Eurozone woes are US woes


A different perspective on the risks the world faces from the financial woes of Greece, Ireland and Portugal is provided by a new class of statistics published today by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the central bankers' central bank.

What it shows is that US banks are collectively second or third most exposed to the woes of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, through what the BIS calls their "potential exposure" to these countries.

This new visibility for the big bets US banks have made on the eurozone's most overstretched economies could prove controversial in Washington - coming so soon after these banks were bailed out by US taxpayers.

The stats show that there is some considerable alignment of eurozone and US interests in preventing a Greek default - though I can see circumstances in which the US and the eurozone would be at loggerheads over some eurozone leaders' hope that creditors to Greece would be encouraged (though not forced) to roll over their loans to Greece, as those loans fell due for payment.

US banks in the hock

The scale of how much money American banks have at risk in the eurozone comes from a new BIS table of the actual and potential exposure of banks to most economies via cross-border loans and financial transactions. It's the detail on potential exposures that is illuminating.

For example, it shows that the potential exposure of US banks to Greece is $34bn (£20.7bn, 23.2bn euro) - which is as much as the actual exposure of German banks to Greece.

If you add together these actual and potential exposures, French banks have most at risk in Greece, with $65bn of exposure. Then - to my amazement - comes the US, with $41bn of actual and potential exposure, or $1bn more than the exposure of German banks.

Actual and potential exposure of UK banks is "just' $19bn.

So what are these "potential" exposures? In the case of American banks' $34bn exposure to Greece, $33bn is described as "guarantees".

Which doesn't tell us a great deal. The talk is that most of these guarantees are for credit derivatives, or insurance against Greece not paying its debts - but I can't be sure that's so.

Greece, then Portugal, and then...

Either way, America's banks would seem to have a good deal to lose if Greece were to go kaput.

Also, the BIS stats show that the potential exposure of US banks to Portugal is a quite remarkable $41bn, and their total exposure to Portugal is $46bn.

Only Spanish banks, with $106bn of actual and potential exposure to Portugal, and German banks, with $50bn of actual and potential loans to Portugal, have more money at risk.

For Ireland, US banks' potential exposure is $54bn and their actual exposure is $51bn, or $105bn in total - which puts them in third place behind the UK (with $194bn of Irish exposure) and Germany (with $158bn of exposure).

And in the case of Spain, the actual and potential exposure of US banks is a knee-trembling $179bn - so there is a powerful American interest in the eurozone's rot stopping with Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

All this helps to explain why the US administration has been taking a close personal interest in the eurozone's troubles - and why the US has been making it clear that it would prefer there weren't a "credit event" that could be described as a Greek default.

US bail-out for creditors?

What's unclear is whether the idea being floated by eurozone officials that existing creditors of Greece should be encouraged to re-lend to Greece, when their debts mature, would count as a default.

Under consideration is a stark warning to Greece's creditors that they'll only get their money back as it falls due if they immediately lend it back to Greece.

Now it is conceivable that creditors would see such pressure to extend the maturity of a loan as a de facto default, even if the rollover were not mandatory: it would be a demonstration that the eurozone and IMF weren't prepared to provide all the liquidity needed by Greece.

So the semi-voluntary provision of new loans by existing creditors might not prove the painless solution its proponents believe it to be.

For US banks in particular, there's an important question whether this encouraged rollover of loans would oblige them to pay out under the credit derivative contracts they may have written to insure the debt.

In other words, US banks could find themselves bailing out Greece's European bank creditors - and that might not be universally popular in Washington, so soon after those US banks were rescued by US taxpayers.

Robert Peston Article written by Robert Peston Robert Peston Economics editor

Which budget will matter?

As and when decisions on income taxes, welfare and public spending are devolved to the nations, will the budgets for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland become more important than the UK's famous budget?

Read full article

More on This Story

More from Robert

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I'm guessing many don't know how CDS's work. Let's say you have a 10mm bond + a 10mm CDS to insure it. If a default occurs the CDS dosen't payout 10mm. Their is an auction which sets a recovery rate and the CDS payout is the difference between this and amount insured. Any bank short a CDS woulda ctually want to buy the debt as it's in effect a free option and in the long run will prob yield value.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    You blame Brown for rising house prices.
    Sorry guys, that was a worldwide phenomenon.
    As were the deficits.
    Actually Brown and BoE ensured that property did not increase nearly as much as in Ireland or parts of USA , Spain and Greece.
    We have not had the deserted Dublin Brooksides, nor the Triffidesque abandonment of inner Detroit, nor the debacle of Athens.
    And so the Laird GB be thankit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    How much have we spent on daft windfarms and carbon research?
    What has been the economic cost of green fanaticism?
    What damage have we done to our tourism industry with carbon tax craziness?
    Can it be sustained?
    Does anyone in politics have the nerve to say that the Green Emperor has no clothes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Alex, are traffic-calming buslanes causing more pollution and doubling into-town journey times sustainable?
    And mark-to maket valuations, firesales, repossessions and loan famines .. are they sustainable?
    Or a £500 mln soon-to-be-aborted Edinburgh tram project has actually cost more than a motorway in Glasgow which came in on time, on budget :is that sustainable too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Who won the Premier League?
    Was it Skint City,Debt Reduction Rovers?
    Did China rebuild its infrastructure by reducing spending, by trimming university education ?
    o-ho crow: Spend to mend!


Comments 5 of 120



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.