A perfect storm for Aussie banks

Australian banks will face a myriad of challenges in 2012, as wholesale funding markets remain expensive at best and debts taken on during the GFC mature.

Suddenly, the year 2012, which promised so much, is starting to look as though it will be ugly for the banking business.

Last night’s fall in Europe and US sharemarkets was a lot about an attack on banks, starting with European banks and then spreading to American banks. That attack, coming after the European agreement, compounded the falling trust among global bankers and means that the wholesale overseas lending market which Australian banks are hooked on will remain expensive at best and frozen at worst. And this link between the European crisis and Australia will ensure that our bank shares are also under pressure.

Australian banks will need to tap the wholesale market in 2012 and unless the problem is cleared by then – and that does not seem likely – Australian banks may need to attract more local deposits from self-managed funds and other local savers. That may require them to lift interest rates, although Australian savers are looking for safe havens.

More seriously, there are large amounts of corporate debt that mature in 2012. Many Australian companies borrowed to get themselves through the global financial crisis and those debts will mature in 2012, when directors believed the crisis would be well and truly over. In addition, European banks are looking to sell down their Australian exposures.

Meanwhile, some share traders I know are worried that if the falling trend were to gather momentum, it could be hard to stop because the market’s rise on the eve of the European conference burned out all the shorters. A market that has shorters in it can be stabilised as they cover. A market that does not have short covering can fall more rapidly if the confidence flow is bruised.

In terms of European banks, because the value of Spanish and Italian bonds fell last night, their paper losses continue to mount. Shares in the largest French bank, BNP, were down about five per cent and the largest German bank Deutsche was down around 6 per cent.

The market believes that both these banks, and many others in Europe, have not come clean with their real losses. The market stories about the extent of the real losses are horrifying.

Those stories may be wrong but they have led the German giant Siemens to establish its own bank so it can safeguard its cash flows with the European Central Bank. There is little doubt that all European banks face massive capital raisings unless the European governments can restore value to Spanish, Italian and other European bonds.

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