…the French megabanks are on the hook!
France was just served with a stark reminder of an inconvenient truth: €277 billion of Italian government debt — the equivalent of 14% of French GDP — is owed to French banks. Given that Italy’s government is currently locked in an existential blinking match with both the European Commission and the ECB over its budget plan for 2019, this could be a big problem for France.
On Friday, France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, urged the commission to “reach out to Italy” after rejecting the country’s draft 2019 budget for breaking EU rules on public spending. Le Maire also conceded that while contagion in the Eurozone was definitely contained, the Eurozone “is not sufficiently armed to face a new economic or financial crisis.” As Maire well knows, a full-blown financial crisis in Italy would eventually spread to France’s economy, with French banks serving as the main transmission mechanism.
France isn’t the only Eurozone nation with unhealthy levels of exposure to Italian debt, although it is far and away the most exposed. According to the Bank of International Settlements, German lenders have €79 billion worth of exposure to Italian debt and Spanish lenders, €69 billion. In other words, taken together, the financial sectors of the largest, second largest and fourth largest economies in the Eurozone — Germany, France and Spain — hold over €415 billion of Italian debt on their balance sheets.
While the exposure of German lenders to Italian debt has waned over the last few years, that of French lenders has actually grown, belying the ECB’s long-held claim that its QE program would help reduce the level of interdependence between European sovereigns and banks.
If anything, the opposite has happened: thanks to the ECB’s tireless efforts to underpin the Eurozone’s bond markets (by doing “whatever it takes” to make sovereign bonds virtually risk-free), banks have been able to make a tidy margin by simply bulk-buying government bonds at officially zero risk.
A few years ago fiscally hawkish Eurozone countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland lobbied to put an end to this practice by removing the risk-free status of certain risk-prone sovereign bonds.