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Financial Version of the Swine Flu Infects German Economy

Economics / Euro-Zone May 28, 2009 - 10:17 AM GMT

By: Michal_Matovcik


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleMonth ago we posted article German 1 Trillion Toxic Assets Problem, where a report by Sueddeutsche Zeitung cites an internal paper by the banking regulator that puts the total of bad assets in the German banking system at €816bn. This report caused outrage among German officials, as always when someone uncovers the truth. The above mentioned number includes toxic securitized assets, and also bad loans, and unlike previous lists, this report named  the banks. In one case, half of all assets of a particular Landesbank are classified as toxic, Commerzbank was also on the list with a huge depot of toxic waste. This is now past.

And now remeber this name, Achim Dübel , we could hear about him more and more in coming months. Achim Dübel, CEO of FINPOLCONSULT ( ) in Berlin, one of the leading and relatively few independent voices in the German housing finance community.

The Institutional Risk Analyst posted yeasterday great interview with Achim, which could give you a nice perspective of what we can encounter in Europe in the coming year. We are going to highlight some thoughts, but you can read it in its entirety here

The IRA: Tell our readers about yourself and why your views on Germany and the financial markets there are well informed. We worked in the market for German bunds and other European government bonds from London years ago, so we know a little about the local banking scene.

Ai note: why are we still talking about subrime crisis, banking crisis as something caused by external factors? It was caused by absolute failure of risk management in all world major banks and the lack of shareholders attention when the greed started to gain pace. I know that there is much more…FED, Alana Greenspan, derivatives … but risk management failed and created a path to hell.

Dübel: I started my professional career working in housing policy and eventually began to focus on housing finance. I worked at the World Bank focused on housing finance policy globally and even worked for Westdeutsche Landesbank for a few months where I had a pretty traumatic experience. The traders basically dismissed all of the bank’s economists and risk managers. They said they were running the bank properly using purely tactical, short-term trading methods. They would draw triangles on charts of market data and call that risk management. These were the types of strategies that eventually sunk the bank. You will recall from the 1980s onward that WestLB was recapitalized every few years, they have four historic state aid cases with EU competition authorities from the last 15 years. I got a very quick introduction to the real role of an economist in a German financial institution.

The IRA: Well, maybe the German traders have it right. Most contemporary risk management tools used in banks were designed by financial economists and are entirely ineffective. The whole Basel II framework, for example, is an economist’s model, that is, a fantasy that has no link to the real world of finance and commerce. Professor Dick Richardson of the University of Texas wrote in 2001: “Economics is an artifact of human imagination, and the agreement among certain humans who “play the games” together — thereby it is a social technology.” But we digress. What did you do after WestLB?

Dübel: I pursued the housing field as a private consultant economist to agencies such as the World Bank and the EU Commission. My role here in Germany is somewhat that of the critic. Since I have worked outside of Germany and have relative freedom, I decided to use my perspective to provide an independent voice here. The sad fact is that there is virtually no discussion in the policy community in Germany regarding the financial crisis. Most of the professors in the universities in Germany that work in finance have their chairs co-sponsored by banks, so they are effectively gagged in many cases. It is easy to become a critic in Germany because there are so few independent voices. The political parties are deeply involved in finance through the state sector banks, (Landesbanken and Sparkassen ) and the private financial community takes its lead from Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB), which has decided not to make a public issue out of the problems in the state sector institutions.

Ai note: no more critics, only sponsored economists. But this is not only the problem of Germany..And Deutsche Bank decides not to make publi issues only because they have problems so big, that they would need help from state, government and all the sponsored economists. But DB is so BIG, that it could never fail. So if I had money there, I would have a good night sleep.

The IRA: Wait a minute! Was it not DB that sold most of the toxic waste to the Landesbanks? Our recollection is that it was DB, Merrill Lynch and Lehman who were the key perpetrators in stuffing the Landesbanks with toxic waste. No wonder the DB does not want to talk about it! We have the same problem in the US, namely that the larger banks have taken control over the federal government, leaving the real economy and the population at the mercy of Wall Street. Our colleagues who work in the financial world are mostly employees and thus are cowed into silence. The lack of critical debate in the US financial community regarding the crisis is stunning.

Dübel: I am familiar with the problem in the US from colleagues who ran into problems with the GSEs, particularly Fannie Mae. Funnily enough, we have the same problem in Germany with most bank lobby groups, and public banks are not different from private in that respect. They are very aggressive in going after independent economists to attack their reputations if they have the temerity to criticize them. I think both countries have a serious oversupply of bank lobbying groups, which mostly are staffed with aggressive lawyers.

..The IRA: You stated that you think that the Germans are not given sufficient credit for their role in creating the subprime crisis. Start from the beginning of the story and explain for our readers how Germany reached its present predicament. We notice that Germany has moved forward with a very watered down version of its own plan for dealing with problem toxic assets in the banks. We also saw that Günter Verheugen, the EU commissioner from Germany, has been attacking the German banks and Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück. Is he a critic?

Dübel: Verheugen is at the end of his career. German politicians only speak up before retirement, if at all. It must be added here that we are currently in a state of “omertà” to use the Sicilian term - i.e. no politician of the coalition government will speak about the scandal before this fall’s Bundestag elections. Both main parties are afraid of another Berlin. After the Bankgesellschaft Berlin scandal earlier this decade the CDU was reduced from governing party to near-oblivion status. It is a classical prisoners dilemma, nobody wins politically from a debate. And what the main political parties do not want to be debated does not make it into the public media, and even most private media.

Ai note: US is after election, debate is little bit calm from my point of view, I hear mostly about some stabilization, green shoots. But I miss the arguments. But Germany is only at the beginning, in denial of the problem. US can no more deny that the banks are insolvent not to be for FED printing press.

The IRA: Sicilians say: “He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace.” What was the condition of the German housing market in 2005? Was there a boom in housing prices or was the crisis purely caused by poor investment decisions by the state banks?

Dübel: The level of housing prices in Germany was relatively stable and - as German economic conditions in general - had no serious impact on the Landesbanken. During the current decade, the Landesbanken were not lending at home, but rather converted themselves into mutual funds to invest in international securities. The crisis started with the decision in the 1990s by the EU Commission, which had launched an EU Treaty violation process against Germany after the protest of German private banks against one of WestLBs recapitalizations. The EU argued that the state guarantees for the Landesbanken were illegal. Many publications such as the Financial Times and The Economist wrote about this extensively. We had the great Milan-based economics professor, Mario Monti, as the head of the EU competition authority. He pushed through the proposal against the combined weight of the German public bank lobby and both levels of government - state and federation. There was a protracted debate and finally, in early 2001, the EU decided to terminate the use of state guarantees by 2002. However, the public bank lobby in Germany continued to fight the proposal and basically sent federal and state government representatives to negotiate with Brussels.

The IRA: Was the counter-attack successful?

Dübel: Partly. The result was a postponement of the end of issuance of state guaranteed debt for all banks from 2001 to 2005, where the last bonds guaranteed would have to mature by 2015. The salient point is that there was only a time limit set in the agreement, but there was no volume limit, so the German state banks started to issue massive amounts of state-guaranteed debt after 2001. This money was not used to finance German or even European lending but simply to park funds in investment vehicles and make more money on it to boost their bottom lines. A nice euphemism they found for this is ‘Kreditersatzgeschäft’ (credit substitution business). If you look at research reports in the period, you will see that the volume of guaranteed bonds shot up dramatically after 2001 and especially during 2004 and early 2005. Critically, every guarantee given by the Landesbanken themselves would benefit from the guarantee standing behind the Landesbanken , so they kept guaranteeing ABCP-conduits and other off-balance sheet vehicles such as SIVs that boomed precisely during the critical period.

The IRA: So the German Landesbanks started to issue debt and buy toxic assets from DB, Merrill and Lehman? Great. Was there any legitimate purpose for this debt? How much are we talking about?

Dübel: The direct extra issuance by the banks following the EU transition period decision was already massive and totaled probably €100 billion. However, if you consider guarantees given by Landesbanken you might well end up at €200, perhaps €300 billion in total exposure. Those guarantees were called upon when the banks and investors funding ABCP and SIV called in their capital during 2007. Moreover, there was a considerable balance sheet shift inside Landesbanken in particular from interbank market exposures to securities holdings. All in all, the data leaking out of various sources suggest that Landesbanken today sit on problem assets of €300-500 billion, much of them funded effectively with German government debt. Individual banks, such as WestLB, LBBW, BayernLB, HSH Nordbank sit on high double-digit € billion exposure positions. Compare these pictures to peak outstandings of US high-risk markets in €, e.g. Subprime RMBS of € 575 billion in 2007, and you get an idea about to what extent the Landesbanken funded Wall Street. Take all high-risk securities markets at peak levels together - from leveraged loan CLOs to Alt-A RMBS, and I think we are looking at some 15% of the Buy Side demand.

..The IRA: Well, we know that story. Citigroup (NYSE:C) was doing precisely the same thing in the US during that timeframe under the direction of board members like Robert Rubin. The US banks also expanded their leverage via the issuance of non-guaranteed structures such as SIVs.  At the end of this year, assuming that the FASB does not get rolled again a la fair value accounting, all US banks must repatriate hundreds of billions of dollars in off-balance sheet (”OBS”) assets, which will drive down capital levels dramatically. The notion of banks repaying their TARP equity this year is ridiculous if you include OBS assets in the analysis.  Yet isn’t it remarkable that C and the German banks were essentially all doing the same stupid things?  The common denominator must the global sales push from the large Sell Side dealers like DB, Merrill and Lehman, among others.

Dübel: The dealers in Germany, DB included, are certainly co-responsible. The dealers always looked at the Landesbanken with their distorted incentives as easy prey. C surely fell into the same trap after Glass-Steagall was repealed; to me the important Citi analogy there is rather the Garn-St.Germain Act of 1982 that allowed the US S&Ls to expand into commercial lending. To me it looks as if C and Landesbanken are not very far apart in their clout on their domestic political system, just the flavors of the favors differ.

Ai note: are german bankers conservative, or the same banksters as in US? Fannie Mae Freddie Mac style was so sexi…

…The IRA: What we find startling about your tale is the EU here is the more conservative, fiscally responsible party, while the German bankers, who are reputed to be so conservative, seem instead to be completely reckless cowboys. It’s as though the entire German financial system was run like Fannie Mae, with the Barney Frank (D-MA) and other American politicians making financial decisions from Capitol Hill and carving out special slush funds for their own personal use. Is this a fair comparison?

Dübel: Yes, absolutely. And it is a complete conflict of interest. The typical German savings or state bank has 25-30 board members. This becomes a harbor for politicians, who are given sinecures on these boards when they retire. The campaign finance system in Germany is under continuous scrutiny, but meanwhile practices like packing the boards of banks with retired politicians continues. But we see some change: there is a big uproar currently as BAFIN has started calling for minimum banking qualifications of supervisory board members, which typically excludes your local mayor.

…The IRA: So it sounds like the situation in Germany was not about a bubble in the housing market but instead failed financial engineering motivated by the wrong incentives set by politicians.

Dübel: Yes, you must forget the word “mortgage” when you are looking at Germany. I am a housing expert, but this problem comes down to a lack of basic prudential and political controls in German banks. The state banks have entered and exited the mortgage market several times in the past few decades. Most recently, there has been a proliferation of direct banks providing mortgages, ING from the Netherlands and even the Postal Bank is involved. The irony of the Landesbanks is that they did not lose a penny on investments and loans Germany. All of the losses were caused by investments in foreign assets, primarily from the US. The overhang of assets was caused by the failure of the EU Commission to limit debt issuance by the German banks. Thus the question came: where to put the money raised via the issuance of debt? The US was the choice. Had there been a capital markets boom in China, the Germans would have invested there instead. The choice of asset selection was completely opportunistic and engineered by Wall Street. Don’t forget that many other nations in Asia and the Middle East were given the same treatment by the American banks.

The IRA: In the form of collateralized debt obligations?  Wonderful. So we put the German banks in the same category as the US banks and Buy Side funds that ate all of the CDOs and other toxic waste produced in the US and the City of London?

Dübel: Exactly. The Landesbank is the prototypical example of an uneducated investor, because of lack of incentives to really develop an interest in education.

Ai note: what education, I have to feed my family…greed is so powerfull and in the long run we are all dead…

The IRA: They were hoping move up to the big time.  It does rather sound like a financial version of the swine flu. The political conflict you describe in Germany seems every bit as serious here in the US as well, yet the authorities take no action. Is this a fair analogy? You have spoken a great deal about the current German finance minister and his role in creating the German financial crisis.  Can you expand on this a bit?

Dübel: Peer Steinbrück comes from Hamburg and was also active politically in Northrhine-Westphalia, which is the home of WestLB. In 1993 Steinbrück became Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure in the State of Schleswig-Holstein until he changed to go on with his career in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, where he became Secretary of Infrastructure in 1998 and Financial Secretary in 2000. Steinbrück was selected as one of the five negotiators dealing with the EU on the question of end state guarantees for the Landesbanks. Berlin selected three state finance ministers, the other two were Bavaria where Bayerische Landesbank is located and Baden-Württemberg with Landesbank Baden-Württemberg. The irony is that all three states are now among the big losers of the subprime crisis as a result of their own lobbying!

Ai note: Government never sleeps, but we are constantly blind against their lies and mistakes. Why? Because we don’t care about anything but us. Very sad.

..Dübel: Well, the politics are amusing at a certain level, but the economic implications are not. We have a shocking culture in German banks of hiding problems and keeping things under the lid that goes beyond public banks. Dresdner Bank for example took similar risks like the Landesbanken and for years failed to properly disclose this to her owners at Allianz. German banks hide their business activities, which is why you saw a proliferation of unrelated strategies, and the use of derivatives and offshore vehicles to hide these strategies. Some of the strategies were couched as loans, in other cases direct investments, so nobody really knows the true exposure of the German banks, public and private, to toxic and underperforming assets. The government admits to an aggregate figure of €800 billion or so, but there are no bank-by-bank figures. The assumption is that two-thirds of that amount is in the Landesbanks.

Ai note: ECB is less abused than FED. But I think this will end in short time.

The IRA: So if the deposit base in all German banks is about €2 trillion, then banking system has essentially taken up bad assets equal to half of deposits? The Landesbanks fund off the bond market, but this is still a very ugly macro situation. In the US we have parked the toxic waste at the Fed. Is that the situation in Germany?

Dübel: The ECB made their own mistakes, but they are not allowing themselves to be as openly abused as the Fed. The situation differs from the US in that the German states began early to create bad banks for the Landesbanken. However, most are financially not in the position to bear the losses, so the search is on for a deal which would create a single Landesbank bad bank in exchange for structural reforms - in particular mergers and downsizing of the business. The good news is that after the German crash the interest of the EU Commission and the federal Ministry of Finance are broadly realigned. That changes the picture. But it is still not a pretty one.

The ECB wrote down $5 billion on $10 billion in British mortgage assets following the Lehman collapse alone. Using that benchmark, the losses to the public sector in Germany will be huge. Using what public sources we have available, taking the exposure of the Landesbanks of some €300-500 billion from that source alone we could see losses exceeding €100 billion. The merger of Dresdner Bank and Commerzbank, which was only made possible with SoFFin intervention in the form of Tier-1-capital at Commerzbank, is another fallout from the crisis. Both banks were overstaffed and poorly managed, and now they are merging to an entity run to a great extent by the government.  Dresdner had similar business model problems as the Landesbanken and may have lost some € 10 billion in the US. A large mortgage bank, Eurohypo, will be spun off which likely will not find a buyer other than government. Then there is another large mortgage bank Hypo Real Estate, in which the federal government already invested some € 100 billion in guarantees and equity. And we have the Mittelstand lending bank IKB, which was the first failure of the crisis. The Landesbanken are likely to have bought IKB’s paper, which allowed IKB to invest in US mortgage assets. And IKB learned from them and set up her own ABCP conduits.;

Dübel: Long story short, the total back of the envelope figure for Germany in terms of rescues so far is already safely in the 10% of GDP range. SoFFin, the federal rescue fund, has provided alone about €190 billion or roughly 7.5% of GDP; add to this the state rescue programs, which are basically SoFFin cofinancing shares, for the Landesbanken. Are some €250-300 billion in protection enough to address a problem calibrated semi-officially in the €800-€900 billion range? Probably not, especially considering the high toxic asset shares at the Landesbanken .

Ai note: are we back in happy days? How are German green shoots doing?

The IRA: What impact do you think that the rescue plan now under formulation will have on this situation? Will the German economy start to improve by the end of the year or continue to struggle?

Dübel: My guess is that the Landesbanken alone will cause ultimate losses of 8-10% of German GDP, which is real money. Compare that sum with the 5% of GDP costs for the US S&L crisis.

The IRA: How much do you think the cost of the cleanup plus the end to the use of state guarantees is going to affect visible GDP in the EU? In the US, our assumption has been that as much as 5-10% of reported GDP was not income as much as the increased flow of funds due to debt issuance. If Germany and the other EU nations are forced to forego such borrowings, what will the reported GDP in the EU look like in 2010 and beyond?

Dübel: Yes, the flow stops and the loan demand also falls, well below what the Fed and the ECB would like it to be. And higher savings rates in the US and EU will contribute to this shrinkage in GDP as well. I think that the Fed is wrong to try and restore previous levels of consumption. There needs to be an adjustment. The further you push the bubble, the bigger the adjustment. But there is another question with serious implications for our growth prospects, which is: who bears the losses, taxpayers or debt investors in banks.So far, the rescue operations in both the US and Germany are heavily biased against taxpayers. This needs to change, if we do not want public investment and private consumption (via cutbacks in transfer programs) to heavily suffer.

Ai note: so now we know what are we waiting for. This is one of the reasons why U.S. dollar could not loose so much in relation to other currencies, because the problem isn’t  only in US and we know it for long. So for now, technical picture and quantitative easing by FED debases US dollar, but ECB needs to prepare new facilities and mechanism how to monetize german problem. Why? Because that is how we do it in  Too Big To Fail Socialist Countries. Maybe they will find a way to print new gold, but if they don’t, I will hold it for a long time.

Good luck,

Michal Matovcik

    by Michal Matovcik

    I will not tell you where you can make a living, I could, but everyone has to find his own way to become wealthy. When you find it, you will be a lot happier, because you made it, not me, you will find the way how to be independent financially and I will feed your brain with all kinds of brain meal.  The basic motivation must be hunger for knowledge and other things will come up. After a week? Forget about it, there are other websites which claim they can make wise and wealthy investor in a short time. My basic intention to start absolutideas were my dear friends, who suffered big losses during the crisis years 2007-2008. I saw it coming, I also wrote about it but sometimes it is very hard to be honest and take responsible actions, although it only means to protect all the family wealth and no interesting yields for some time. Want to gain some stock market, forex markets, commodities insights? You will have the opportunity here. So don’t waste your expensive time in “about us” …

    © 2009 Copyright Michal Matovcik - All Rights Reserved
    Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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