The real danger to the euro area probably doesn’t emanate from Greece, but from two of its heavyweights, namely France and Italy. A small note in the European press reminds us that all is not well in at least one of these countries, least of all with its banks (currently this is only a “page 16 story”, but it has great potential to eventually move to the front page).
Regional distribution of non-performing loans in Italy
The note reads as follows:
“Rome – because of the recession of recent years and corporate bankruptcies, the total of bad loans has continued to rise in Italy. According to Italy’s banking association ABI, non-performing loans amounted to 193.7 billion euro in May, 25.1 billion more than in the same month in 2014. This is the highest level since 1996.
Non-performing loans represent 10.1 percent of all loans granted by Italian banks, ABI said on Tuesday. Especially small and medium enterprises continue to be under pressure due to bad loans, so will take a long time before banks will see the bad loan situation ease, the ABI report stated. Italian companies are currently struggling with the effects of the longest economic crisis since World War II and are therefore often no longer able to service their loans.”
If our calculator can be trusted, this means that bad loans in Italy’s banking system have increased by roughly 14.9% over just the past year – by no means a peak crisis year, although Italy’s listing economy continued to contract slightly.
As the following chart shows (unfortunately we were only able to obtain this slightly dated version), Italian NPLs stood at € 165 bn. in Q1 2014. However, to this one must actually add all sorts of loans that are otherwise delinquent/dubious or sub-standard, but haven’t yet reached “full” NPL status. These are summarized together with NPLs under the term impaired loans below.
The growth of impaired loans in Italy’s banking system until Q1 2014. At the time, NPLs stood at €165 billion – now they are towering at nearly €194 billion.
While Italy’s banks are drowning in NPLs and otherwise impaired debt (from the above one can probably infer that the new total is close to €350 billion), its government is buried under ever more debt as well. Of course, the government’s debt is considered “risk-free” in the Bizarro universe we have entered since the ECB has decided to join the global printathon. Note that we are dating this ECB decision to late 2011, as its money printing efforts started well before it announced full-blown “QE” (previously there were LTROs, TLTROs, several covered bond purchase programs, an ABS purchase program, the SMP and the as yet unused threat of “OMT” or “outright monetary transactions”).
The trend in Italy’s general government debt – it remains a one-way street.
However, Italy is not the worst country in the euro zone with respect to bad loans in the banking system. The next chart shows the percentage impaired bank loans (loans that are delinquent 90 days+) represent of total bank loans outstanding in a number of countries.
Not surprisingly, Greece is inhabiting the top spot, followed by Ireland, Slovenia and Italy. In most of these countries a variety of measures has been taken (mainly via the creation of “bad banks”) to get the problem under control. Italy seems to largely have disappeared from the radar, but strikes us a potential powder keg – especially once the recent monetary-pumping-induced pseudo recovery implodes in another bust.
Bad loans as a percentage of all outstanding bank loans in various countries
If one thinks things properly through, Greece is really a side-show. The euro zone remains full of accidents waiting to happen and some of them have the potential to become truly gigantic accidents. Italy has a twin debt problem and it is probably only a question of time before its giant government debtberg becomes a concern again – this would put the country’s banks into an untenable situation, given they have amassed a great deal of government since early 2012.
As long as the ECB continues to pump €60 billion in newly created money into the system every month, such problems can probably be kept at bay. However, this comes at a price, as monetary pumping distorts prices and falsifies economic calculation, which in turn leads to malinvestment and capital consumption that is masquerading as an “economic recovery”. The structure on which all this debt rests becomes ever weaker.