Last night I found myself being driven to the airport by a Greek taxi driver. Greeks these days often talk about money and this particular driver had a father in Greece with a large sum in a Greek bank. He asked my advice. I don’t give investment advice but I could not resist explaining that given the clear possibility that Greece would leave the euro, the money might be safer in an Australian bank.
I hope I did not trigger a run on Greek banks that leads to a wider banking problem. I am jesting, but it underlined to me just how fragile the current European banking situation is. Australia is always going to be a proxy for China’s growth trends and that is a big force in our stock market moves. What we have not always appreciated is that Australia could be more vulnerable to a potential second global banking crisis than we normally imagine.
Last night in New York the fears of a bigger than expected China slowdown and a freeze in the interbank lending market subsided and the US stock market basically held its ground for most of the session, although in the final hour there was clear weakness and the S&P 500 ended down almost half a per cent.
Nevertheless, not far below the surface is a deep fear that a number of European and US banks have been stupid and entered into crazy derivative deals and/or investment plays. Because the world banking system is interwoven no one knows who is broke and who is solvent, except we know that most European banks have no capital if you value their bond and other loans to market.
If that fear escalates in the banking market – possibly sparked by a run on Greek banks – then it will freeze global bank lending as it did in the global financial crisis.
At that time Australia’s domestic banks were caught badly exposed via their short-term overseas borrowing. Our big bank CEOs may not expect a return to a banking freeze but it's an event that they believe could happen so they prepare for it.
Accordingly, we are reasonably well organised because the maturities of our banks’ overseas borrowing are staggered and the self managed fund industry will divert funds to bank deposits if the rates are attractive.
But we are also in the middle of the biggest minerals construction boom in Australia’s history. The projects have received some funding from the local bankers but the majority has come from overseas. Most of the big gas and mining projects are backed by the cash flow of major players but there will be some that are vulnerable to a banking crisis – particularly those that are at an early stage – because if the global banking industry freezes some of the miners’ banks my not be able to honour their lending commitments.
I emphasise that we do not have anything like a global bank freeze at the moment but if stock markets and bank shares resume a downward path then the chances if it happening are multiplied.
JP Morgan is one of the best traders in the world. If they get it wrong in these times, how much more are banks with less talent likely to get it wrong? We have already seen European banks borrow at 1 per cent from their central bankers then punt on high-risk bonds to make a quick short-term euro. They have once again done their shirt, as all gamblers are prone to do. The European banks that gambled this way might have pleased their central bank but the decisions were just plain dumb. Unfortunately their international web extends very wide and multiplies nervousness.
And if we find any Australian CEO losing large sums by playing silly global trading games not only will they be sacked but also they will probably be permanently unemployed. In the absence of fraud, blaming the traders will not be an acceptable excuse.