by Keith Fitz-Gerald | December 18, 2011 8:00 am
On Wednesday, Fitch Ratings downgraded its credit ratings on five of Europe’s biggest banks, and while that decision made headlines, it’s not the most important story to come out of Europe this week.
The real story, which the mainstream media is neglecting, is about signs of an underground run on Europe’s banks. Almost nobody’s talking about it, but there are indications money is already moving out of the EU faster than rats abandoning a sinking ship.
Not through the front door, mind you. There are no lines, no distraught customers and no teller windows being boarded up — not yet, anyway.
For now, the run is through the back door. Here are four things that make me think so:
Signs of a Run
Let’s start with Italy and Prime Minister Mario Monti‘s plans to restrict cash transactions over 1,000 euros (down from the current limit of 2,500 euros, or about $3,200).
Ostensibly, the move is about reducing tax evasion by prohibiting the movement of large sums of cash outside the official transactional system, but I think it speaks to something far more sinister — namely that the Italian government knows things are going to get far worse than its publicly admitting.
Consider: Cash is a stored value mechanism. There isn’t a lot of it because at any given time, most of it is on deposit with banks in any country. That’s as true in Italy as it is here in the U.S. when real interest rates are positive during “healthy” times.
But when real interest rates turn negative, people are likely to withdraw cash and stuff it, quite literally, under mattresses or in coffee tins. (Real interest rates are the official lending interest rates, as adjusted for inflation.)
In such an environment, holding cash in a bank becomes nothing more than an imputed tax and a disincentive for deposits. It’s also a significant thorn in the side of central bankers who want to control their country’s money supply, because cash can operate outside the system and, specifically, logjam reform efforts.
The reason is really pretty simple. If you have negative real interest rates, and cash transactions are largely restricted or removed altogether, then the only way to effectively use cash is to withdraw it and spend it — .immediately.
In other words, by limiting cash transactions to 1,000 euros or less, Italy is putting into place a punitive financial control fully intended to keep money moving in a system, lest it become worthless or worse — hoarded and worthless.
Now let’s move on to banks.
Many investors have never thought about it before, but a bank really has only three sources of funding:
Together, the three funding sources are like the legs on a stool — lose any one of them, and the stool will topple over. This is what’s happening now.
Individuals, pension funds and institutions alike are withdrawing funds from Italian, Spanish and French banks. Money has long since left Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
The thing is, though, it’s not just European money that’s fleeing. Various reports from The Economist, Bloomberg, CNBC and others suggest that American financials may have pulled more than 40% of their funds from all European banks and nearly two-thirds of their total deposits away from French banks. This is drying up short-term lending capacity and driving up interbank lending costs.
At the same time, money managers the world over are selling their European bonds. This is driving prices lower and yields higher to the point where the cost of debt is now prohibitive (bond prices and yields move in opposite directions). As a result, banks’ new bond issuance may be down as much as 85% over the past two years, which further hobbles cash-hungry European banks.
Finally, facing a near total loss of short-term financing alternatives and having run out of short-term liquidity needed to operate, a number of EU banks are reportedly having to pledge real assets as collateral for badly needed loans.
Normally, banks would use loans, leases or receivables to accomplish the same thing. The fact that they’re now having to throw into the mix real estate, their own property and other assets signals extreme levels of financial stress that are far worse than what’s been disclosed publicly.
Bracing for the Inevitable
Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf noted to the Swiss Parliament that she has a working group examining capital controls and negative interest rates as a means of preventing an economy-crushing Swiss franc appreciation when the euro fails. That’s not if the euro fails, but when the Euro fails.
This is an especially dire sign because capital control measures like those the Swiss officials are considering are inevitably the end of any failed monetary system.
European CEOs and their companies are taking matters into their own hands by actively preparing for the destruction of the euro.
Some, like German machinery maker GEA Group (PINK:GEAGY) are limiting the maximum funds on deposit with any single bank. Others, like Grupo Gowex, are moving cash and deposits to Germany away from Spanish banks (and Grupo Gowex is a Spanish company based in Madrid, so this is especially telling). BMW plans to cut production by 30% while also tapping into central bank reserves. According to Chief Financial Officer Friedrich Eichiner, the company is already reducing its leasing portfolio to cope with the potential decrease in car values that would reduce its borrowing capacity.
As for what all this means for our money, it’s pretty clear: Think safety first. The return of your capital is far more important than the return on your capital at the moment.
Here’s what I suggest:
This article originally appeared on MoneyMorning.
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