ECB reviews more than €150 billion in bank loans at risk of default

The supervisor detected risk management weaknesses in the European financial sector and launches a review to prepare banks for economic and geopolitical shocks.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has launched a joint action on European banks to review the portfolio of loans classified under special surveillance, according to financial sources close to the single supervisor. In Spain, the five large institutions (CaixaBank, Santander, BBVA, Sabadell and Bankinter) have a stock of almost 155,000 million euros in these loans.

The ECB is concerned about a sudden burst of non-performing loans (NPL) after a historic rise in interest rates and is trying to prepare the ground for banks. Loans under special surveillance, which fall into the stage 2 or phase 2 category, as it is known in financial jargon, are not non-performing, but the risk of default is considered to have grown significantly in recent months.

Official ECB sources point out that the review of loans at risk of default is part of a specific action under the IFRS9 accounting rules. This rule came into force four years ago and obliges banks to classify as doubtful credit loans unpaid for 90 days and to upgrade to ‘stage 2’ only those in which customers have delayed payment of instalments for one month.

At the end of 2022, according to the latest published accounts, Santander is the Spanish entity with the most loans under special surveillance: 69,100 million. These figures are group-wide and reflect the larger size of the group chaired by Ana Botín, which has more than one trillion in assets spread around the world. They represent 6.2% of its entire credit portfolio.

BBVA declares an exposure of 37,277 million in the group, 8.8%, and CaixaBank 30,616 million, almost 8% of the total. Sabadell has a stock of 14,337 million in loans under special surveillance, a weight of 8.4%, while Bankinter has just 2,851 million.

Fears of a sudden burst of delinquencies

The ‘campaign’, as the ECB calls this type of global action, has been going on since the beginning of the year due to fears of a sudden outbreak of non-performing loans. The supervisor, according to the sources consulted, expects a sudden rise in the default rate especially from 2024, when the increase in the price of money starts to have a greater effect on economic activity.

Pablo Hernández de Cos, governor of the Bank of Spain, warned that credit on special surveillance increased by 7% in the case of households last year. “We must not forget the existing risks, some of which have not yet materialised. Institutions must maintain a proactive attitude in risk measurement and in provisioning and capital policy,” the Bank of Spain governor urged.

The ECB has also been calling for months for banks to take a “prudent approach” to managing risks and bolstering provisions, or at least not to release the extra provisions for the pandemic. The head of supervision at the Eurobank, Andrea Enria, points in particular to the deterioration observed in the consumer loan portfolio, which is a thermometer of economic health. “The dynamics of distressed loans (stage 2 loans), whose average ratio increased slightly in 2022, should be closely monitored,” the Eurobank’s head of supervision said at the presentation of the institution’s supervisory priorities.

Bankers complain that rate rises will not only generate extra income, with the price of money at 3%, but will also have a negative side: they will lead to more non-performing loans. For the moment, the big banks have the default rate under control, with an average of around 3%, and the sector rules out a large increase in defaults at least this year.

Original Story: Vox Populi | Rubén Sampedro 
Photo: ECB main building
Edition and translation: Prime Yield