Banks trim risk but fail to raise provisions ahead of EU review

Next year’s Asset Quality Review will judge if banks have done enough to provide for losses

The European Central Bank will carry out a review of Europe’s banks to decide if they have done enough to recognise losses on their loan books as of December 31st.

The European Central Bank will carry out a review of Europe’s banks to decide if they have done enough to recognise losses on their loan books as of December 31st.

Mon, Dec 9, 2013, 07:30

Most of Europe’s big banks shed risky assets in the quarter to September, but they have yet to take extra provisions against doubtful loans to show they have put the financial crisis behind them in time for a critical review by regulators.

After reckless lending brought several banks and some governments to their knees during the global crisis, which is still playing itself out in a number of euro zone countries, next year’s Asset Quality Review (AQR) by the European Central Bank will judge whether the banks have done enough to recognise and provide for losses on their loan books as of December 31st.

The results feed into EU-wide stress tests that assess whether banks need to raise more capital to insulate themselves against future economic and financial shocks.

A Reuters analysis of the third-quarter results of Europe’s 30 largest banks found that almost two thirds of the 27 that report detailed quarterly figures said their balance sheets were less risky at the end of September than at the end of June.

Cutting risk means they need less capital.

Assets such as unsecured personal loans, distressed commercial loans and certain derivatives carry a higher risk weighting, while government bonds are unweighted.

Swiss bank UBS cut 9 billion Swiss francs (€7.36 billion) of risk-weighted assets (RWA) in the quarter by exiting derivatives positions, while Spain’s Bankia traded risky real estate assets with national “bad bank” Sareb for €19.5 billion of government-guaranteed bonds.

But almost two thirds of the banks took lower charges for loan losses in the third quarter than a year earlier, and the ‘coverage ratio’ - what they set aside for losses relative to their stock of impaired loans - rose only marginally.

John Paul Crutchley, co-head of European banking at UBS, thought they would have increased provisions, drawing a parallel with the way US banks position themselves and their balance sheets before the Federal Reserve’s annual review, so the review won’t unearth nasty surprises.

“It’s probably because at the Q3 stage there was a complete unknown about how the ECB was going to conduct these asset quality reviews (in euro zone countries) and stress tests,” Mr Crutchley added.

He and Berenberg’s London-based banks analyst James Chappell expect to see more action in the fourth quarter, as banks learn more about the standards the ECB will apply in the euro zone and national regulators will apply elsewhere.

At a recent industry event in Brussels, the head of the ECB’s AQR working group, Dutch regulator Anthony Kruizinga, was asked how banks should prepare their year-end statements if details of the AQR remain unclear. Banks should be more prudent, he replied. The DNB and ECB both declined to elaborate.

As things stand, coverage ratios vary widely across the EU, ranging from 94 per cent at Commerzbank to below 50 per cent at others. The ratios are difficult to compare across banks since they all use slightly different metrics, but are expected to be closely examined in the ECB’s tests.

Banks were expected to improve the ratios in the run-up to the tests by taking more provisions, but coverage ratios rose on average just 3 per cent in the year to September 30th among the 22 that report the data. Nine had lower ratios.