Bad Loans Still Too High at Eurozone Banks, ECB Warns

NPLs remain dangerously to catastrophically high in Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Cyprus.

By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.

The bad-debt problem at banks in the Eurozone, an ongoing legacy of cascading loan defaults during the last financial crisis, may have grown smaller overall in recent years but it’s still a major cause for concern. That was the basic thrust of a speech delivered by Andrea Enria, Chair of the Supervisory Board of the ECB, on Friday. And these bad loans remain dangerously to catastrophically high in several countries, including Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Cyprus.

Over the past five years the total stock of non-performing loans (NPLs) on the balance sheets of Eurozone banks has fallen from just over €1 trillion to €580 billion. During the same period, the ratio of gross NPLs in the region has fallen from 8% to 3.8% — the result not just of a shrinking NPL stock but also growth in banks’ total loan balances. Nonetheless, the ratio remains well above pre-crisis levels and is far higher than in other major advanced economies. For example, in the United States and Japan the ratio is 1.6% and 1.1% respectively.

In the Euro Zone there’s also a huge disparity between national NPL ratios, with countries like Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic clocking in at or around 2%, while Italy’s NPL ratio is 9.5% and three Eurozone countries still have ratios above 10%:

  • Greece: 43% (down from 50% since 2016)
  • Cyprus: 22% (down from 49% in 2016)
  • Portugal: 11% (down from 19% in 2016)

“The problem of NPLs is not solving itself – and it has not yet been resolved,” Enria said. “While it is true that the amount of NPLs has fallen significantly – by almost 50% since 2014 – the stock of NPLs is still very high. It is also very old… For those banks with the highest levels of NPLs, more than half of their NPLs are older than two years and more than a quarter are older than five years.”

To compound matters, Eurozone banks appear to be piling up new bad loans on top of the old ones.

“It seems that inflows of new NPLs are still on the high side – not least when you consider where we are in the business cycle,” Enria said. “It also seems that some banks with high NPLs are still reporting increasing default rates. We find this somewhat worrying, and we urge banks to stem this inflow by rethinking their underwriting standards and engaging with distressed debtors.”

In recent years, EU authorities have launched a raft of policy initiatives aimed at tackling the NPL problem, including rules on minimum loss coverage for NPLs, new provisioning guidelines for NPL stocks and measures to facilitate debt recovery, which is particularly important in countries like Italy where it can take years to recover unpaid debt. As we reported last year, many of the policy proposals were watered down at the last minute, following furious lobbying from bank lobbies and some national governments, including Italy.

Another key game changer was the launch, in 2016, of the “GACS” scheme, which provides banks with a state guarantee on the least risky tranche in bad-loan securitization sales. This means they can price their bad loans higher than their market value would have been, based on the underlying risks — and if that tranche becomes affected by losses, Europe’s unsuspecting taxpayers will get to eat them, rather than bank investors.

As intended, the scheme helped fuel a surge in both the supply and demand of NPL securitizations. “In 2018 alone, banks from across the euro area sold or securitised around €150 billion of NPLs,” Enria said. “For significant institutions with high levels of NPLs, sales and securitisations amounted to around one-third of NPL outflows in 2018.”

Few countries have benefited as much from the scheme as Italy, where an estimated €37 billion of NPLs were sold by banks in 2016, followed by a further €47 billion’s worth in 2017, according to Deloitte. The buyers are often specialist American hedge funds like Cerberus Capital Management or Fortress Investment. Thanks to their voracious appetite for government-guaranteed bad debt, Italy’s banking system was able to almost halve its NPL ratio since late 2015 and late-2018, from 16.8% to 9.5%.

But that’s still dangerously high, even though it pales in comparison with the 43% and 22% NPL ratios that Greece and Cyprus respectively boast. With the amount of bad debt in the Eurozone still too high for comfort despite the prevailing low rate environment and other relatively benign economic indicators, what could happen if underlying economic conditions deteriorate?

This is a question Enria himself is asking, with a certain sense of urgency. “We have to get a handle on this problem. We have to solve the issue of NPLs while the economy is still resilient,” he said in his closing remarks.If banks have to sail into the next storm with too many NPLs on their balance sheets, they will be less able to weather it and come out safely on the other side.” By Don Quijones.

The benefit of NIRP: There’s hell to pay – even the ECB admits it. Read… Inspired by Deutsche Bank’s Death Spiral, European Banks Sink to Dec 24, 2018 Level – First Seen in 1995

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  44 comments for “Bad Loans Still Too High at Eurozone Banks, ECB Warns

  1. Javert Chip says:

    The ECB (which continues to materially enable the problem) says bad loans too high in EU banks?


    What we have here is a bad problem of the pot calling the kettle black.

    • chillbro says:

      Was there ever time in the last 100 years where banks that wrote bad loans didn’t get bailed out by taxpayers?

      I might be showing my youth but all of my adult life all I hear is how bank after bank gets taxpayer capital infusions due to originating bad loans. It seems people managing banks get paid upfront with fat checks while taxpayers and shareholders are responsible to socialize their decisions.

      • Nat says:

        Only the big ones with connections. Even in a massive multi-bank collapse usually only the big ones with connections get bailed out, but yes those ones always get bailed out just as the smaller and medium sized ones are almost always left to die.

      • nick kelly says:

        Around ten thousand banks went under in the Depression taking many deposits with them ( No deposit insurance)

      • Paul says:

        I suspect that a study of the subject would reveal that most such bailouts have been since 1971.

        Before that, it was real money.

        After that, it was money created out of nothing.

      • Javert Chip says:


        US Banks, regardless of size, are never left to die.

        In fact, banks cannot go bankrupt, rather, they are “resolved” by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp (FDIC). The following description is specifically for small to medium/large banks (due to size, giant banks are indeed somewhat different):

        All banks (not taxpayers) pay into the FDIC insurance fund. Various regulators will have worked with the failing bank for months before the final moment. However, when the FDIC determines a bank’s NPL & capital ratios no longer support a healthy on-going institution, the FDIC quickly steps in and “resolves” the failing bank.

        FDIC staff secretly come to town a few days before target bank closure, and secretly notifies other healthy area banks they been selected to receive the failed bank’s profitable assets (eg: branches & staff, performing loans, etc). The FDIC enters the bank (usually a Friday morning), informs executive management it’s being resolved, and terminates all staff (especially executives & back-office) not transferred to other banks. There is absolutely no haggling about “please give us one more chance”.

        Monday morning the old bank branch opens up with a temporary new sign. Unprofitable assets are transferred to the FDIC & generally sold to vulture funds for recovery. If the FDIC runs out of capital, the taxpayer is on the hook.

        Unlike most global regulators, the US has reasonably clear rules that are firmly enforced, including resolving banks and refunding deposits (up to insured limits). Almost without exception, it’s significantly less costly to “resolve” banks quickly. The EU, in particular, does not have the capital or political will to move this decisively. As a result, EU bank problems linger, and only get more expensive.

        • d says:

          “The EU, in particular, does not have the capital or political will to move this decisively.”

          Be fair this is not the EU’s problem it is the problem of the offending club med state’s who do not want to deal with the unemployment and angry shareholders, enraged due to the resolution of the club med zombie banks, with huge NPL mountains.

          There will be no Eu wide Deposit insurance untill club med cleans up its bank’s the EUR will always be 1 step from disaster until club med clean sup, its Zombie bank’s.

          The ECB or EU can only step in when the club med banks fail. before then it is up to the administrations oft the club med states to deal with the issue.

          The club med nations, particularly italy are still trying to get their zombie banks with huge NPL mountains made solvent, with German taxpayers money.

          There will be no banking union or Euro zone Deposit insurance until club med in particular italy do what has to be done with their zombie banks with their national populations money.

          Why balme the EU for the inaction of the club med administrations???

        • chillbro says:

          Thanks for the response! That actually sounds like a good system. I guess it doesn’t work so easily for TBTF banks though.

      • MC01 says:

        In 1974 the Franklin National Bank, one the 20 top banks in the US, was declared insolvent. The next year the bank executives were tried in a Federal court in New York and found guilty of fraud. The US Federal Reserve postmortem found “large losses in foreign currency speculation” and “astonishingly poor loan practices”.

        A couple years later the US Justice Department received information which allowed it to arrest and convict notorious Italian financier Michele Sindona for his role in the collapse of Franklin National Bank.

        Sindona had built a veritable financial empire on banks during the 60’s. However this empire started to crumble in the early 70’s due to extraordinarily poor lending practices. To avoid a bank run, the Italian central bank (Banca d’Italia) originally tried to bail Sindona out but it soon transpired the situation was beyond redemption. In particular Sindona’s banks had strong ties with the New York crime families and somehow more sinister organizations.

        Compared to stuff like this bailing out a bank because it lent to two-bit real estate speculators is a Sunday school picnic.

  2. Keeper Hill says:

    It still sort of amazes me that there are people who consider the Euro a success. It is and was a terrible idea and will lead to more suffering than it already has. The eventual breakup of the zone or warfare, revolution, is a given.

    • Saltcreep says:

      KH, it should have been a success, by removing all those cross border transaction costs, conversion headaches and rate risks. But, like gold before it, it requires discipline, and politicians and their voting public or their corporate backers do not reward discipline. It’s all about gratification now, and let some unknowing suckers in the future pick up the bill.

      • Nat says:

        That’s not the primary issue. The different currencies worked like shock-absorbers and now they are gone. There is a whole field on currency zone optimization in economics. Contiguous currency zones only work if labor mobility is extremely high across the same area as well as remittances (i.e. welfare and the like). The people who did the currency zone calculations for Euro back in the 90s warned that labor mobility between European countries was much lower then they were within the countries themselves, and that proposed Euro-wide remittances were also totally insufficient.

        All those “cross border transaction costs, conversion headaches and rate risks” mostly only impacted the transnationals who don’t really care about Europe beyond what they can extract from it. The benefits to the average European are vastly outweighed by the costs, and that was well known by the currency area calculations done in the 90s, but was ignored because the transnational and neo-liberal factions wanted their extra money, the average European and even the Europe experiment itself be-damned.

        • Keeper Hill says:

          It’s real simple. You need fiscal union as well in order to have a currency union. Europe doesn’t have it. But elites have trouble admitting it’s a mistake. It will take a very bad ending I’m afraid

        • Saltcreep says:

          Hi Nat,

          I’m sorry, but I can only see the see our hopeless currencies as padding protecting the cell inhabitants from the most immediate damage.

          The one fact I reckon we can know today is that we will be much poorer in the future. The next thing we can consider is how we distribute this increased poverty. But no authorities will ever recognise the situation, of course, so we’re essentially screwed…

        • panatomic-x says:

          “It’s real simple. You need fiscal union as well in order to have a currency union.”

          the reason why the currency union came first is because it could be done without a referendum. a fiscal union really means federalization of all the member states. there was never a chance of that being voted in.

          the euro makes about as much sense as being half pregnant.

        • nick kelly says:

          Why are Italy and Greece in trouble and Czech isn’t ?

          Neither of the former had competitive economies with their own currencies. The lira was a second- tier currency in Italy before the euro. Real estate was priced in US$ . Any contract much longer than a month had to have inflation protection or simply be in a hard currency. In a familiar sign of impending collapse, the lira was being issued in very large notes: the last 500, 000 lira. Imagine walking into McD with a single half- million dollar bill.

          The problem is more easily seen with Greece, a serial defaulter for well over a century. It was expelled from the Latin Union, a sort of pre- EU a century ago for minting debased silver coins.
          (In a reprise, the wackos in Italy, who know a return to the lira won’t fly, are threatening to print (i.e. counterfeit) their own euros.)

          After fibbing its way into the euro zone, the Greeks went on a spending spree. They designated hundreds of occupations as ‘arduous’ permitting a pension at 55, e.g. disc jockey.
          When the troika finally arrived it found a government that didn’t know how many employees it had. It had also just been swindled out of a hundred million by an obscure sect of monks.
          (not drachmas unfortunately)

          The story of the endless chaos is well told by Michael Lewis in ‘Boomerang’

          The problem is Greece, not the euro.

          The stats are kind of funny. Over 40 % of loans are NP and some are over 5 years old?
          A 5 year old NP loan is not a loan, it’s a write- off.

          But yes, in this case a return to the drachma is worth a look.
          It would mean a massive fall in living standards, but if the bloated, useless civil service could be paid in drachmas it would be savings in REAL terms. (The bureaucrats are violently opposed. As of the date of Lewis’s book, a Greek civil servant made substantially more than his German counterpart)

          And speaking of write-offs that’s what the ECB and IMF should do with Greek debt. Let Greece relaunch the drachma (New drachma?) with a clean slate. Why pretend the debt has value?

          And bonus: when Greece defaults next time, it shouldn’t be blamed on (mix or match) the IMF, ECB, the Fed, neo-liberals, capitalism. But it will be.

          There will have to be a hard- currency buffer because initially the New drachma might not buy anything outside Greece. When Greece ran out of euros while their Marxist minister tried to bluff the ECB. the Red Cross had to scramble to line up drugs like insulin that Greece does not make.

          Some agreed to supply on Greek credit.
          Swiss giant CIBA: ‘cash’.

  3. fred flintstone says:

    Print, Print, Print……until its over.
    Originally the constitution stated that the voters should be land owning, over 21, males…..and for the senate……state assemblies.
    The racial qualification to vote was rightfully tossed out. It was wrong.
    All the changes to the voter qualifications were rightfully adopted except one…..only land owners or those with net worth over $50,000 should vote.
    Once the vote was opened to those without skin in the game the printing presses never stop until the end because eventually those who have little (and out number those with means) will vote to take from those that have much…..leaving us with that system called communism….. sure hope to be wrong.
    Inherited wealth gets soft and allows changes that only a fool would accept.

    • Paulo says:

      The answer is trying to implement a society where everyone has an equal chance via hard work to get ‘skin’ in the game.

      I am a landowner and have a decent net worth. I still don’t believe I have any more right to citizenship than anyone else who meets the criteria of birth, or immigration and the citizenship process.

      Because of my standing my kids automatically have had a leg up on many, at least to get a decent start in life. So, a dumbass like Jared Kushner, son of a crook, has more of a right to US citizenship than the son of farm worker? I don’t think so.

      • doug says:

        totally agree with that Paulo.
        If you are legally a residence in a country, you have skin in the game.

        The very idea that some with more $ than others are more and better citizens is laughable and dangerous.

        • Bet says:

          I thought the whole point was to level the playing field so everyone had the chance of “skin in the game” otherwise you never have a middle class. And as a woman, I would never had the chance to become a tax paying citizen as I could not own property, vote, I believe I WAS chattel
          Um …and what about the DAUGHTERS of farm worker?

      • Pinto says:

        The best way to democracy is City of London style, where companies also vote according to their number of employees!

        Companies as we all know, they are born, grow, pay taxes and die!

        Why live behind a major chunk of our ecosystem?
        Why a baby does not vote by proxy parenthood? Are they not citizens also?

        Because TPTB want democracy for them, and ineptocracy for the rest of us.

        Google ineptocracy

    • Cambric Finish says:

      I am confused by your comment. I originally did not think you were referring to the U.S. Constitution, but you are, aren’t you? So, only landowners should be allowed to vote because if every citizen can vote you have communism? That would be a different definition of communism than I have seen. So, have I understood your comment correctly?
      Also, the comment about those who have skin in the “game” and those who do not is curious. What “game” are you referring? The “game” that pops to my mind in this context is called “life”.

  4. Filippo Turati says:

    this is a continuing no brainer story. nothing will happen with DB, debt to GDP in italy will remain high, and heading north, but the italian grandmothers with their savings can cover it more than 3x, nothing to see here

  5. Michael Engel says:

    A new “event” is about to happen.
    Where it will come from nobody know.
    All UST rates from 3M, 30Y
    are twisted together in a wild dance.
    Diversion between the front end which is moving up and the long duration that are tilting down.
    The middle is caving in.
    All US rates ganged together, there no gap between them.
    A 25Y chart, show two zones, two fat bodies, with relative wider space in between them.
    – Zone I started in mid 1990’s and ended in the bottleneck
    of 2007/08.
    – Zone II boundaries started in 2008, when 3M was hugging zero for 8Y and the 30Y was tilting down above.
    – Zone III is about to be born.
    Assuming Powell will not cave in and allow FedRate below zero..
    Options :
    1) Zone III will be narrow with a spitz on the right hand side, above water.
    2) Zone III will invert underwater.
    Both cases, the long term chart might look like an upside
    down Head & Shoulders.
    If so, US rates will jump, in a slingshot, above the resistance line.
    No perpetual deflation. The world will be dissected and inflation will rise, at least for a while.

    • DawnsEarlyLight says:

      The yield difference be the lowest treasury (5yr 1.86) and the highest (30yr 2.58) is only .72 of a percent! We can watch the front end, rear end, or any fat body doing the hula, but the real story is the thievery occurring right in front of our wallets!

  6. NARmageddon says:

    >>the ratio of gross NPLs in the region has fallen from 8% to 3.8%

    Conceivably, the percentage ratio could be defined based on

    1. outstanding loan balances (bad loan balances versus total loan balances)
    2. unpaid payments (versus total balance of bad loans)
    3. bad loan count versus total loan count

    It seems logical that #1 is the definition being used, but it is not specified in the ECB talk.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Yes, #1 is the standard. NPLs are always expressed as a percent of total loans outstanding.

      More specific delinquency and charge-off rates, such as for credit cards and mortgages, are expressed as a percent of the specific category, for example credit-card delinquencies as a percent of credit card balances outstanding.

  7. Scott says:

    Where is the Facebook icon that allows me to share your work on Facebook?

    • SkinnerBoxesAreUs says:

      You can find it right next to the pressurized container of HCN next to your keyboard… just click the button that releases it into your home…

    • Bgol says:

      Why bother? It will be censored within 2 minutes of posting lol. FB only allows the other truth.

    • Wolf Richter says:



      I used to have this button until I figured out what it was doing. The button is powered a shipped of FB tracking code. This is an insidious piece of code that allows FB to track my readers across the internet, even those that don’t click on the button. So I removed the FB code and all other social media codes eons ago.

      You can still use the copy-and-paste functions on your device :-]

    • p coyle says:

      ctrl+c, ctrl+v? i know it seems like a lot of effort, but it ought to work. ;-)

  8. CreditGB says:

    You make bad loans, you should lose investors and eventually your business. Shielding poor risks from their consequences only promotes more and worse risk taking. Applies locally and globally.

    • Javert Chip says:


      This is kind of Alice thru the looking glass, but:

      European “elites” (I ABSOLUTELY HATE THAT TERM) and various socialist weirdos absolutely need to keep those banks on life-support so they can continue to lend to favored voting constituencies as well as providing political manipulation to shield bad-debtors from rigorous enforcement.

      Example: the absolute last thing the crazy guys in charge of Italy want at the moment is for banks to get all snotty about actually collecting past-due payments.

      A new bank operating as you describe would get run out of town in about 7 minutes..

      • Che says:

        Its pretty much the definition of a real socialist that they wouldn’t be propping up the banks. I know there is the fake socialist bit where millionaires run and call themselves socialist to the voters. And of course those elites who hate being called elites call anyone to the left of Attila the Hun a socialist. But this is one of those litmus test issues that tells you if the politician is really a socialist. Socialists want to nationalize the banks, not save them.

  9. BadLoansAreUs says:

    No problem, you can just package up all those Assets™, incorporate a New Company™, and boom all gone. More room to originated more Assets™ (to be gifted to the New New Company™ at a later date).

  10. Michael Engel says:

    One more comment on UST rates from 3M to 30Y :
    Zone I and II form a downtrend channel.
    The resistance line is coming from bottleneck # I, from the 2000(H) to the top of bottleneck #3, the 2018(H).
    A parallel line is coming from early 2002(L) to mid 2008(L).
    The newly born zone III will fail to reach the support line all the way deep down, well below zero.
    Inversion or not, the inverse H&S will send rates higher to the top and above this channel.
    If zone III hold > zero, ==> Powell will be a hero.

  11. Paul says:

    Not to mention loans to Turkey???

    Good thing the ECB can create Euros out of thin air.

    Adding up all the losses on bad debt for the last 10 years, I doubt the banking industry had even a fraction of that in actual equity to cover them.

  12. Ra says:

    Today’s banks not being able to weather the next storm could be the event that saves human civilization. Humans obviously need a massive change in direction. The doomsday clock is at 2 min to midnight for several reasons, all serious, all existential as the pentagon geeks like to say. We’ve gotten there during an era when the banks have had a huge amount to say in the policies of governments and human kind. Thus, perhaps it is all of the banks crashing in the next storm that creates the change that saves human civilization. Just saying.

  13. Jack says:

    Thank You Don , keep them coming!

    “ according to Deloitte. The buyers are often specialist American hedge funds like Cerberus Capital Management or Fortress Investment. Thanks to their voracious appetite for government-guaranteed bad debt”

    That section above tells you all you need to know really,

    The so called ( inter-Connectivness ) of dodgy banking and finance industry players across the Atlantic have caused massive damage to the Economies of Europe and the US and will continue to do so on two fronts;

    Firstly the hollowing out of meaningful banking sector essential to the wide verity of business and individual intercourse that is ultimately called ( Economy), this endangers the most important staple in the exchange between parties that is the element of Trust ( or faith) call it what you will.

    Secondly, these Money Mafias that are called Hedge funds( Not so the idea when they started to appear in the market) , are the Ultimate personification of Evil as they on -sell all that debt to “ unsuspecting pension funds and the like” thereby creating a double whammy of desiccating the target country and robbing its Future generations of dignified life. Basically turning an entire nation into slaves to these “Gate keepers of Hades!”

    So now that the Greeks Know the outcome of such an endgame, the Italian, the Spaniards and few other Eastern European nations will follow suit.

    The implications of these Economic Vandalism as stated here in some comments ( correctly) is the Nations of Europe will be much much poorer and the path to a stronger Russia and China will be much easier.

    All this can be avoided if Europe is Broken up again to the real semblance of Viable Economic Zone without the bureaucratic machinations of EU institutions.

    Let’s be honest, the EU has been a failure in terms of Economic Experience for its wider citizens, the reason is quite clear,

    You can’t manage the economy of 30 odd nations without unified ( POLITICAL WILL) ,
    Europe was never going to be another US nor another USSR !

    Europe will be Europe a magnified picture of the historic Greece.!!!

  14. John henderson says:

    Article great..
    Usual mix of crap..
    Europe will always exist..
    In one form or another..
    Always been ruled by gangs!

    • Javert, Chip says:

      …then why read them, or (in your case) make them worse by writing one?

      Run out of intergalactic civilizations that required your supervision?

  15. Gershon says:

    When will Powell drop all pretense of being a responsible central banker and join the printing party?

  16. Non-performance Exactement says:

    Cyprus is trading on its location, not its balance sheet.
    That is why it has historically been allowed a national NLP of 50% / 43%.

    I think we get the game plan now.
    The system needed fixing, the issues needed solving.
    We gave it a good go, had 10 years at it, with the addition of the internet where much knowledge and expertise has been shared, still broken. There are no solutions.
    Now for a war or perhaps a large meteor is bearing down on us?
    Visible uncontrollable shaking seen in Merkel today at the Berlin Ceremony during the national anthem (no less) indicates all is not well. That is why leaders handover.

    This is so much bigger than the great depression of the 1930’s.
    So many countries will suffer.

    Unless. Those responsible take a humble pill and cancel all debt.
    Only then will we see reason, cooperation, transparency return to allow trust to build.

    MC01 refers to a situation of beyond redemption. Agreed.

    Keeper Hill refers to a very bad ending. Agreed.

    Panatomic-x refers to a state of senseless half pregnant. Agreed.

    Pinto refers to ineptocracy – I enjoyed reading the history of the word!

    Filippo Turati refers to ‘nothing will happen with DB’. Wishful thinking. Disagree.

    SkinnerBoxesAreUs refers to the container of HCN next to my keyboard. I laughed! Ty!

    Wolf Richter refers to removal of FB tracking code. Ty Wolf, beyond your years.

    Credit GB refers to consequences of making bad loans. Agreed.

    BadLoansAreUs refers to New Company™. For New Country™ see Asgardia website, see Chair of board.

    Paul refers to creating currency out of thin air. Trendy to do so at the moment.

    Ra refers to saving human civilisation. Only pure heartfelt intention will save us.

    Jack refers to hedge funds. Trick is in the word hedge, that is its strength.

    John Henderson refers to Europe’s existence. Europe is a place, the EU is manmade.

    Thanks Don for your analysis.

Comments are closed.