Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Property lending and rules to save banks from themselves

Millions are frustrated because banks wll not lend them money to buy or develop property. Banks ascribe their lending restrictions to the new "Basel III" capital requirements (effective in 2012). This is not strictly a valid reason. Borrowers and others are given such simple reasons because the total picture is fraught with difficulties in striking the right balance between opposing demands, dogs and fire hydrants, rock and hard place etc. What is going on, or not?
Banks are shrinking their balance sheets and that inevitably means property lending (70% of UK and USA banks' customer loans - after exclusing loans to rest of finance sector which are also shrinking) and also hoping desperately to sell on bundles of property loans and foreclosed properties, if only they can find long term deep pockets to sell to without too steep a discount.
The retreat by banks from property is one reason why insurers and other institutional investors are getting into property lending, seeing an opportunity to do so without competition from banks and expecting higher returns than the banks can achieve.
The bankerspeak financial technicalities.
Basel III changes to higher capital reserves and more core capital of banks (higher amounts and higher loss-absorbing quality) are not genuine reasons for reducing the general loan exposure - it is really about narrowing the funding gap (between deposits & loans) that is filled by selling Medium Term Notes into the "wholesale interbank funding market" and banks are each fearful of when they next have to go to market to replace their MTNs on maturity (big amounts periodically every 3,6, 12, 18 months etc.).
"Internally generated capital" is recovery of monies loaned plus net interest income and other realised profits, and the banks are torn between using those gains to reduce their funding gaps or to increase their capital and liquidity reserves (as regulators under the name of "Basel III" require). They are also torn about how much they can allocate to bonuses rather than dividends. Hence, the banks blame Basel III for lower lending and want everyone to know that as part of their pressure on regulators and governments to soften or postpone Basel III and even on shareholders re. dividends and government and other pref bond holders to expect lower % coupons for longer - when actually it is really about narrowing their exposure to wholesale lenders i.e. to severely reduce their funding gaps, which UK banks have already halved from £1 trillion to £500bn, and falling, and that is a lot of balance sheet liquidated and internal capital generated.
The banks know the wholesale funders well and what is looked for an expected because they are also such funders in terms of their large loan exposures to other financial sector borrowers and have been liquidating cross-border interbank loans dramatically.
When (how soon) a bank has to next replace/refresh its "funding gap" finance will dictate its current openness to agreeing new loans; they are keen to say to their funders here is £5bn matured MTN repaid to you and we only want you to roll-over and buy £2.5bn of new MTNs back from us, which is supposed to sound good to the lenders and there should therefore be minimum fuss or embarassment (narrower spreads) that could leak out to market and damage the share price.
Property (development especially) is seen as riskier, and in addition UK banks are being warned by regulators to reduce the concentration of risk they hold in this one sector (property), especially while they are holding large amounts of receovered property collateral and seeking to sell on about 20% of their property loans (i.e. £260bn), probably with 15% haircuts = £40bn, some % of which could appear as paper loss relative to the outstanding loans, interest & charges that relate to the collateral recovered, perhaps £5-10bn (a wild guess).
The banks are in a bind partly of their own making insofar as the property market (asset prices) cannot recover until new property lending grows and yet until there is recovery they cannot sell their property exposures without risk of substantial loss, and without clearing out of a lot of property they cannot resume property lending.Therefore, if institutional investors (who are the major shareholders in bank other than governments) step in to make up the shortage in new property lending this, if on a large enough scale, could be important to breaking the logjam, and should be profitable to institutions in two ways (for themselves directly and via improved balance sheets of the banks), and given that property conditions are a major aspect of economic growth recovery.
But, when property lending is resumed by banks more assiduously the first port of call may be to refinance troubled loans rather than agree new loans to new borrowers, that is long term loans especially, while short term lending only looks relatively attractive to many banks. Medium to long term lending appears to have too many uncertainties i.e. the risks are very hard for them to compute.
The wider context includes policy that is torn between being seen to put in place measures that can be claimed to make sure the credit crunch recession never re-occurs, while also needing bank lending to stop shrinking and then to grow to generate more certainty of substantially higher economic growth. This facing in contradictory directions is why there is much fudging about the impoact of Basel III regulation including the Vickers Commmission recommendations that many outside UK as well as in UK hoped would provide a clear new line to follow and refresh the impetus of the G20 agenda of about 100 adjustments, policies and new institutions to protect the financial system from itself.
So-called "Basel III" rulings aim to increase banks’ tier 1 capital base from 2% to 4.5% (ratio to gross loans, or twice this to risk adjusted loans) to improve the resilience of banks. These discourage securitisation transactions, and there are four ways banks can increase their capital base to meet new ratios: raise more long term capital themselves (internally generated by cutting costs, bonuses, dividends and coupons), raise more in deposits, shrink loan balance sheets, commit less own capital to investment banking (market trading & derivatives), and reduce exposure (in economies where property dominates) to property and property loans.
There is the hope that interbank lending and funding gap finance and securitisation of loanbooks will sooner than later return as a reliable and substantial option, but only once the banks look safer bets i.e. the banks are strong enough to again dictate the loan spreads to those they borrow from. That is unlikely so long as the sovereign debt crisis reflects badly on banks and so long as Basel III looks hard for banks to comply with, even if these are very much parts of the banks own PR to shift the blame (playing up the sovereign debt crisis) and to soften new capital rules (foot-dragging on Basel III).
From the point of view of individual borrowers going to the banks with wonderful schemes of great quality all this bigger picture about future impacts reasons given for refusing loans is an immense frustration. It is actually the excat inverse of the pre-credit crunch past when banks ignored the bigger macro-economic and regulatory picture and approved any loans that passed merely microeconomic tests based on past high growth experience and not on forecasting future downturns. Yet, while the medium term future should be one of renewed growth and recovery, Basel III is ensuring future risks are assessed in terms of possible repeat of economic down turn (double-dip or another recession)!
In the case of seeking loans from banks that are underwritten or otherwise backed by government should ensure that banks can lend comfortably because the risk is low. But, low risk also means low net interest income when banks are anxious to raise their % net interest income, and given uncertainties about even government finance (subject to unexpected renewed cost-cutting at budget time) state-support may not of itself be sufficient to get the banks to lend. Institutional investors seeking to fill the gap also may not be attracted sufficiently by the low margins despite state guarantees. They are attracted by commercial property, not residential, and are not stepping into property lending because they are attracted by low margins of bank lending. Insurers are attracted by the higher interest income generated by commercial property loans compared with government bonds.
Over half a £/€trillion in commercial property loans are maturing in C.Europe over next 3 years and possibly a third of that additionally in the UK. Institutional investors will step in where banks fail to roll over what is of good quality and cannot be all repaid, and are already now financing about one quarter of comemrcial property lending.