Negative rates may be curbing credit case-by-case, says UniCredit's Mustier


Dominic O’Neill
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Banks have benefited from negative rates, but EBF president Jean Pierre Mustier says the downsides are increasing.

UniCredit CEO Jean Pierre Mustier

Jean Pierre Mustier, head of the European Banking Federation and chief executive of UniCredit, has given a stark warning to the European Central Bank (ECB) on the risks of negative rates.

Speaking to Euromoney as part of an in-depth article on the effect of negative rates on banks, Mustier says the policy could already have curtailed credit supply or made it more expensive, on a case-by case basis – for particular banks, or particular clients.

“The ECB needs to be careful to not create a situation where people do the opposite of what is expected, when we reach the so-called reversal rate,” he says.

“This could lead some banks, in an environment when margins are tighter and the regulatory requirements are higher, to decide to buy back their shares rather than lend more.”

UniCredit is launching its first share buy-back in more than 10 years, although its loan growth is roughly flat.

The EBF president, whose own bank is unusual in having a big retail business in Italy and Germany, takes a markedly more measured and conciliatory tone on negative rates than other chief executives of big European banks.

“We have to put negative rates in perspective” he says. “The ECB put negative rates in place to stimulate investment and growth. That’s good, as it allows the economy to develop at a higher rate of growth than would be possible if we did not have them.”

However, he warns: “The point is now that rates are more negative and for longer. That has a more negative impact on the banks.”

'Moving parts'

While banks across the board are having to reduce their medium-term return targets, in part because of regulation, Mustier warns that if banks’ profit is impacted, it will be harder to finance the economy.

“It’s important to look at the different moving parts, and what are the combined effects of regulation and monetary policy,” he says. “The ECB needs to make sure that there’s a consistent approach between its monetary policy and supervision.”

Markus Brunnermeier, the Princeton University professor best known for describing the reversal rate, also says costs on banks of negative rates will increase as time goes on, particularly if capital rules get tougher.

“It’s very important to be able to reduce the capital buffer,” Brunnermeier tells Euromoney. “If you just always increase the capital needs, the reversal rate will be higher.”

Claudio Borio, head of the monetary and economic department at the Bank for International Settlements, agrees that the undesired side-effects of negative rates on banks’ net interest margins could be coming to the fore.

Borio tells Euromoney: “There is little evidence [to indicate] that negative interest rates have reduced bank lending so far, but the longer they persist, the more they weaken profits. They can boost growth only temporarily, while the effect on margins is longer term.”