Spain’s Financial Crisis: First Principles

Europe’s debt crisis has many contributing elements: bloated government bureaucracies, unaffordable social welfare programs, and productivity stifling labor and commercial laws.  However, none is as central as the condition and behavior of those European banks that overlent to and undercharged many European governments, and whose potential insolvency should one or more European governments default (as Greece has already to some extent) has dominated the EU’s slow, halting approach to dealing with it. Focusing on the case of Spain, the following note illustrates the importance for the future of Europe’s financial markets of resolving the banking sector’s problems properly.


In some respects the financial and debt situation of Spain is similar to that of the U.S.[1] Its central government debt is less than the U.S.’ and Germany’s (68%, 103%, and 83% respectively). This year its public sector deficit is expected to be 5.9% (8.5% last year), less than the U.S. at 7.6%, but more than Germany’s at 1.3%. Its total debt (public and private) to foreigners (external debt) is less as well (84%, 103%, and 142% respectively). Spain’s housing bubble and subsequent collapse were average. The decline in Spain’s real housing prices from their peak in 2007 of about 20% was about the same as the UK’s and the Euro zone’s and less than in Ireland and the U.S.

To over simplify, what sets Spain apart is a) its lack of competitiveness (its current account deficit with the rest of the world relative to GDP was 9.6% in 2008 and is currently almost 3% while the Euro area as a whole is balanced – i.e., 0); b) the heavy reliance of its banks on borrowed funds (its loan to deposit ratio is about 150% compared with 80% for U.S. banks; and c) its banks’ large exposure to the real estate and construction sectors (56.5% compared to 30% for U.S. banks). In addition, Spanish and European banks in general operate on much less capital than do American banks. Going into the recent financial crisis—2007—the ratio of total European bank assets to capital—i.e., the leverage ratio—averaged around 30, while for American banks it averaged around 13 (i.e. capital gearing ratios of 3.3% and 7.7% respectively).

Spain was confident that it could make sufficient budgetary and policy adjustments to convince markets that it was still safe to lend to while gradually winding down excess spending and liberalizing rigid labor and product markets (its no bailout strategy). But after four years of inadequate measures Spanish voters ousted the Socialist Party and gave the center right party of Mariano Rajoy a solid majority in Parliament with a mandate to move more aggressively. Prime Minister Rajoy’s reform program has been a mixed bag (see “Spain’s Economic Reforms: A Mixed Bag”). The central government’s spending and deficit are falling rapidly, though excessive regional government spending remains a problem. Labor market reform has been quite quick and strong and is already producing improvements in competitiveness. However, Spain has fallen back into recession and unemployment is the highest in Europe at over 24%.  (see Rajoy government reform program)

Spain’s Banks

Spain’s primary vulnerability comes from its banks. In fact, a central feature of the European debt crisis is the relatively large exposure of European banks, including German banks, to the sovereign debts of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain, etc. If depositors think that their deposits are at risk, they will move them. If they think all banks in Spain suffer this risk, they will move them out of Spain to other banks that accept Euros. If depositors withdraw their deposits too rapidly (i.e., bank runs) then even solvent, well capitalized banks can have trouble liquidating assets fast enough to fund the withdrawals. The total deposits of Greek banks have fallen from 245 billion at the end of 2009 to 175 billion at the end of April 2012. However, Spanish banks’ deposits have not begun to decline until very recently.

Countries limit the risk of deposit runs by explicitly insuring bank deposits up to a limit and/or by standing ready to intervene (bailout) failing banks. In Spain, all deposits are insured up to 100,000 per depositor. If governments guarantee all deposits as a result of a comment to bail out insolvent banks, deposit insurance is redundant and not needed. Even a full deposit guarantee provides some market discipline of bank behavior if the regulator intervenes promptly when a bank becomes insolvent, because shareholders lose all of their investment in the bank. Market discipline is strengthened further if bank bondholders also incur losses when the assets of an intervened bank are not sufficient to cover their repayment.

The Importance of Bank Capital

Without deposit insurance or government deposit guarantees, their bank’s capital is the primary protection for depositors against the risk of loss.  If depositors think that their bank’s capital is too low to cover potential losses, they will move their deposits to safer banks. Unfortunately, the value of a bank’s capital cannot be known with certainty. Economic capital (net worth) is the difference between the value of assets and the value of liabilities. A large share of banks’ assets is loans. The value of a loan is less than its face (book) value if it is not repaid fully or on time. It is impossible to know for sure which loans are “good” and which are doubtful and how doubtful they might be in the future.

Minimizing the risk of deposit runs via capital adequacy consists of three elements:

  1. The level of capital banks are required to hold in normal times (dynamic or cyclically adjusted capital requirements deserve more serious attention) must be sufficient to absorb possible losses. Higher capital requirements provide more deposit protection.
  2. The rules for valuing assets and thus capital must reflect their real value as best as possible. Most bank loans have no secondary market from which to measure their value. Thus bank regulators have established rules of thumb for estimating the probable loss in value for loans that are not performing or are at risk of falling into arrears and potentially defaulting. Banks are required to provision (write down capital) to cover such probable losses. This is the equivalent of “marking to market” the probable value of loans that have no market. Loan valuation and loan loss provisions need to realistically reflect and cover the most likely repayment outcomes.
  3. Depositors must have confidence in the adequacy of the first two measures and the faithfulness with which banks apply them. This is the issue of transparency. The recent deployment of stress tests, when properly explained (especially when undertaken by third parties, such as the IMF), is meant to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the adequacy of measured capital.

The risks to Spanish bank depositors come primarily from three sources:

  1. The potential losses from loans to Spain’s now busted housing and construction markets and from holdings of sovereign debt of Greece are uncertain and have almost certainly been underestimated and under provisioned in the past. Significant exposure to Spanish sovereign debt is now becoming an issue as well. Capital injections are needed just to keep actual capital at currently reported levels. Higher levels of capital are needed to compensate depositors for the uncertainty of the actual level of capital.
  2. The ability of Spain to honor its deposit insurance commitments or its implicit commitments to cover deposits in the event of an intervention are increasingly in doubt because the ability of the Spanish government to borrow additional amounts to cover such commitments is in doubt.
  3. The ability of banks to fund their loans from non-deposit sources or to fund deposit withdrawals even if they are well capitalized are in doubt in current market conditions. This is a liquidity problem, not a solvency problem, and should be handled by the provision of central bank liquidity.

Spanish banks fund a large part of their loans with relatively short-term borrowed money rather than deposits. Access to such funds has become difficult and expensive. From the beginning of central banking, a core function of central banks has been to provide banks with the liquidity they need in such circumstances. The long-established principle is that the central bank should provide illiquid but solvent banks with all the liquidity they need (generally by lending to them against good collateral), but should not lend to insolvent banks (banks lacking sufficient good assets to cover their deposit and other liabilities). The ECB’s three-year Long Term Refinancing Operation is addressing banks’ liquidity problem (#3).

But even without deposit runs (or walks), Spanish and other European banks (especially) need to reduce the extent to which they lend long-term on the basis of short-term borrowed funds. They can only do so by reducing lending until their deposits finance a larger share of it and/or by increasing capital. The bank deleveraging now underway around the world is an important source of reduced bank lending and the slow pace of recovery (see Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff, “This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly”).

Spanish banks were better capitalized than most at the onset of the international financial crisis but more recently have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the collapse of Spain’s housing and construction markets. The government (previous and current) has taken measures to address banking sector weaknesses but always a bit behind the curve.  Seven failing cajas (regional savings banks heavily exposed to real estate) were merged in 2010 to form Bankia making it Spain’s fourth largest bank. In May the bank was largely nationalized (costing the Spanish government around 20 billion Euros to date) and trading of its shares was suspended on May 25, 2012. Deposit insurance was established then raised. Government guarantees of senior bank bond holdings were introduced (October 2008).

As time passed, depositors have only become more concerned about the safety of their deposits. In an effort to finally get ahead of the curve, the authorities have increased the provisions required against weak and doubtful loans and other assets, and initiated third-party stress tests of its banks. The IMF’s recent Financial Sector Stability Assessment found Spain’s large internationally active banks to be well capitalized and able to absorb the new capital strengthening requirements. However, its former savings banks and some of its medium and small private sector banks are more vulnerable and will need capital injections from the government to cover insured or guaranteed deposits. Because of its own financing difficulties, the government of Spain has turned to the EU to backstop its ability to recapitalize (replace capital lost by or potentially lost by defaulting loans) those of its banks with inadequate capital. For this purpose the EU has committed 100 billion.

The Way Forward

Deposit runs on Spanish banks (including the drying up of wholesale funding) can be prevented only by convincing depositors that their money is safe, i.e. that their banks have sufficient capital to cover any losses. This requires honest accounting and full implementation of the indicated provisioning, and adequate capital; or creditable government guarantees.

For the future health of Spanish banks, it is important that Spain’s banking interventions preserve the intended discipline of excessive risk taking that results from imposing losses on shareholders and senior bond holders while honoring its commitments to protect depositors. Thus liquidity support should only be given to solvent banks. Nonperforming loans should be properly provisioned. Banks that are critically undercapitalized and are unable to raise their own capital to required levels within a reasonable period should be intervened. Intervened banks should be resolved according to the least cost principle (least cost to the tax payer). Shareholders and senior bondholders should be wiped out before government money is injected to cover other liabilities. Viable banks should be continued and sold to new owners within a reasonable period of time. Non-viable banks should be wound down (liquidated) paying off all insured or guaranteed depositors with the help of public funds as needed.

In requesting EU financial assistance, Spain is committed to abiding by EU rules on state aid to banks. However, emergency responses to a financial crisis much too often produce the foundation of moral hazard and excessive risk taking that creates the next crises delaying true and long-lasting resolution. More market discipline of risk taking needs to be reintroduced via a sound bank resolution policy. Spain will contribute to the future soundness and vitality of its banking sector and that of all of Europe if it adheres to the above principles as it “cleans up” its financial sector.

[1] The International Monetary Fund’s “Financial Sector Stability Assessment”  provides an excellent summary as of May 2012.


About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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One Response to Spain’s Financial Crisis: First Principles

  1. Mark Winkle says:

    Looks like the EU is implementing my advice on creating a EU Monetary Reserve Banking System and beginning the process of political unification. Sure would like to have your input. But, if you can’t spare the time, oh well. Happy retirement. Must be nice to sit on the sidelines.

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