As part of a special program of the KfW promotional banks, the institutes grant loans in the corona crisis for which the state is 80, 90 or even 100 percent liable. From Wuermeling’s point of view, this is a good solution, after all, banks should not be able to provide enough loans if they cannot count on repayment. “If the state nevertheless wants to help companies for good reasons, it takes on the risks in the interest of the common good.”
The German banks are doing well in the corona crisis “according to the circumstances,” says Wuermeling. However, he fears that there will be more bankruptcies and loan defaults.
“The credit risks are really our biggest concern.” And they will only be reflected in the bank balance sheets with a delay. “I expect the burdens to increase significantly in the third or fourth quarter.”
Wuermeling rejects the creation of a European bad bank to reduce bad loans, as suggested by the ECB’s banking supervision. “This proposal is basically three years old and was not followed up for good reasons at the time.”
The top ECB bank supervisor Andrea Enria had already asked for a bad bank in 2017 in his old role as head of the banking authority Eba. “The reduction in non-performing loans has since made good progress even without such an institution, thanks in part to the resolute crackdown by the European banking supervisory authority SSM, which Andrea Enria now heads,” said Wuermeling. “That is why I do not believe that the initiative from that time will be taken up again at EU level.”
Read the full interview here:
Mr. Wuermeling, how are German banks doing in the corona crisis?
According to the circumstances, the German banks are still doing well. They currently have capital buffers in the hundreds of billions, with which they can grant loans and also cushion losses from loan losses.
In view of the corona crisis, do banks have to put their goals and strategies to the test?
It is already happening. Due to the corona crisis, all institutes are forced to update their earnings forecast for the current year. Returns are falling and risk provisioning is increasing. And after the height of the crisis, many banks will have to review their strategies. The pressure on banks with business models that were vulnerable before the crisis will continue to increase
How dangerous can bank failures and loan defaults become for the banks?
Credit risks are actually the biggest concern for us. Market and liquidity risks leave their mark immediately, but are likely to remain limited overall. By contrast, the losses caused by loan defaults are reflected in the bank balance sheets with a delay of weeks and months. I expect the burdens to increase significantly in the third or fourth quarter.
Can the next banking crisis develop from the corona crisis?
The German banking system is very resilient today. But this question can only be answered reliably if we have more clarity: about the containment of the epidemic, the economic effects and how well the government countermeasures such as the loans from the KfW development bank or the short-time allowance cushion the negative effects on the economy and how quickly the recession can be overcome. It was important that the state acted quickly and comprehensively. As of today, the expected losses should be manageable for the overall market.
Federal Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz recommended that the institutes “let five be straight” when lending. Are the banks too hesitant?
In my opinion, the banks have shown great willingness so far to ensure that the real economy is supplied with credit. But you cannot bear all the risks of a shutdown of the entire economy. The supervisory authority expects banks to carry out a responsible risk assessment even in times of crisis. If the banks simply opened all the gates when lending, sooner or later this would lead to a crisis in the banks. That would not help anyone.
The state assumes 80, 90 or even 100 percent of the liability for many loans. Right?
Banks should provide the real economy with credit even in times of crisis. But a responsible credit policy also means that banks reject loan applications if they cannot expect the loan to be repaid. If the state nevertheless wants to help companies for good reasons, it assumes the risks in the interest of the common good.
What is your interim conclusion for the banking sector after about two months of corona crisis?
It is now clear that we have learned the right lessons from the 2008 financial crisis by building up capital and liquidity buffers. The larger the buffers are, the longer banks are able to perform their tasks even in difficult times. In this respect, it was right to insist that these buffers be called for. The second good news is that the banking system works under the current circumstances. Consumers and businesses can access banking services even when many branches are closed. However, a single bank or savings bank can only prepare itself to a limited extent against a comprehensive threat to the solvency of a large number of borrowers.
So such crises cannot be overcome without state aid?
The banking system alone cannot cope with an extremely sharp rise in credit demand in the economy. That is why it is currently not possible without the state as the guarantor. We see it that way as a supervisor. If we discuss the lessons of the crisis at a later point in time, it will certainly be discussed.
What could solutions look like?
Instruments have now been developed ad hoc under high time pressure to use government aid quickly and in a targeted manner. Fortunately, in Germany we have established channels through KfW and other promotional banks to provide loans with government guarantees to the real economy relatively quickly via the banking system. In future, the regulatory framework for such measures must be designed in such a way that it can take full effect immediately
What do you think of the top ECB supervisor Andrea Enria’s proposal to set up a European bad bank? This could solve the problem of old bad loans before new bad loans are added in the wake of the corona crisis.
This proposal is essentially three years old and was not followed up at that time for good reasons. The reduction in non-performing loans has since made good progress even without such an institution, also thanks to the resolute crackdown by the European banking regulator SSM, which Andrea Enria now heads. That is why I do not believe that the initiative from that time will be taken up again at EU level.
BdB President Hans-Walter Peters, who has just left office, has demanded that the ECB should reimburse the banks already paid negative interest of 26.5 billion euros so that they can grant more loans in the corona crisis. What do you think of the idea?
There is no need to return negative interest at all. It is not a targeted levy for banks, but a monetary policy measure. Banks have to learn to deal with it.
Mr Peters also suggested that the ECB should buy subordinated bank bonds in order to strengthen the capital of the financial institutions.
In my view, that would also not be appropriate. Central banks in the euro zone are currently only buying senior bonds for risk reasons. In addition, the purchase of subordinated bank bonds from supervised institutions would also represent a conflict of interest for the central bank.
Do you think the banks’ demands for more aid are fundamentally absurd?
The previous easing should give the banks enough scope for more credit and loss absorption. It annoys me when now long-discussed proposals come up with the new coat of “crisis measure” on the table, for example the general recognition of self-developed software as equity. This distracts us all from the real challenge.
Before Corona, banking regulators demanded that banks cut costs and increase profitability. Are these demands still valid in the corona crisis?
If you want to act responsibly in the crisis, you have to set your priorities from now on. It is a top priority for us that bank operations and the cash flow are maintained – even when branches are closed and many bank employees work from home. That worked. And we want to make sure that banks continue to perform their important economic functions and lend without risking their stability. This shifted focus in no way means that all other aspects are now irrelevant in the long run. We will come back to this when the acute crisis has been overcome.
Financial supervision has loosened the rules for financial institutions significantly in the wake of the corona crisis. How long should these facilities apply?
The decisions for the exemptions were not easy for us. They can only serve to overcome the crisis. Nobody should bet that they will last forever. Of course, the banks will have the necessary time to regain their normal state of capital and liquidity. But everyone must be aware that we will pull the reins back after the crisis.
Will there be adjustments to banking supervision after the corona crisis?
One lesson from the crisis is that we still have to use digital technologies to a much greater extent in order to get an easier and faster picture of the situation of the banks. In the corona crisis, we initially spoke to large banks every day about their liquidity in a conference call. In the future, it would make sense to be able to access this data directly from the banks’ systems at any time.
How quickly can this be introduced?
The digital motto “think big, start small” should apply. In countries like Israel, the supervisory authority is already checking the liquidity indicators directly in the databases of the institutes. In Europe, we should first concentrate on simple indicators, where timeliness plays an important role. This would allow us to identify problems earlier, act preventively and thus possibly prevent some damage before it arises.
How do you rate the recommendation of the European Banking Authority (SSM) not to distribute dividends – is this appropriate or is it exaggerated in its overall rate?
It is in the interest of financial stability that banks retain their capital in the current situation in order to cushion risks and to be able to grant loans. In my view, there would have been reasons in one or the other special case to allow distributions. But we need a uniform approach in the euro area.
Does the distribution ban also apply to savings banks and Volksbanks?
It is not a prohibition of dividends – this is not legally possible if the capital requirements are complied with – but a recommendation to postpone distributions until early October. We also expect small and medium-sized banks, which are supervised by BaFin and the Bundesbank, to follow this recommendation. And we are very happy that this happens.
What do you do if an incredibly heavily capitalized Volksbank wants to distribute part of its profits despite your urgent recommendation?
It is understandable that it is not easy for a very well positioned bank to follow this. However, this is a collective precaution by all European banks. Because of the epochal challenge posed by the pandemic for the economy and society throughout the euro area, capital should remain in the financial system for now. No bank should go out there. So far, banking supervision in Germany has mostly succeeded in convincing institutions of the usefulness of such measures
Mr. Wuermeling, thank you very much for the interview.
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