Sunday, November 20, 2011

Europe’s Banks Found Safety of Bonds a Costly Illusion

As the bets that European banks made on United States mortgage investments went bust a few years ago, bankers piled into what they saw as a safe refuge: bonds issued by countries in Europe’s seemingly ironclad monetary union.

Now, the political and financial crisis engulfing the Continent has turned much of that European sovereign debt into the latest distressed asset, sending tremors through global financial markets not seen since the demise of the investment bank Lehman Brothers more than three years ago.

This week, shortly after European leaders formally conceded that Greece could not pay its debts and forced banks to accept losses, the shock waves reached Italy, the third-largest economy in the euro zone after France and Germany. And despite frantic efforts by politicians to contain the damage, market analysts said that France, one of the strongest countries in the euro zone, may soon feel the impact.

“When people started buying more European sovereign debt, there was not a cloud in the sky,” said Yannis Stournaras, director of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, based in Athens. Now, he said, “This crisis is going to last because the perceptions of risk have changed dramatically.”

European banks face tens and possibly hundreds of billions of dollars in losses on loans to nations that use the euro. Worried about even greater losses if the crisis worsens, the banks have been scrambling to reduce their holdings of an investment that, like triple-A-rated subprime mortgage bonds, was once thought to be bulletproof. more