November 18, 2011
Europe Fears a Credit Squeeze as Investors Sell Bond Holdings
By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ and ERIC DASH
Nervous investors around the globe are accelerating their exit from the debt of European governments and banks, increasing the risk of a credit squeeze that could set off a downward spiral.
Financial institutions are dumping their vast holdings of European government debt and spurning new bond issues by countries like Spain and Italy. And many have decided not to renew short-term loans to European banks, which are needed to finance day-to-day operations.
If this trend continues, it risks creating a vicious cycle of rising borrowing costs, deeper spending cuts and slowing growth, which is hard to get out of, especially as some European banks are having trouble meeting their financing needs.
“It’s a pretty terrible spiral,” said Peter R. Fisher, head of fixed income at the asset manager BlackRock and a former senior Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration.
The pullback — which is increasing almost daily — is driven by worries that some European countries may not be able to fully repay their bond borrowings, which in turn would damage banks that own large amounts of those bonds. It also increases the already rising pressure on the European Central Bank to take more aggressive action.
On Friday, the bank’s new president, Mario Draghi, put the onus on European leaders to deploy the long-awaited euro zone bailout fund to resolve the crisis, implicitly rejecting calls for the European Central Bank to step up and become the region’s “lender of last resort.”
The flight from European sovereign debt and banks has spanned the globe. European institutions like the Royal Bank of Scotland and pension funds in the Netherlands have been heavy sellers in recent days. And earlier this month, Kokusai Asset Management in Japan unloaded nearly $1 billion in Italian debt.
At the same time, American institutions are pulling back on loans to even the sturdiest banks in Europe. When a $300 million certificate of deposit held by Vanguard’s $114 billion Prime Money Market Fund from Rabobank in the Netherlands came due on Nov. 9, Vanguard decided to let the loan expire and move the money out of Europe. Rabobank enjoys a AAA-credit rating and is considered one of the strongest banks in the world.
“There’s a real sensitivity to being in Europe,” said David Glocke, head of money market funds at Vanguard. “When the noise gets loud it’s better to watch from the sidelines rather than stay in the game. Even highly rated banks, such as Rabobank, I’m letting mature.”
The latest evidence that governments, too, are facing a buyers’ strike came Thursday, when a disappointing response to Spain’s latest 10-year bond offering allowed rates to climb to nearly 7 percent, a new record. A French bond auction also received a lukewarm response.