Trouble in Portugal reminds us that the eurozone’s woes are far from over

Executives should be wary of headlines for recovery in Western Europe, and prepared for the heavy downside that Europe’s fragile political and economic order could experience. Although news media highlight positive aggregate growth (the eurozone is forecast to grow 1.2% YOY in 2014), Western Europe remains plagued with high public debt loads and thus highly susceptible to volatility in financial markets.

In our latest Western Europe outlook, we warn senior executives about the impact that unrest at banks or in politics could have across European markets and MNCs’ performance in the region. Specifically, any uptick in political risk could manifest itself in higher borrowing costs for the government in question and across southern Europe. The increase in borrowing costs could also make business in those markets more expensive and would destabilize local governments as their cost of high debt loads rises, reducing confidence and the production and jobs growth that would spur Europe to recovery.

Photo: Banco Espirito SantoImage: Bloomberg News

In the most acute case of the European sovereign debt crisis in recent months, Banco Espirito Santo International SA, a Portuguese bank, delayed payments on some securities, following a warning in May that its parent company faced a “serious financial situation” that “could be damaging”. While southern European government bond yields have remained fairly stable, their decline, sustained since summer 2012, is unlikely to continue. European stocks saw a broad decline, notably 1.90% for Italy’s FTSE MIB and 1.98% for Spain’s IBEX 35. Portugal’s PSI 20 took the worst hit, sinking 4.18% on the news. The biggest question now is whether the delays will result in government involvement, which could spark a much more serious financial market reaction and increase borrowing costs across Europe.

That European banks have not been in the news does not imply that they are healthy, or even improving. As they undergo stress tests, European banks are pulling capital onto their balance sheets, leaving less resources available to lend to businesses. Bank lending to non-financial corporations has declined an average of 2.9% YOY in the first five months of the year. In fact, credit contractions in 2013 and 2014 are the worst since the crisis began. What’s more, Moody’s downgraded 82 European banks in May in response to a new EU law that makes banks mutually responsible for risks in the event of another crisis. The majority of these banks were not southern European, but rather from creditor nations such as Germany (12), France (10), and Austria (8), highlighting the breadth at which Europe’s banking crisis has sustained its reach.

In response to this broad European macroeconomic trend, companies can monitor a few important indicators of change:

  • Loan growth: credit growth would imply positive trends in supply and demand for the funds that fuel consumption and production growth
  • Unemployment: gauge which economies are most at risk for austerity fatigue and thus political unrest
  • Bond yields: an increases could indicate market perceptions of increased political risk
  • Results of bank stress tests in Q4 2014: while disruptive, any major bank failures will help companies to identify which countries’ recoveries are likely to lag behind

FSG clients can find out what this means for their business and how to respond in our latest Western Europe regional outlook, and in our Western Europe team’s recent blog posts and podcasts.

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