Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Turn of the screw


Ultra-low interest rates are slowly squeezing Germany’s banks

BANKS the world over are groaning under the burden of low, even negative, interest rates. The gripes from Germany are among the loudest. In March, when the European Central Bank cut its main lending rate to zero and its deposit rate to -0.4%, the head of the savings banks’ association called the policy “dangerous”. At the co-operative banks’ annual conference this month, a Bundesbank official earned loud applause just for not being from the ECB.

Germany’s banking system comprises three “pillars”. In the private-sector column, Deutsche Bank, the country’s biggest, expects no profit this year. That is mainly because of its investment-banking woes, but low interest rates have also weighed it down: it wants to sell Postbank, a retail operation it took over in 2010. Commerzbank, ranked second, specialises in serving the Mittelstand, Germany’s battalion of family-owned firms. It has felt the interest-rate squeeze even more. Analysts at Morgan Stanley place it among the worst-hit of Europe’s listed lenders.

Most Germans, however, entrust their savings to the other two pillars. One includes 409 savings banks (Sparkassen), mostly municipally owned; the other, 1,021 co-operatives. These conservative, mainly small, local banks are the most vocal complainers—even though at first blush they have little to moan about. Savings banks’ combined earnings declined only slightly last year, to €4.6 billion ($5.1 billion) from €4.8 billion in 2014. Deposits and loans grew; mortgages soared by 23.3%. Capital cushions are reassuringly plump: their tier-1 ratio rose from 14.5% in 2014 to 14.8%. Co-ops had a similar story to tell. But trouble is brewing.

The ECB has flattened long-term rates as well as short ones, by buying public-sector bonds and, starting this month, corporate debt. Ten-year German government-bond yields are near zero—and recently dipped below, thanks in part to markets’ fears about this week’s Brexit referendum. For banks, this means ever thinner margins from taking in short-term deposits and making longer-term loans—from which, says McKinsey, a consulting firm, German banks earn 70% of their revenue.


Lenders have been well insulated so far, because most loans on their books were made when interest rates were higher: 80% of loans last longer than five years. Rising bond prices (the corollary of falling rates) have provided further padding as banks’ portfolios gain in value: that effect alone has brought the savings banks €19.4 billion over the past five years. But as old loans mature, they are being replaced by new ones at today’s ultra-low rates. The mortgage boom is thus a mixed blessing: rates are typically fixed for ten years or more.

With no increase in ECB rates in sight, the screw is tightening. Half of the 1,500 banks surveyed by the Bundesbank last year—before the latest rate cuts—expected net interest income to fall by at least 20% by 2019. Although banks would prefer higher rates, too sudden an increase would also be awkward, pressuring them to pay more for deposits while locked into loans at rock-bottom rates.

Banks are seeking ways to alleviate the pain. Commerzbank is charging big companies for deposits, above thresholds negotiated case by case. (It is also reported to be pondering stashing cash in vaults rather than be charged by the ECB.) Bankers warn of an end to free personal current accounts. But with so many banks to choose from, scope for raising fees is limited.

Selling investment products and advice seems more promising; and commission income has risen, as some savers seek out higher returns. Yet low rates have made many Germans, already a cautious lot, even less adventurous. They are stuffing more, not less, into the bank—but into instant-access accounts: with rates so low they may as well keep cash on hand.

Low rates are not banks’ only worry. Both bankers and politicians vehemently oppose a proposed deposit-insurance scheme for the euro zone: the savings banks and co-ops have always looked out for each other, and don’t see why they should insure Greeks and Italians, too. Smaller institutions complain about an increase in regulation since the financial crisis—even though they weathered the storm far better than many larger ones. The savings banks’ association claims that red tape costs its members 10% of earnings—and some as much as 20%.

Another concern is the march of technology. Germans have been slow to take up digital banking, but their banks—reliant on simple deposits and loans, and still carrying the costs of dense branch networks—are vulnerable to digital competition nonetheless. Number26, a Berlin startup, has signed up over 200,000 customers across Europe for its smartphone-based current account within months. The savings banks plan to hit back this year with Yomo, a smartphone app aimed at young adults.

McKinsey reckons that low rates, regulation and digitisation together could cut German banks’ return on equity from an already wretched 4% in 2013 to -2% within a few years if they do nothing in response. The pressure is starting to tell. This month the Sparkasse Köln-Bonn, one of the biggest savings banks, said it would close 22 of its 106 branches. Some rural banks have replaced branches with buses.

All this is likely to thin the crowded ranks of Germany’s lenders. Consolidation has been under way for decades: since 1999 the number of co-ops has fallen by half; on August 1st their two remaining “central” banks, DZ Bank and WGZ Bank, which provide co-ops with wholesale and investment-banking services, are to join forces. The pace of mergers has steadied in recent years. Negative rates may speed it up again.

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