The big wobble: Can the SSM stabilize Europe's banking system?
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The big wobble: Can the SSM stabilize Europe's banking system?

The Single Supervisory Mechanism, the eurozone’s new banking supervisor, is tasked with combating financial fragmentation, building a banking union and, above all, making Europe’s banks investable once again. The first few months of its tenure were some of the most difficult since the dark days of the euro crisis. Bankers’ scepticism about the new regime is the least of their worries.

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Illustration: Ron Borrensen

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 proved withdrawal can be as deadly as invasion. It is a lesson not lost on European banks today as they beat a retreat from international markets, downsize businesses and shed risk-weighted assets, seven years after the global crisis. 

An over-banked industry is saddled with up to €1 trillion of non-performing loans and razor-thin net interest margins. Lenders have diminished risk appetite and operational capacity to build fee and commission income. Meanwhile, US banks continue to win market share, taking 41% of investment banking revenue from European clients in the year to mid March.

But prolonged stagnation is the relatively good news. The bad news is that chances of a new banking crisis are still very real. 

In the first two months of 2016 European banks were engulfed in a market crash threatening the global economic recovery. Eurozone banking stocks fell by a quarter, while US bank shares fell just 10%. On February 11, the iTraxx Europe subordinated financials index hit 315 basis points, a level not seen since the 2013 Cyprus crisis. Meanwhile, the primary market for additional tier-1 bonds (also known as contingent convertible, or CoCo, instruments) seized up, with UBS paying a heavy premium to re-open the market in mid March.

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