Germany Catches Cold

In a sign that no Eurozone nation is completely immune to the shocks of the European debt crisis, ratings agency Moody’s Investor Services has cut the credit ratings of six banks in Germany.  The largest bank to be downgraded is Commerzbank, Germany’s second-biggest lender, which was cut to A3 from A2.

“Today’s rating actions are driven by the increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis,” Moody’s said. The downgrade shows that Moody’s thinks Germany could be hit if the Euro crisis becomes a catastrophe.  “It brings the crisis in Southern Europe and Ireland closer to home in Germany,” said BBC Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans.

The other affected banks DekaBank, DZ Bank, Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg, Landesbank Hessen-Thueringen and Norddeutsche Landesbank.  In addition to its rating cut, Commerzbank was placed on negative outlook, meaning Moody’s is considering an additional cut.  According to Moody’s that is because of the bank’s exposure to the Eurozone periphery and its concentration of loans to single sectors and borrowers.  Moody’s deferred a decision on the rating of Germany’s biggest bank, Deutsche Bank.

The downgrades are a result of Moody’s concern about the “increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis, in combination with the banks’ limited loss-absorption capacity”.  Moody’s believes that German banks are likely to find themselves under less pressure than many European peers as personal and corporate debt levels are more modest than elsewhere.  The agency noted that the downgrades are less harsh than it had originally said they could be.  “Moody’s recognizes the steps Germany banks have taken to address past asset quality challenges,” the ratings agency said.

The Group of Seven nations agreed to coordinate their response to Europe’s turmoil, which has tipped at least eight of the 17 Eurozone economies into recession and damped demand for foreign goods. Policy makers at the European Central Bank meeting today face increasing pressure to lower rates and introduce more liquidity support for banks.  Moody’s decision is “a bit harsh” given the strength of the German banking system and economy, said Sandy Mehta, chief executive officer of Value Investment Principals Ltd., a Hong Kong-based investment advisory company.  “But given the events in Europe, unless the authorities and the powers that be are more decisive and take firmer action, then you do have the risk that the economic problems will engulf Germany as well.”

The rating actions were driven by “the increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis, in combination with the banks’ limited loss-absorption capacity,” Moody’s said.  “We wanted to identify vulnerabilities from further potential shocks from the euro area debt crisis and how this would affect investor confidence in institutions across Europe,” said Moody’s Managing Director for banking, Carola Schuler.  Moody’s agency was especially apprehensive about a potential decline in the value of banks’ portfolios of international commercial real estate, global ship financing, as well as a backlog of structured credit products, she said. “German banks have limited capacity to absorb losses out of earnings and that raises the potential that capital could diminish in a stress scenario.”  Moody’s action was anticipated.

According to Forbes, “This latest downgrade could be used by European politicians to put pressure on Angela Merkel and other policymakers.  Germany is staunchly opposed to the idea of Eurobonds, which Spanish and Italian politicians believe is one of the ways out of this mess.  Moody’s downgrade is but another sign of the extent of financial interconnectedness in the European Union, which highlights the dangers of contagion.  While some have argued that Germany would be better off leaving the monetary union, its financial sector remains in close contact to the broader European economy, making it difficult for Merkel and the rest to give up.  According to Moody’s, German banks’ major headwind is the continuation of the European sovereign debt crisis.  These banks are sitting on assets that will see their quality erode as markets tank, an effect that will be exacerbated if the global economy begins to cool at a faster pace too.”

Writing on the 247wallstreet.com website, Douglas A. McIntyre says that “Germany is assumed to be the home market of some of Europe’s most stable banks because of the relative stability of its economy.  Moody’s has undermined that view as it cut ratings of seven banks there, including Commerzbank, the second largest firm in the country.  The move was the result of worry over exposure to debt issued by some nations in the region that are now in financial trouble.  And the banks Moody’s singled out have less than adequate balance sheet to handle a major shock to the region’s credit system.”

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