Why European Banks are Undercapitalized and What Should Be Done About It
Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, 2017
21 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018 Last revised: 9 Mar 2019
Date Written: November 4, 2017
Major European banks are significantly undercapitalized as compared to large American banks, and, more importantly, as compared to the capital levels they would need to survive another severe financial crisis. Bank capital shortfalls in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, in particular, are largely the consequence of European bank regulations that: (1) apply static risk weights to assets like mortgages and sovereign debt; (2) fail to require an overall market‐based capital ratio that is high enough to enable banks to survive a severe financial crisis; (3) fail to get banks to promptly write down their impaired assets to market value; (4) subject banks to weak stress tests that can create a false impression of capital adequacy; and (5) fail to compel banks to retain sufficient earnings and to raise sufficient capital externally to eliminate capital shortfalls promptly, all apparently out of fear that being tougher might cause investors and customers to lose confidence in the banks. This article summarizes important recent independent bank stress testing that has quantified the capital shortfalls in European banks. The recent highly publicized regulatory interventions to resolve failing European banks were inevitable due to these shortfalls. The authors recommend steps European bank regulators should take to address the problem and to eliminate the risk of serious capital shortfalls. In the absence of such steps, bank depositors, customers, and security holders should be prepared to expect further unwelcome surprises as the risks inherent in allowing undercapitalized banks to operate will continue to materialize in more bank failures.
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