By now we should have gotten used to the odor emanating from banks—bailouts, money laundering, Libor rate-rigging, the other misdeeds. But in Europe over the last few days, it was particularly dense.
A nauseating whiff came from Barclays today, when it leaked out that it has been under investigation by the Financial Services Authority and the Serious Fraud Office in Britain for illegal fundraising in 2008. Allegedly, the bank secretly loaned £5.3 billion ($8.4 billion) to one of Qatar’s sovereign wealth funds, which then turned around and with great public fanfare pumped that money back into Barclays—a scheme to raise capital on paper to escape a government takeover during the financial crisis.
Then Crédit Agricole, France’s third largest bank, announced €3.8 billion ($5 billion) in write-downs, mostly of “Goodwill” due to the “present macro-economic and financial environment.” Goodwill reflects money paid out for certain items in excess of their value—an expense that, by a quirk of accounting, is temporarily parked as an asset on the balance sheet to be expensed eventually. After the write-off, the bank will still have about €14 billion of Goodwill clogging up its balance sheet, and more write-offs are to come. It already wrote off €2.5 billion last year, when it agreed to sell its stake in the Greek bank Emporiki for €1, which it had acquired with impeccable timing in 2006 for €2.2 billion.
Greek banks… oh my! They’re being investigated by Greek financial crime prosecutors for €232 million in loans that they handed out to the ruling parties, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy and the Socialist PASOK. “Suspected crimes against the state,” a court official called it.
The state funds political parties based on their share of the vote, and both parties pledged hoped-for state funding as collateral for these loans. But during the election last June, New Democracy’s share of the vote dropped from 33% to 29% and PASOK’s from 43% to 12%. With it, state funding suddenly collapsed, and some of the loans are turning sour.
Bitter irony: teetering Greek banks, hoping at the time to get bailed out by taxpayers in other countries, funded Greek political parties that then negotiated the bank bailouts with the EU for the benefit of bank investors [likewise, Proton Bank got bailed out in 2011 though it engaged in fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering, when a bomb exploded…. European Bailout Fund For Greek Money Laundering And Fraud]
Still on Friday, SNS Reaal, fourth largest bank in the Netherlands, was bailed out again—after already having been bailed out in 2008. This time, it was nationalized. The €10 billion package would cost taxpayers initially €3.7 billion. Stockholders and junior debt holders lost out too, but holders of senior debt and covered bonds were made whole.
There is never an alternative to bailouts. A collapse “would have unacceptably large and undesirable consequences,” according to Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said. As brand-spanking new President of the Eurogroup, he thus confirmed: bank bailouts will be the norm in the Eurozone.
They’re worried that letting even a smallish bank fail could take down the electron-thin confidence in the entire financial system—just when the debt crisis has been officially declared “over.” And so, based on the operative set of rules, the Dutch government shanghaied its strung-out taxpayers, whose belts are already being tightened by austerity, into paying, once again, for the misdeeds of the bankers.
In Italy, a billowing scandal got new fuel. It kicked off with a criminal investigation into Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy’s third largest bank, for alleged market manipulation, false accounting, obstructing regulators, and fraud. The bank used derivatives to hide losses during the financial crisis, but these losses are now seeping from the woodwork. So Standard & Poor’s just cut the bank’s credit rating, fearing that the announced losses may just be the tip of the iceberg.
That form of financial engineering came to light when new management took a gander at the books. Now a government bailout is in the works. Because there is never an alternative. Taxpayers tighten your belts!
And on Thursday, Deutsche Bank waded deeper into its quagmire of “matters,” among them the Libor rate-rigging scandal, which might cost it €2.5 billion, and the carbon-trading tax-fraud scandal that broke with a televised raid by police on its headquarters. So, more write-downs are due, and the bank announced a €2.2 billion loss for the fourth quarter. “In 2013,” said co-CEO Jürgen Fitschen reassuringly, “we will be confronted with more developments in these and other matters.”
And other matters! More revelations to come. Already, there are estimates that these misdeeds would eventually amount to €10 billion. Now suddenly: “Building capital is our top priority,” said the other co-CEO Anshu Jain. He wants to do it without diluting current stockholders. “But in this uncertain world, I cannot exclude anything,” he mollified his audience.
Turns out, the bank intends to get rid of €16 billion in high-risk credit default swaps by end of March. It might boost its core Tier 1 capital ratio from 8% to 8.5%. More such sales are planned—a wholesale dumping of its credit correlation book, an outgrowth of the financial engineering it used to hide whatever needed to be hidden.
The bitter irony of the financial crisis is just how common the putrid smell has become since. And how routine it has become for these inscrutable institutions with their opaque financial statements to transfer risks and losses to the people. In the US, too, the smell refuses to evaporate. And nothing indicates that this will change anytime soon.
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