Monday, May 11, 2009

European Banks Offer Another Potential Problem

Here in the U.S. we just finished the widely publicized "stress tests," which showed us a great deal of capital shortfalls with the major banks. This was more or less to be expected, but what is getting less press here at home are the potential problems over in Europe. Many people had mistakenly thought Europe was buffered from the financial problems being experienced in the U.S., but the more we look into it the more we see that is not the case. Many European banks were exposed to the same products and other issues that brought down the U.S. financial system, and the struggles these European banks are facing could bring down the global financial system even further. For more on this, read the following article from Money Morning.

Now that the results of the U.S. bank stress tests are finally in the books, the extent of the capital shortfalls are known and – in many cases – are actually being addressed.

But there’s now another problem looming – one that could ultimately weigh down the global financial system.

The problem: Europe’s banks.

As economies slow in other parts of the world, rising joblessness and plunging housing prices and escalating loan losses are putting banks under pressure. That’s especially true in Europe, where consumers and companies are continuing to run into trouble.

Royal Bank of Scotland PLC (NYSE ADR: RBS), now 70% state-owned, fell to a loss in the first quarter and wrote down $3.17 billion in risky assets after its bad debts quadrupled to $4.37 billion.

Bank executives "[expect] a slowdown in financial-market activity compared with the very buoyant conditions seen in Q1," Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hester told Reuters.

In Germany, Commerzbank AG (OTC ADR: CRZBY) had to take a $1.61 billion charge from its investment bank and a $72.38 million charge from commercial real estate initiatives, resulting in a $1.2 billion loss for the quarter.

In late December, the Institute of International Finance released its global economic outlook for 2009, and estimated that banks around the world had collectively lost nearly $1 trillion – $678 billion from U.S. banks and $300 billion from their European counterparts.

That was in December. We know it got worse – a lot worse – for U.S. banks after that point. Thanks to a mix that included lots of government bailout and an injection of new capital from investors, U.S. banks have experienced an improvement in their outlook.

Indeed, U.S. Federal Researve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke stated that the banks tested are all solvent and the results should provide "considerable comfort about the health of the banking system.”

But in the five months since that Institute of International Finance report was issued, it’s likely that European banks have experienced a major decline in their fortunes.

Last week’s release of the bank stress tests results removed significant uncertainty about the U.S. banks, since it created a blueprint of what the troubled institutions needed to do to stabilize their finances. Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) and Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) have announced plans to raise an aggregate $15 billion in capital. Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) plans to sell assets and issue more common stock after being told by the federal government that it must raise $33.9 billion to adequately guard against “more adverse” economic conditions.

Bank of America was one of 10 banks told by the government to raise more capital following the so-called stress test. The government concluded that BofA faces a potential $136.6 billion in losses from troubled loans and investments in 2009 and 2010. The bank’s $34 billion capital shortfall was more than twice that of Wells Fargo, which had the second greatest capital need.
Are we destined to see this all play out now in Europe?

Market Matters

Shifting back to autos, General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM) lost $6 billion in the first quarter and is shopping Saturn to Renault SA of France as it moves closer to its restructuring deadline (and potential bankruptcy). China’s Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. (PINK: GELYF) has interest in GM’s Saab unit, and Fiat SpA (OTC ADR: FIATY) may look to complement its Chrysler LLC line with the German Opel (also late of GM). Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) claims to be on track with its restructuring plan and still believes it can manage just fine without any government assistance. On the earnings’ front, The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) and Kraft Foods Inc. (NYSE: KFT) bested estimates, while Cisco offered some mixed results as its better than expected numbers actually prompted some profit-taking among techs.

A poorly received 30-year Treasury auction sent bond prices tumbling as fixed income investors focused on the massive programs the government will need to finance over the next few years. Oil prices surged above $58 a barrel for the first time in six months as traders seemingly failed to consider rising inventory levels and instead bought on signs (feeble as they are) of an economic recovery that would lead to enhanced energy demand.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index pushed beyond the crucial 900 level and ended the week in positive territory for the year. Techs struggled late as investors realized any economic rebound would not translate into capital expenditures overnight. Still, the Nasdaq Composite Index has outperformed the other indexes on a year-to-date basis. With stress tests out of the way, where will the next leaks come from?

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Economically Speaking

U.S. retailers released same-store sales data for April and the results were actually quite promising. As usual, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) led the charge with a 5% increase in activity, while Children’s Place Retail Stores Inc. (Nasdaq: PLCE), Stage Stores Inc. (NYSE: SSI), Gap Inc. (NYSE: GPS), and The TJX Cos. Inc. (NYSE: TJX) were among those stores that posted better-than-expected results and beat analysts’ expectations. A late-Easter holiday (April instead of March) helped many retailers as consumers waited until the last minute (as has become the norm) for their related holiday shopping.

On the global front, the European Central Bank dropped its key lending rate by 25 bps to 1%, and initiated other monetary moves to stabilize its (16-country) economy. Likewise, the Bank of England announced a plan to buy up government and corporate bonds, thus, increasing its money supply.

Speaking of the labor market, the U.S. unemployment rate climbed in April to 8.9%; however, only 539,000 jobs were lost from the economy. The contraction represented the smallest in six months and was below most analysts’ expectations. Still, since December 2007, about 5.7 million domestic jobs have disappeared and businesses continue to be slow to hire until they see additional signs of greater stability in the economy.

Construction spending climbed in March after five consecutive monthly declines, though the gains were attributed to non-residential activity and the housing sector remains sluggish at best. In more promising news, the National Association of Realtors reported a 3.2% increase in pending homes sales, the second straight monthly gain. Because the release is considered a predictive indicator, analysts took it as a favorable sign that sales activity may pick up in the months ahead.

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