Banking shares have come under pressure this week as investors express fears that the sector will be badly hit by a global economic downturn.
Financial institutions have strengthened their balance sheets since the 2008 financial crisis, but they could be in for a turbulent year if potential flashpoints such as emerging markets or the energy sector produce a cascade of debt defaults. Here are the five biggest threats to the banking sector:
A property boom and frenzy of manufacturing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash kept the global economy motoring, but stored up huge private debts that investors fear will soon destabilise the Chinese economy.
Beijing is working hard to wean itself off being the world’s source of cheap manufactured goods, but it is a painful transition, full of pitfalls. Some banks have called in bad loans, forcing firms to go bust. But these are rare, leaving international investors to fear that more are in the pipeline, without knowing the extent of the problem.
Property developments and infrastructure projects stand half-finished while the authorities take stock of the situation.
Some analysts fear Beijing is covertly depreciating the yuan to gain a competitive advantage while it moves towards a more western-style consumer economy. That would spark a currency war and a wave of competitive devaluations.
The stock market is dominated by individual investors who treat the market like a casino. Efforts to shift share ownership to institutional investors and impose stricter regulations have proved ineffective so far, leaving the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges to cope with wild swings each time there is bad economic news.
The list of developing nations suffering the after effects of the slowing global economy and the slump in oil prices grows every week.
Last year, Brazil slid into a recession made worse by a corruption scandal that could topple the government. Venezuela’s ailing post-Hugo Chávez administration is expected to default on its loans after oil revenues dried up.
Nigeria, Russia and the Middle Eastern producers are also badly hit by falling oil prices, leaving government budgets under water. Turkey, South Africa and Mexico are braced for corporate insolvencies after strong signals from the US Federal Reserve that years of borrowing heavily at rock bottom interest rates will soon come to an end. The Fed raised rates in December and could do so again soon, jeopardising the finances of large corporations that borrowed heavily in dollars.
East Asian economies Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea, which depend on trade with China’s manufacturing sector, are suffering a dramatic slowdown as the world’s second-largest economy focuses on tackling corruption and boosting consumer demand. Sovereign debts that only last year appeared to be manageable are coming under scrutiny by the international ratings agencies.
Only India, which is large enough to be relatively insulated from the recent market turmoil, has maintained its growth, outstripping Beijing’s official 6.9% rate with a 7.5% expansion in 2015.
When the European Central Bank cut its already ultra-low main interest rate from 0.15% to 0.05% in the autumn of 2014, the Ukraine crisis was cited as a risk to Europe’s hopes of recovery.
Since then, the Syria crisis and the exodus of refugees to Europe’s shores has become a more serious threat to the stability of the 19-member currency bloc and the ECB has cut rates further and hinted of more to come next month.
While stock markets have welcomed cheaper borrowing costs, fears that European banks have returned to their bad old ways and become embroiled in risky lending has come to dominate discussions in the City.
Bank shares, led by Deutsche Bank and Barclays, dived this week as investors scrambled to buy safer assets.
Some countries are suffering more than others. Finland has fallen into a recession deeper than anything Portugal experienced. France is lagging and Italy’s burst of activity last year is waning. Worse, Germany’s industrial output has come under pressure from the decline in trade along the Silk Road that leads back to China.
JP Morgan believes the exposure to the oil sector of US and European banks amounts to about $250bn (£173bn), although it thinks big losses on that money are unlikely.
The oil industry had $455bn of bonds outstanding in 2006, but that figure increased to $1.4tn by 2014, according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). Oil companies had $1.6tn of syndicated loans in 2014, although that does not take into account repayments or loans that were never drawn.
Both numbers are likely to have increased significantly since the BIS last crunched the numbers. Debts have ballooned in part because of the boom in shale oil and gas extraction in the US. Companies borrowed heavily to fund investment in shale when the oil price was high.
Now that prices have tumbled, those debts look increasingly unsustainable. America’s second-biggest natural gas firm, Chesapeake Energy, threatens to provide the first significant example of a big company driven under by debt. It was forced to deny this week that it was on the verge of bankruptcy, with debts of $10bn and a market value of just $1.2bn.
It is not just in the US where such disasters could arise. Firms that operate in regions where it costs a lot to extract oil, such as the UK North Sea, are seeing their profits wiped out.
Prolonged rock-bottom oil prices raise the prospect that some of these oil and gas companies will default on their debts, sending shockwaves through lenders such as banks and bond investors.
There is also a knock-on effect in countries that rely on oil reserves for income. Falling oil revenues result in lower tax receipts, which could force greater austerity and depress economic activity further, triggering debt defaults across a variety of businesses.
In a report at the end of last year, credit rating agency Moody’s warned of a “spike in defaults” among commodity companies, as well as oil producers.
“The sheer volume of commodity-related debt poses challenges because it means that credit losses from commodity investments will be substantial for many investors,” said Mariarosa Verde, Moody’s group credit officer.
The group said $2tn of bonds had been issued by mining companies since 2010, many of them now rated as junk, meaning there is a high risk investors will not get their money back.
Mining companies have suffered badly because they spent big when metals prices were high and cannot sustain their operating costs now that prices are low.
One of the hardest hit has been commodities giant Glencore, which has $36bn of net debt and a market value of $20bn.
Observers have warned that because Glencore’s metals trading arm deals with so many companies around the world, it poses a risk.
If it were to fall into severe financial trouble, it might trigger a Lehman Brothers-style event, creating a domino effect of debt similar to the banking crisis of 2008.
Bank of America has estimated that the financial sector’s exposure to Glencore could be as high as $100bn – and that’s just one company. The company has insisted that it has plenty of financial room for manoeuvre if things get tight and it has since moved to cut its debts.
But ultra-low commodity prices could cause big problems for more than just the banks and investors who lend to mining firms.
For instance, the copper price has more than halved to below $2/lb since 2011. This is largely because China’s slowdown means the metal, used in electrical wiring among other things, is not in such demand.
The economy of some countries – such as Zambia, for instance – are built almost entirely on copper. Low metals prices could force mining-dependent countries to default on their debts, spreading the problem to sovereign debt markets. too.
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