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What’s to Be Done Now with All These Zombie Companies?

What’s to Be Done Now with All These Zombie Companies?

Saving the Zombies in Europe.

Europe’s zombie firms are multiplying like never before. In Germany, one of the few European economies that has weathered the virus crisis reasonably well, an estimated 550,000 firms — roughly one-sixth of the total — could already be classified as “zombies”, according to research by the credit agency Creditreform. It’s a similar story in Switzerland.

Zombie firms are over-leveraged, high-risk companies with a business model that is not remotely self-sustaining, since they need to constantly raise fresh money from new creditors to pay off existing creditors. According to the Bank for International Settlements’ definition, they are unable to cover debt servicing costs with their EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) over an extended period.

The number of zombie companies has been rising across Europe and the Anglosphere — due to of two main factors:

  • Central banks’ easy money forever policies, which brought interest rates down to such low levels that even firms with a reasonable chance of default have been able to continue issuing debt at serviceable rates. Many large zombie firms have also been bailed out, in some cases more than once. Spanish green energy giant Abengoa has been bailed out three times in five years.
  • The tendency of poorly capitalized banks to continually roll over or restructure bad loans. This is particularly prevalent in parts of the Eurozone where banks are especially weak, such as Italy.

A Bank of America report from July posits that the UK accounts for a staggering one third of all zombie companies in Europe. They represent 20% of all companies in the U.K, up four percentage points since March, according to a new paper by the conservative think tank Onward. In the two hardest-hit sectors — accommodation and food services, and arts, entertainment and recreation — the proportion of zombie firms has soared by 9 and 11 percentage points respectively, to 23% and 26%.

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“Prolonged Period of Risk to Institutional and Retail Investors of Further – Possibly Significant – Market Corrections”

“Prolonged Period of Risk to Institutional and Retail Investors of Further – Possibly Significant – Market Corrections”

European Market Regulator flags big issues, including the “decoupling of financial market performance and underlying economic activity.”

The European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) warned of a “prolonged period of risk to institutional and retail investors of further – possibly significant – market corrections and very high risks” across its jurisdiction.

“Of particular concern” is the sustainability of the recent market rebound and the potential impact of another broad market sell-off on EU corporates and their credit quality, as well as on credit institutions.

The “decoupling of financial market performance and underlying economic activity” — the worst economic crisis in a lifetime — is raising serious questions about “the sustainability of the market rebound,” ESMA says in its Trends, Risks and Vulnerabilities Report of 2020.

Beyond the immediate risks posed by a second wave of infections, other external events, such as Brexit or trade tensions between the US and China, could further destabilize fragile market conditions in the near term.

From a long-term perspective, the crisis is likely to affect economic activity permanently, “owing to lasting unemployment or structural changes, which might have an impact on future earnings.” The increase in private and public sector debt could also give rise to solvency and sustainability issues.

In corporate bond markets, spreads have narrowed but they remain well above pre-crisis levels, owing to heightened credit risk and underlying vulnerabilities related to high corporate leverage. There was also a wide divergence across sectors and asset classes in April and May. Across non-financials, the automotive sector suffered the largest decline, followed by the energy sector.

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Turkey’s 2nd Financial & Currency Crisis in 2 Years Blossoms. Heavily Invested European Banks Look for Exit. But Not the Most Exposed Bank

Turkey’s 2nd Financial & Currency Crisis in 2 Years Blossoms. Heavily Invested European Banks Look for Exit. But Not the Most Exposed Bank

Big Gamble that was hot for years has gone sour after Turkish lira’s plunge and surge of defaults on bank debts denominated in foreign currency.

As the Turkish lira logged fresh record lows against both the dollar and the euro on Friday, and is now down 19% this year against the dollar, attention is turning once again to the potential risks facing lenders. They include a handful of very big Eurozone banks that are heavily exposed to Turkey’s economy via large amounts in loans — much of it in euros — through banks they acquired in Turkey. And the strains are beginning to replay those of the last currency/financial crisis in 2018.

When the Money Runs Out…

Subordinate bonds of Turkiye Garanti Bankasi AS, which is majority owned by Spanish lender BBVA, together with two other local banks — Turkiye Is Bankasi AS and Akbank TAS — are trading at distressed levels (yields of over 10 percentage points above U.S. Treasuries), even though the banks are still profitable and said to be highly capitalized. This is an indication of the amount of confidence investors have in the ability of these companies to repay their obligations.

Three weeks ago, when the lira was trading within a tight band against the dollar — the result of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey (CBRT) pegging the lira to the dollar by burning through billions of dollars of already depleted foreign-exchange reserves and dollars borrowed from Turkish banks — no corporate bonds in Turkey were trading at these levels. Now that the CBRT has stopped propping up the lira, which has since fallen 7% against the dollar, the average risk premium demanded by investors to hold dollar-denominated notes of Turkish businesses has soared.

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Confession Time for Big Banks in Europe: Banco Santander Reports $12.7 Billion Loss

Confession Time for Big Banks in Europe: Banco Santander Reports $12.7 Billion Loss

Too-Big-To-Fail Santander is also one of the Eurozone’s worst capitalized banks.

Banco Santander, Spain’s largest lender and one of the Eurozone’s eight global systemically important banks (G-SIBs), has posted its first ever loss in 163 years of operations. And it was gargantuan. During the first half of the year, the bank racked up a loss of €10.8 billion ($12.7 billion).

The loss was caused by heavy provisions for expected loan losses. This quarter wiped out the equivalent of one-and-a-half years of the bank’s global profits — in 2019, it posted total global profits of €6.5 billion, and in 2018 of €7.8 billion.

The losses were the result of a €2.5 billion charge related to the recoverability of tax deferred assets as well a €10.1 billion write-down on assets across a number of key overseas markets:

  • In the UK: €6.1 billion write-down of “goodwill” — amount overpaid for prior acquisitions, which included Abbey National and Alliance and Leicester. Santander already took a €1.5 billion write-down on the value of its UK business last year, blaming new regulations and the expected economic fallout from Brexit.
  • In the US: €2.3 billion write-down for Santander Consumer USA, which specializes in consumer lending, particularly subprime lending, and these consumer loans are now particularly at risk.
  • In Poland, its largest market in Eastern Europe: €1.2 billion goodwill impairments charge.
  • In its consumer finance division, which is present in 15 markets: €477 million hit.

Santander’s shares initially reacted to the news by slumping 5.8%. They then staged a partial recovery, only to slump again, ending the day down nearly 5%. Shares are down an eye-watering 45% this year, making it one of the continent’s worst-performing large financial institutions.

“The past six months have been among the most challenging in our history,” Santander’s Chairwoman Ana Botin said in a statement. “The impact of the pandemic has tested us all.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

What Happens If Most Businesses & Consumers Tighten Their Belts at the Same Time?

What Happens If Most Businesses & Consumers Tighten Their Belts at the Same Time?

Europe may be about to find out. 128 days with my Mother-in-Law.

As market players cling to the hope that a V-shaped economic recovery is still possible in Europe, to match the central-bank engineered rebounds of benchmark indexes such as Germany’s DAX and the Netherlands’ AEX, the reality on the ground continues to get worse for many families and businesses. On Tuesday, the Bank of Italy published the findings of a survey of Italian households on the impact of the lockdown. As you’d expect, most of the findings were pretty bleak:

  • More than half of the respondents said they have suffered a contraction of household income following the measures adopted to contain the epidemic.
  • Fifteen percent of households have lost more than half their income.
  • Some 40% of families are struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments.
  • More than half of the survey’s respondents believe that even when the epidemic is over, they will spend less on travel, holidays, restaurants, cinema and theaters than they did before the crisis.

No V-Shaped Recovery.

For most of these people, there will be no V-shaped recovery. Not only are they spending less money today, they expect to spend less tomorrow. While it’s true that people often say all kinds of stuff in surveys about how they will act in the future and then not stick to it, this particular response chimes with my own experience as well as the accounts I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances in countries as far and wide as Spain (where I live), the UK (where I’m from), Mexico (where my wife is from), France, Argentina and the U.S.

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What Horrified Fund Managers, Banks & UK’s Pension Minister Said About the Bank of England’s Sudden “We Don’t Rule Out” Negative Interest Rates

What Horrified Fund Managers, Banks & UK’s Pension Minister Said About the Bank of England’s Sudden “We Don’t Rule Out” Negative Interest Rates

“The stimulus the country urgently needs is not experimental and dangerous monetary policy.”

Andrew Bailey, the recently appointed governor of the Bank of England (BoE), is considering going where no other BoE governor has ever gone in the central bank’s 325-year history: into negative interest rate territory. On May 20, Bailey told British MPs that the BoE is refusing to rule out cutting the benchmark interest rate below zero in response to the virus crisis.

“We do not rule things out as a matter of principle. That would be a foolish thing to do,” Bailey told MPs. “But that doesn’t mean we rule things in either.”

That statement came just six days after Bailey had told FT readers that negative interest rates are “not something we are currently planning for or contemplating.” Since then, Bailey says he has “changed [his] position a bit.”

Bailey, who replaced Mark Carney as BoE governor just two months ago, is not the only senior BoE official who’s apparently warming to the idea of foisting negative interest rates on the British economy.

So, too, has the central bank’s chief economist Andrew Haldane, who last week said: “The economy is weaker than a year ago and we are now at the effective lower bound, so in that sense it’s something we’ll need to look at – are looking at – with somewhat greater immediacy. How could we not be?”

In the wake of the virus crisis, the Bank of England has already slashed interest rates by 0.65 basis points to 0.1%, its lowest level ever. It has also revved up its swap lines with the Federal Reserve and other central banks, offered billions of pounds of fresh liquidity support to banks, and expanded its QE program by £100 billion to £745 billion and extended what it buys to include corporate bonds.

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Third Mega-Crisis in 12 Years: Eurozone Economy Plunges at Fastest Rate on Record

Third Mega-Crisis in 12 Years: Eurozone Economy Plunges at Fastest Rate on Record

First the Global Financial Crisis, then the Euro Debt Crisis, now the Big One.

In its 21 years of official existence, the Eurozone has already been through two brutal crises — the Global Financial Crisis and one of its own doing, the Euro Debt Crisis — that nearly tore the bloc apart. Now, it is in the grip of another one that is already exacting a larger toll than the first two, despite having barely begun.

The preliminary GDP in the first quarter for the Eurozone, GDP fell by 3.8%, according to Eurostat’s flash estimates (for the entire EU, it fell by 3.5%), “the sharpest declines observed since the time series started in 1995,” Eurostat said. This is despite the fact that most of the region’s lockdowns did not begin until mid-March:

All things considered, the Euro Area’s biggest economy, Germany, got off relatively lightly. It shrank by just (!!) 2.2% compared to the previous quarter. It was still its biggest contraction since the the Global Financial Crisis, more than a decade ago. German industrial production was particularly hard hit, tumbling by 11.6% year-on-year in March, when the lockdown forced factories to close. In Q4 2019, Germany’s GDP growth rate was already negative (-0.1%).

But many other Euro Area countries fared a lot worse. Of the four worst performing economies, three are the bloc’s second, third and fourth largest, France, Italy and Spain, which between them account for almost 45% of Euro Area GDP. The other was Slovakia. Spain, Italy and France suffered more cases of Covid-19 and resulting fatalities than any other countries in the Euro Area. They also imposed the most draconian lockdowns. The impact on their economies has been brutal.

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European Banks Reveal Scale & Complexity of Crisis. Shares Hammered Back to 1987 Level

European Banks Reveal Scale & Complexity of Crisis. Shares Hammered Back to 1987 Level

They haven’t gotten over Financial Crisis 1 and the Euro Debt Crisis. Now there’s a new crisis. Deutsche Bank’s CEO going on TV to soothe nerves didn’t help matters.

The biggest European banks have started to report their earnings against a bleak backdrop of locked down economies, plunging economic activity, surging business closures and rising loan defaults. Each earnings call laid bare the scale, scope and complexity of the problems and challenges facing a European banking sector that never really recovered from their last two crises — the Global Financial Crisis followed by the Euro Debt Crisis.

The Stoxx 600 Banks index, which covers major European banks, fell 4.5% on Thursday. Today, continental European stock markets were closed (May Day), but the London Stock Exchange was open, and the index ticked down another 1% (to 88.8). The Stoxx 600 Banks index has already collapsed by 40% since Feb 17, when the Coronavirus began spreading through northern Italy. After the initial 40%-plus plunge in late February and early March, the index has remained in the same dismally low range:

On April 21, the Stoxx 600 Banks Index had closed at 79.8, down 83% since its peak in May 2007, and the lowest since 1987. The following day, the ECB announced it was going to accept junk bonds as collateral when banks borrow from it. Yesterday, the ECB was excepted to go even further and announce that it would actually buy junk-rated bonds, as the Federal Reserve announced a few weeks ago. But the ECB didn’t announce it, and the Fed hasn’t bought any junk bonds yet either.

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Life Under Draconian Lockdown: I Can Barely See the Light at the End of this Long, Dark Tunnel

Life Under Draconian Lockdown: I Can Barely See the Light at the End of this Long, Dark Tunnel

The process of reopening Spain has been dubbed, rather ominously, “Operation New Normality.”

“Is there any light at the end of this long dark tunnel?” That’s a question many people are asking themselves in Spain, whose government has implemented one of the most draconian anti-Covid lockdown regimes in the world and is now beginning to loosen some of the restrictions. Sunday was the first time in 43 days that children were allowed to venture out, albeit only for a maximum of one hour. And only if they were accompanied by one adult. And under the age of 14.

It was hardly a return to normality, but after six long weeks of being cooped up at home, most of the children and their parents were happy to take up the invitation of a little fresh air, a few rays of sunshine and some open space. For the first time in a month and a half, the streets and squares of villages, towns and cities across Spain were alive with the sound of people.

This being Spain, not everyone obeyed the government’s slightly loosened rules. From the vantage point of our balcony, in the Exiample Dreta district of Barcelona, my wife and I could see many children being shepherded by both of their parents. We could also spot groups of families together as well as opportunistic childless couples who were hoping to blend in with the crowds unnoticed. Some got away with it. Others were stopped by the police and given a stern warning or fined.

Since the lockdown began in Spain some 740,000 people — the equivalent of 18,000 per day — have been fined for breaking the government’s Covid-19 rules, according to El País.

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Demand for Bank Notes in Dollars & Euros Spikes Despite Fears of Covid-19 Contaminated Cash

Demand for Bank Notes in Dollars & Euros Spikes Despite Fears of Covid-19 Contaminated Cash

A curious phenomenon. 

In the United States, as coronavirus concerns grew and state after state went into lockdown, and as consumption plunged and unemployment exploded at a previously unimaginable rate, the amount of physical dollars in circulation spiked to $1.89 trillion, as of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet on April 16, having jumped 9.1% compared to a year earlier.

During the darkest days of the Financial Crisis, the demand for U.S. dollar banknotes spiked at year-over-year rates of over 8% for ten straight months and peaked at rate of 11%. But that was nothing compared to what happened during the Y2K craze, when fears that computer systems would malfunction when dates rolled over in the new millennium triggered a mad rush for US dollar banknotes. In December 1999 the total value of dollar bills in circulation spiked by 16.9% from a year earlier, the highest rate since the war-years of the 1940s:

The total value of euro banknotes in circulation in March, as countries across the Eurozone went into Covid-19 triggered lockdowns, increased by €36 billion from February, to €1.31 trillion, according to the ECB. It was the fastest monthly increase since October 2008. And it was up 8.1% from a year earlier. This all happened as consumption in the region slumped to unprecedented levels.

Bank notes denominated in US dollars and euros, the two biggest global reserve currencies, are stashed away in large quantities in other countries with unstable currencies, and they’re used to trade certain types or merchandise on the global black market. The euro is also used as currency in some areas that are not part of the Eurozone. And the dollar is used actively in countries that are either fully or partially dollarized. The Fed has estimatedthat around 70% of 100 dollar bills, which account for nearly 80% of the total value of U.S. currency, are held abroad.

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Farm-Labor Crisis under COVID-19 Sends Countries Scrambling

Farm-Labor Crisis under COVID-19 Sends Countries Scrambling

Miserable, crowded living conditions of Europe’s foreign farm workers put them at much greater risk. And they’re staying away.

In one of the many paradoxes of the new world we live in, Western European countries that have seen millions of jobs wiped out in a matter of weeks are now facing an acute shortage of agricultural laborers.

Farmers in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the UK and other parts of Western Europe have come to rely on huge numbers of cheap labor from Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Now, those workers are either no longer able to make it to the farms or are choosing to stay with their families in their home countries.

This is leading to an “alarming” shortage of farmhands, warns the EU in an as yet unpublished report. The report blames the shortage on two main factors:

  • The restrictions on the movement of workers between EU countries to combat the spread of Covid-19;
  • And the miserable, crowded living conditions in which many imported farm workers live, which put them at much greater risk of contracting the virus.

In Spain a record 900,000 workers dropped off Spain’s social security register of employees in the last two and a half weeks of March, yet farm associations are complaining that they’re short of over 100,000 workers to help pick the fruit, vegetables and tobacco that are now ready for harvest.

“Vineyards are paralyzed because there’s no one to install the conduction system; there are no day laborers to prune the olive trees or remove the weeds in the onion farms; there are not even enough hands to tie the garlic bundles”, says agricultural engineer Arturo Serrano. “All of these crops have work cycles that are governed by nature and cannot be postponed.”

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The Crisis in Catalonia & What I Saw in Our Neighborhood in Barcelona

The Crisis in Catalonia & What I Saw in Our Neighborhood in Barcelona

As separatist region is rocked by violence, businesses sound alarm.

Two of Catalonia’s biggest business associations, Foment de Treball and Pimec, have called for calm and dialogue after ten days of non-stop political and civil unrest in the separatist region of Spain. At a gathering of almost 450 Catalan business people and executives on Wednesday, the two associations called for a political solution to what they described as “the grave conflict we are living through in Catalonia,” a region that is riven down the middle by the question of independence.

A key passage in the event’s joint manifesto hinted at why the crisis shows no sign of abating: “It is the responsibility of politicians, and not the justice system,” to find an “effective and decisive” solution to this conflict. Unfortunately, political dialogue and negotiation have been sorely lacking in relations between Barcelona and Madrid for a number of years. And there’s little sign of that changing. 

As general elections approach, Spain’s main political parties, with the notable exception of the left-wing Podemos, are hardening their stance toward the Catalan separatists. For its part, the separatist government in Barcelona is doubling down on its calls for independence. If the elections on November 10 deliver enough votes for the triumvirate of Spain’s right-wing parties (the People’s Party, Cuidadanos and the far-right Vox, whose support appears to be growing) to form a coalition, they will crack down even harder on Catalan nationalism, which is likely to fuel even stronger pro-independence sentiment in the region.

A little more than two years have passed since more than two million people in Catalonia voted in a banned referendum to leave Spain. On that day, the separatists were given a harsh lesson in the raw power of state violence.

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Metro Bank Teeters after Bond Sale Fails. Shares Collapsed 95%

Metro Bank Teeters after Bond Sale Fails. Shares Collapsed 95%

Hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen and Michael Bloomberg are among those ruing the day they bought the crushed shares of the UK bank touted as a “bargain.”

Even by its own recent standards, Metro Bank has had a torrid week. On Monday, shares of the British retail bank tumbled 5%, on Tuesday, 25%, on Wednesday, 5%, and on Thursday, 4.5%, before staging a brief comeback in the final hours of trading on Friday, to end the week 35% lower. By Friday morning, it was the second most-shorted stock on the FTSE all shares index, behind the collapsed travel & vacation-giant Thomas Cook.

The main trigger for this week’s rout was the bank’s failure on Monday to raise a much-needed £250 million by issuing non-preferred bonds that deeply skeptical investors spurned. Despite trying to lure buyers with an interest rate of 7.5%, double the rate of similar offerings, Metro only attracted £175 million worth of orders, prompting the embattled lender to pull the plug on the bond sale.

“Failure to get enough support for a product that is yielding 7.5% is quite remarkable when you consider how investors are struggling to find generous levels of income in the current market,” said Russ Mould, the investment director of AJ Bell. “It suggests that investors don’t trust the bank or they believe the 7.5% yield is simply not high enough to compensate for the risks of owning such a product.”

Metro Bank opened for business in 2010, becoming Britain’s first new high street bank in over 100 years. One of a handful of so-called “Challenger Banks” — new retail lenders created after the crisis to provide a little more banking competition in a country where the five biggest banks control a staggering 85% of the market — Metro Bank proved particularly adept at luring disillusioned clients from the big banks.

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Use of “Hidden Debt Loophole” Spreads Among Australian Corporations

Use of “Hidden Debt Loophole” Spreads Among Australian Corporations

Situation already so bad that hiding debt becomes a priority?

Australian engineering group UGL, which is working on large infrastructure projects such as Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and Melbourne’s Metro Trains, recently sent a letter to suppliers and sub-contractors informing them that as of October 15, they will be paid 65 days after the end of the month in which their invoices are issued. The company’s policy had been, until then, to settle invoices within 30 days.

The letter then mentioned that if the suppliers want to get paid sooner than the new 65-day period, they can get their money from UGL’s new finance partner, Greensill Capital, one of the biggest players in the fast growing supply chain financing industry, in an arrangement known as “reverse factoring”. But it will cost them.

Reverse factoring is a controversial financing technique that played a major role in the collapse of UK construction giant Carillion, enabling it to conceal from investors, auditors and regulators the true magnitude of its debt.

Here’s how it works: a company hires a financial intermediary, such as a bank or a specialist firm such as Greensill, to pay a supplier promptly (e.g. 15 days after invoicing), in return for a discount on their invoices. The company repays the intermediary at a later date. This effectively turns the company’s accounts payable into debt that is owned a financial institution. But this debt is not disclosed as debt and remains hidden.

In its letter to suppliers, UGL trumpeted that the payment changes would “benefit both our businesses,” though many suppliers struggled to see how. One subcontractor interviewed byThe Australian Financial Reviewcomplained that the changes were “outrageous” and put small suppliers at a huge disadvantage since they did not have the power to challenge UGL. Some subcontractors contacted by AFR refused to be quoted out of fear of reprisal from UGL.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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