality subprime mortgages that had been spread round the world via derivatives on to the balance sheets of poorly capitalised banks — do not apply in 2023. Credit quality remains decent. And bank capital is two to three times stronger than it was a decade and a half ago.
Such reassurances have felt empty though in the face of the market panic afflicting bank shares. European banks are down by an average of 19 per cent in a fortnight; US banks by 17 per cent. On Wednesday Credit Suisse shares slumped by 30 per cent intraday, recovering only after central bank intervention.
Markets were not exactly calm by the end of the week but they had stabilised somewhat. This came after CS made use of a $54bn “bazooka” liquidity intervention by the Swiss National Bank, while the risk of US bank runs was offset by deposit guarantees, new Federal Reserve liquidity facilities and a Wall Street whipround.
Of course such interventions were not supposed to be necessary after the drama of 2008. The vast package of post-crisis regulatory reforms was designed to ensure there could be no repeat of the domino collapses of banks on both sides of the Atlantic. New minimum levels of equity capital were devised, regulatory stress tests were introduced and liquidity ratios were toughened, dictating that more ready funds should be available to meet customer withdrawal requests.
This week’s problems in the US were explicitly caused by a failure there to apply these rules to anything other than the eight biggest banks. SVB was brought to its knees by a combination of poor interest rate risk management and lax regulatory oversight, leaving it vulnerable to a run on deposit withdrawals.
A similar phenomenon afflicted Signature, a crypto-focused bank, hours later. First Republic, another regional bank, became a particular target after panicked investors realised it would not benefit from the special Federal Reserve funding vehicle launched in the wake of SVB’s failure, because it lacked the requisite collateral to tap the scheme.
As investors looked for victims in Europe, attention settled on Credit Suisse, long seen as the region’s weakest big bank. It shares little or no common ground with SVB — its regulatory oversight is robust, its interest rate risk is hedged. But it has been accident-prone and slow to restructure. A decade or more of bad management and scandals has left the group’s reputation severely tarnished — a particularly bad thing when much of your business model rests on persuading billionaires to entrust their wealth to you. At the same time longstanding shareholders have deserted the bank to be replaced with unhelpful new ones.
There is even less fundamental reason to distrust the viability of European banks more broadly. Credit losses are low, capital levels are strong and they have come through stress tests.
But this bullish assessment is still being trumped by bearish nerves — and some logic. Central bank efforts to tame inflation will produce recessionary pressures, pushing banks’ loan losses higher and potentially eating into capital buffers. At the same time unexpected damage may be inflicted on less regulated, but similarly important, parts of the financial system that have got used to ultra-low interest rates, possibly including pensions, private equity and hedge funds. The gilts crisis in the UK pensions market last autumn was a warning sign of such risks.
Even if the chances of another full-blown financial meltdown are low, our ability to deal with it may be less. Back in 2008, policymakers were able to slash interest rates, launch quantitative easing and flood the banks with rescue capital and liquidity. With government balance sheets today far more stretched, and interest rates needing to rise to combat inflation, the weaponry at their disposal is dangerously diminished.