Leverage… banking is a risky business… DVB edition

First, “equity” is an accounting construct. In Vickers’s phrasing, a bank’s equity is “the difference between the estimated value of its loan assets and other exposures on the one hand, and its contractual obligations to depositors and bondholders on the other. In short, it is a residual, the difference between two typically big numbers.” A small difference between two large numbers is highly sensitive to even small changes in those big numbers — assets and liabilities — and so it is in the nature of equity to be poorly measured and unstable.

“Banking Systems Remain Unsafe”

Martin Sandbu, FT Free Lunch

News that DZ Bank has had a final sense of humour failure with DVB doesn’t do justice to the scale of the problem:

after DVB posted a return on equity of minus 73 percent in the first half of the year, or a net loss of 547 million euros after breaking even a year earlier, plans to sell off its loan portfolios have gained traction…

[S]ources said DZ Bank was working with Boston Consulting Group to evaluate options for DVB, while the transport division has hired separate advisors to assess the value of its $12.5 billion ship loan portfolio.

I have talked about DVB before and the fact is the results that were released in August were probably worse than DZ Bank had wanted, but the scale of the problem in the shipping and offshore portfolio are that they have in effect bankrupted the bank and forced in into run down mode.  Here are the losses broken out:

DVB Losses by sector

Half a billion here, half a billion there, and pretty soon you are losing real money… It is also worth noting that the loss in offshore was 25% higher despite the loan book to shipping being 5x the size. Looking at the offshore portfolio I still don’t see this being the final write-down:

DVB lending by sector Aug 2017

Now the portfolio was marked down from €2.4bn to €2.1bn so maybe €50m has been disposed of. But there is no one involved in offshore, looking at the asset mix, who really believes that it could possibly be worth €2.1bn in aggregate. I don’t really want to get into a big discussion about whether banks should account for loans at fair value (i.e. what you would get if you disposed of the portfolio at the moment) or held-to-maturity (i.e. what you get if the customer honours the loan contract): You can make sensible arguments for both. Clearly in the short term if the customer is solvent it makes no sense, in an economic perspective, to hold the loan as an asset for a value less than you will receive, and it adds a huge degree of volatility to the earnings of banks if you do this, the reverse though it as it allows a huge degree of discretion for management that simply isn’t warranted by the facts.

You can see the scale of the DVB problem by looking at the tier 1 capital:

DVB Bank tier 1 aug 2017

For the uninitiated to get the number you basically take the book equity (less goodwill) and divide by risk weighted assets, and this gets to c.9%. But it’s a meaningless number in reality as the quote from John Vickers in my opening makes clear. A far more instructive number is the leverage ratio which divides the amount of equity in the business by the asset base (i.e. loans) and that is 2.9%, which in considered far below what a bank should have. In essence this number shows a 3% decline in the value of DVBs assets (loan contracts) would wipe out the equity: with $12.5bn in shipping and and €2.4bn in offshore loans you can be sure that in reality this has happened.

Which is why DZ Bank are pumping another €500m into DVB Bank.

There is a bigger economic question that I think cuts to the heart of what DVB is as a bank and why diversified bank lending works better than narrow bank lending: active versus passive management. For years researchers have known that active fund managers underperform passive fund managers when fees are taken into account. The entire DVB business model relied on them picking four industries and producing returns in those industries consistently, regardless of underlying market movements, despite the fact this is known to be statistically unlikely.

The problem everyone in offshore and shipping has is this: Who do you sell to when other big banks in the sector are making a virtue of closing their loan books to your industry? DNB is typical off all the big banks in the sector (as I have discussed before):

DNB rebalance

Offshore as an industry has an asset finance issue and not just a demand side issue. The road to recovery, however you define it, looks someway off.

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