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Rash of bank downgrades as IMF demands rapid action over debt

• Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo downgraded in US
• S&P cuts ratings on Italy’s Intesa Sanpaolo and Mediobanca
• IMF warns time is running out to solve financial crisis

Banks on both sides of the Atlantic have been downgraded by ratings agencies just hours after the International Monetary Fund warned time was running out to tackle weaknesses in the global financial system.

The Washington-based IMF, which said that the exposure of European banks to debt in the weakest parts of the eurozone had ballooned to €300bn since last year, used its half-yearly global financial stability report (GFSR) to warn that there had been a substantial increase in risks to stability over the past few months.

It said the sharp rise in market turmoil over the summer had been caused by investors losing patience with the inadequacy of reforms since the start of the crisis more than four years ago.

America’s biggest bank, Bank of America, was downgraded two notches by the Moody’s on concerns that BoA – which rescued troubled rivals such as Countrywide and Merrill Lynch during the 2008 banking crisis – might not be bailed out by the US government if it ran into difficulty.

“Moody’s believes that the government is likely to continue to provide some level of support to systemically important financial institutions. However, it is also more likely now than during the financial crisis to allow a large bank to fail should it become financially troubled, as the risks of contagion become less acute,” the agency said. The analysis was disputed by Bank of America, which pointed out its capital strength and holdings of liquid assets.

Moody’s also downgraded Citigroup and Wells Fargo in the US, while Italian banks Intesa Sanpaolo and Mediobanca were downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, which had downgraded Italian government debt for the first time in five years on Tuesday.

José Viñals, the IMF’s financial counsellor, told journalists in Washington DC that risks were increasing in the financial system. “Since our previous report, financial stability risks have increased substantially – reversing some of the progress that had been made over the previous three years. So we are back in the danger zone,” Viñals said as he cited a trio of shocks to the financial system: unequivocal signs of a broader global economic slowdown, turbulence in the euro area and the credit downgrade in the US.

“This has thrown us into a crisis of confidence, which is being driven by three main factors: weak growth, weak balance sheets and weak politics,” he said.

The Fund sought to quantify the financial strain put on Europe’s banks by the sovereign debt crisis since 2010. “During this period, banks have had to withstand an increase in credit risk coming from high-spread euro area sovereigns that we estimate amounts to about €200bn [£175bn]. If we include exposures to other banks in high-spread euro area countries, the total estimated spillover increases to €300bn,” Viñals said.

He added it was still possible to find a way through to sustained recovery. “But for this, we need to act now; we need to act boldly; and we need to act in a globally co-ordinated manner. There is a way; now we need the political will.”

Financial reform needed now

The IMF said that the crisis had moved into a new, more political phase and that, in the euro area, important steps had been taken to address current problems – but political differences within economies undergoing austerity programmes and among countries providing support had impeded achievement of a lasting solution. “Meanwhile, the US is faced with growing doubts over the ability of the political process to achieve a necessary consensus regarding medium-term fiscal adjustment, which is critically important for global stability,” the IMF added.

The Fund’s report said an extended period of low interest rates could carry longer-term threats to the financial system, although cheap borrowing costs were still needed today given the state of the global economy: “Low rates are diverting credit creation into more opaque channels, such as the shadow banking system. These conditions increase the potential for a sharper and more powerful turn in the credit cycle, risking greater deterioration in asset quality in the event of new shocks.”

The IMF said the financial reform agenda needed to be completed as soon as possible and implemented internationally in a consistent manner. This includes the finalisation of the Basel 3 agreement governing capital requirements of banks, the treatment of systemically important financial institutions, and addressing the challenges posed by the shadow banking system. “For the first time since the October 2008 GFSR, risks to global financial stability have increased, signalling a partial reversal in progress made over the past three years,” it said.

“Recent market turmoil suggests that investors are losing patience with the lack of momentum on financial repair and reform. Policymakers need to accelerate actions to address long-standing financial weaknesses to ensure stability.”

The report warned that four years of financial crisis had left governments saddled with onerous debt burdens and sharply higher funding needs. “Lower tax revenue, weaker growth prospects, and large-scale support for ailing financial institutions have driven public finances into precarious territory.

“The latest bout of market volatility has reminded some investors of the collapse in asset prices following the September 2008 Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Although the current reaction has not been as severe or as widespread as it was after that event, risk perceptions are greater for European banks and sovereigns. There is a risk of a further deterioration if appropriate policies are not implemented,” the report said. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds