Aussie Banks In Market Crosshairs

11 May

The markets have begun lining up Australia’s banking system in the crosshairs.  How do we know?  Late last week, the spreads on credit default swaps (CDS) for Australia’s banks widened the most of all banks in the world.

By the close of trading on Friday, all 4 members of our “safe as houses” 4-pillar banking system, along with our own ‘Goldman Sachs’-style investment bank Macquarie, saw deteriorations in their CDS spreads by amounts that were the worst in the world.

What does that mean?  Simply, the cost of taking out “insurance” against the bank defaulting on its debts increased dramatically.

From CMA Market Data‘s “Sovereign Risk Monitor”:

Friday, 7 May 2010 — 23:30

Largest Widening Spreads (Greatest Credit Deterioration)
Entity Name 5 Yr Mid Change From Close
bps bps %
Westpac Banking Corporation (SUB) 165.09 +50.23 +43.74
Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Limited (SUB) 167.06 +50.23 +42.99
Commonwealth Bank of Australia (SUB) 165.10 +48.44 +41.52
National Australia Bank (SUB) 167.05 +48.14 +40.49
Macquarie Bank Limited 174.28 +49.45 +39.62

It seems the markets are a wake up to the ever-growing threat the Eurozone crisis poses to Australia’s financial system. Unfortunately, very few Australians realise (or will honestly admit) just how vulnerable our banking system is:

The chief executive of National Australia Bank, Cameron Clyne, referred last week to Australian banks’ dependence on wholesale funding markets as their Achilles heel…

On average, Australian banks are sourcing just under a third of their funding from overseas wholesale markets and still too much of their existing borrowings are short term.

Australian banks are among the more vulnerable plays in the world to another Lehman-style event because of their dependence on overseas wholesale markets, which have proven already they can freeze up for extended periods.

But overreliance on international wholesale capital funding is far from being the only risk to our banking system.  Australia’s banks also have a chronic overexposure to the domestic housing (mortgage) market. A fall in property values here – just as in the rest of the Western world – would be catastrophic for our banking system.

From Contrarian Investor’s Journal:

We must confess, we are getting more and more nervous about the potential for a Black Swan hitting the Australian economy. Particularly, we are looking at a vulnerability in the banking system. Here are some facts about Australian banks:

  1. As at December 2009, around 75% of the Australian mortgage market is held by the Big 4 banks. 50% are held by Commonwealth and Westpac while 25% are held by ANZ and NAB. (source: CoreData’s Australian Mortgage Report Q1 2010)
  2. 60% of Commonwealth’s lending books are residential mortgages.
  3. 50% of Westpac’s lending books are residential mortgages.

Now, here’s an interesting news report from almost two years ago:

“The Reserve Bank of Australia has a dark worry about our banks: they get 90 per cent of their cash from each other. If one bank gets into trouble, the Australian financial system could be snap-frozen overnight.”

A final thought.

Our banks have over $13 Trillion in off-balance sheet business.

From Money Morning:

We dropped the line yesterday about the banks having $13 trillion of off-balance sheet business. We’ve mentioned this number several times over the last year, but if you’re a new reader to Money Morning, here’s a link to the Reserve Bank of Australia spreadsheet that contains the awful truth.

To be precise, it currently runs to $13,058,814,195,842.70.

Just to put that in perspective, the banks have a total of $2.59 trillion of on-balance sheet assets. We’re sure the banks and the RBA will claim that all the off-balance sheet business is completely offset, so that losses are contained.

Personally, we don’t think you should believe a word of it. The number one risk with the off-balance sheet business is counterparty risk. As long as each counterparty can keep the ponzi scheme going then sure, everything will be tickety-boo.

But as we all know, that can’t happen. We’ve seen counterparties collapse before (Lehman, Bear Sterns, etc…) and they’ll collapse or need bailing out again.

There’s only so long that banks can keep the ponzi going. They’ve scraped through by the skin of their teeth thanks to an unprecedented bail-out by the taxpayer.

The issue of counterparty risk is precisely why the Greek debt crisis is a threat to Australia – despite what Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens would have us believe.

It is clear that our Aussie banks are not so safe after all.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: