Western European Banks' Exposure to Eastern Europe

This article is a translation of an article on my Swedish language blog.

Last week I wrote about Eastern Europe's loans from Western European Banks (in Swedish). Now I've taken the latest figures from BIS and made graphs to illustrate how the situation is. Please note that the figures are only for claims from banks. There may be other lenders too, but it's not as easy to find statistics for them.

First I'll present an illustration of which Eastern European countries have borrowed most. The colours indicate which in Western European countries the they have borrowed from belong. Click the graph for a sharper version.This graph shows clearly that we don't need to worry too much about Western Europe's banks if Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Belarus, Albania, Bosnia or Serbia should be hit by a collapse of the economy and currency, since their loan volumes are relatively small. The other countries, however, are potential threats to Western Europe's banks. This becomes especially clear when one Western European country has a large proportion of the lending to a certain Eastern European country, e.g. Sweden to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Huge figures have been floating around when it comes to the exposure of Western European banks to Eastern Europe, but the total sum of bank lending is "only" slightly more than 1.4 trillion dollars, which should be quite close to the actual figure. This is still, however, a very large figure.

Now I'm going to look at it from "the other side", i.e. divided per lender country instead.Here you can see that Austria is at the top of the risk list for lending to Eastern Europe. As for Sweden we can note that the major part of the lending is to the three Baltic states. Since these three economies risk following each other, Sweden is much more exposed to a single risk factor.

However, absolute numbers don't often say that much. If Italy lends a bit over 200 billion dollars that's a larger share of the country's GDP than if Germany lends the same amount. So below I compare the banks' lending to Eastern Europe to the GDP of the countries (taken from the 2008 GDP estimates from the CIA Factbook).Then you suddenly see what a huge risk Austria is taking! Their banks have lent roughly 64% of the country's GDP just to Eastern Europe! Even a mild crisis in Eastern Europe would thus probably suffice to topple Austria's banks - we don't even need a serious crisis. The biggest Austrian claims are on Czechia, Romania and Hungary. At least Romania and Hungary are already on the problem radar...

By Austrian measures the other Western European countries have taken limited risks towards Eastern Europe, even if they definitely aren't negligible. Belgium's banks have lent about 25% of Belgium's GDP to Eastern Europe, and Swedish banks about 20% of our GDP, most of it to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Let us also take a look at which Eastern European countries have borrowed the most in relation to their GDP, and thus have taken a large risk. This is according to my usual identification mechanism for potential problems in this crisis. Large loans = large problem risk.Here you can see that Croatia and Estonia are in a risk class of their own. Their claims from foreign banks are more than 120% of their GDP. But Latvia, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Bulgaria are also risk factors that cannot be ignored (the nominal sum of their borrowing according to the first graph in this article also plays a part here). Add to this the fact that GDP for many Eastern European countries is now falling rapidly, and we will quickly get even bigger loans-to-gdp ratios.

Part of the risk is also the currency risk. A large part of the loans from Western to Eastern Europe are denominated in euros or Swiss francs. This causes payment difficulties when the local currency sinks against the euro and/or the franc. Unfortunately I don't have any figures for how much of the loans are denominated in foreign currencies, but we can take a look at how some currencies have moved against the euro since the end of August last year.Here you can see that Ukraine's hryvnia and Poland's zloty have fared worst. We have all heard about Ukraine's problems, but there has not been much mention of Poland during this crisis. Hungary, Romania, Russia and Czechia have also been hit by falling currencies, though not as badly.

To conclude, we can see that the banks of several Western European countries have taken large risks towards the now faltering economies of Eastern Europe. There is an immediate risk that for example a currncy and/or economic collapse in one of the risk countries I've presented above could topple e.g. Austria's banks. This in turn would probably give serious repercussions for the whole euro area (Austria is part of it). As I see it it is only a matter of time before something drastic happens. Exactly what will happen is hard to predict, but Sweden is definitely also in the risk zone.

In this context it is interesting to note that the bank crisis of 1931 had its origins in Austria, where their then largest bank Creditanstalt went bankrupt in May of that year. Will we get a replay?

P.S. I recommend the following two articles by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph for those who want to read more about the risks from Eastern Europe:
Failure to save East Europe will lead to worldwide meltdown
Eastern European currencies crumble as fears of debt crisis grow


Swedish and Danish Kronas and Interest Rates

This is a partial translation of my original article in Swedish.

Sweden and Denmark have gone different ways when it comes to currencies. Both countries have kronas, as you probably know, and have not joined the euro. But while the Danish krona is pegged to the euro through the European Exchange Rate Mechanism ERM the Swedish krona has no peg. This can be seen from how the Swedish krona, being a small currency, fluctuates much more than the euro against the dollar.As you can see from the graph above one paid about 9.30-9.50 Swedish kronor for a euro until the beginning of September 2008. When the crisis then gained momentum the krona fell against the euro so that one at times had to pay more than 11 kronor for a euro (today we're at 10.76 kronor per euro). This means that the krona lost about 13% against the euro, just because we have a small currency, which is not attractive to investors in a crisis. Theoretically a weak currency should be good for our export industry (Sweden runs a current account surplus) but in a global crisis where world trade is generally diminishing one can question how much this is worth.

The Danish krona however has been stable around 7.45 DKK/EUR all the time - lucky them, one could believe. But the Danes have been hit by something else - look at the diagram below for the rates of the Danish central bank (red), the European Central Bank (blue) and the Swedish central bank (green):Danmarks nationalbank had to raise their rate at the beginning of October to defend the value of the Danish krona against the euro, when ECB and Sweden instead lowered their rates to cushion the effects of the financial crisis. Even though the Danish central bank rate has been lowered in three steps since then, it is still a good deal higher than the ECB rate, which has also been lowered during this period. The higher interest rate climate in Denmark can also be seen when you look at the interbank rates - Danish 3 month CIBOR was at 3.9317% today, while Swedish 3 month STIBOR was at 2.023%. A rather hefty difference, I would say. So this is the price Denmark pays for its stronger currency.

Now voices are being raised in Sweden for us to join the euro. The Swedish small enterprises association's leader Anna-Stina Nordmark Nilsson and professor of economics Harry Flam have written an article each in Sweden's two largest newspapers where they argue for joining the euro. Well, it might not be very good timing to join the euro now, when it seems the euro co-operation itself might break.

Anyway, Sweden cannot join the euro straight away, since a country's currency must be part of the ERM for two years first according to the rules. So the Swedish euro friends will have to wait for the continuing onslaught of the financial crisis before they get what they want.