The ECB’s Tough Balancing Act

The central bank is trying to balance concerns about financial stability and inflation.

sumit
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Senior ETF Analyst
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Reviewed by: Sumit Roy
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Edited by: Sumit Roy

The Federal Reserve isn’t the only central bank weighing the risk of persistently high inflation against the risk of financial instability. The European Central Bank had to make that same calculus this week as one of the continent’s biggest banks teetered at the same time inflation concerns remained front and center. 

Shares of Credit Suisse, one of Europe’s 20 largest banks, dropped as much as 30% on Wednesday after the chairman of its largest shareholder—the Saudi National Bank—said it wouldn’t invest any more money into the beleaguered firm.  

The news rattled investors who were already reeling from the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and two other medium-size regional banks in the United States last week. Could those banking troubles be spreading to Europe, putting one of the continent’s most interconnected, yet vulnerable, banks at risk of collapse? 

Investors shuddered at the thought.  

A Highly Connected Bank  

As shares of Credit Suisse tumbled on Wednesday, the $1.6 billion iShares MSCI Europe Financials ETF (EUFN) fell by 5.7%, while the broader Vanguard FTSE Europe ETF (VGK) sagged by 3.8%. 

The decline wasn’t about Credit Suisse per se—the stock has a mere 0.5% weighting in EUFN and only 0.1% in VGK. Years of mismanagement have pushed the bank’s market cap to a relatively modest $9 billion. 

Rather, it’s the fear that Credit Suisse’s collapse could harm other financial institutions and counterparties that the bank has relationships with—in the same way that Lehman Brothers and other highly connected firms took down the U.S. financial system in 2008. 

On the positive side, despite being a shell of its former self after years of scandals and bad business decisions, Credit Suisse’s near-term liquidity position isn’t in doubt.  

“Its liquidity position seems adequate to handle deposit outflows, and it retains the fallback of borrowing against its bond holdings from the Swiss National Bank,” Morningstar banking analyst Johann Scholtz, said this week.  

Indeed, earlier this week, Credit Suisse said it would borrow up to 50 billion Swiss francs ($53.7 billion) from the Swiss National Bank, supporting the idea that Credit Suisse is unlikely to fall victim to the type of bank run that recently did in three U.S. regional banks. 

The ECB’s Balancing Act  

Still, bank run or not, confidence in the banking system here in the U.S. and in Europe has been shaken following recent events. 

Though most banks seem to be much stronger fundamentally than they were in 2008, when their risky bets on esoteric subprime-related derivatives soured, that won’t necessarily assuage depositors or investors immediately. 

There still seems to be an inclination to move funds from banks perceived to be riskier to banks perceived to be stronger, something that could weigh on credit creation as banks prioritize strengthening their balance sheets over making loans and investments. 

The European Central Bank was mindful of that as it made its latest interest rate decision on Thursday. The central bank hiked rates by 50 basis points to 3% as it signaled it would do, but crucially, it left the door open to take more supportive actions if stresses in the financial system warrant it. 

“The Governing Council is monitoring current market tensions closely and stands ready to respond as necessary to preserve price stability and financial stability in the euro area. The euro area banking sector is resilient, with strong capital and liquidity positions,” the central bank said in its statement. 

In her press conference following the decision, ECB President Christine Lagarde affirmed that the ECB would do what was necessarily to support Europe’s financial stability, but she added that the central bank remained determined to bring inflation back down to its 2% target. 

The news assuaged investors, who pushed EUFN up by 1% on Thursday. 

 

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Sumit Roy is the senior ETF analyst for etf.com, where he has worked for 13 years. He creates a variety of content for the platform, including news articles, analysis pieces, videos and podcasts.

Before joining etf.com, Sumit was the managing editor and commodities analyst for Hard Assets Investor. In those roles, he was responsible for most of the operations of HAI, a website dedicated to education about commodities investing.

Though he still closely follows the commodities beat, Sumit covers a much broader assortment of topics for etf.com, with a particular focus on stock and bond exchange-traded funds.

He is the host of etf.com’s Talk ETFs, a popular video series that features weekly interviews with thought leaders in the ETF industry. Sumit is also co-host of Exchange Traded Fridays, etf.com’s weekly podcast series.

He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he enjoys climbing the city’s steep hills, playing chess and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.