As Europe continues to experience a financial breakdown, there is no doubt that U.S. banks are and should be worried. All banks will be affected, although some more than others, depending on their relationship abroad. Business will be impacted in a number of ways, but according to the attorneys we polled, it’s not all bad.
Should boards at U.S. banks be concerned about the ongoing problems in Europe?
The boards of U.S. banks that may be affected the most (such as banks that hold a significant amount of European debt, deal in Euros or otherwise engage in business in Europe or with European banks) should be particularly mindful of the situation. On the flipside, in some cases, the problems in Europe may actually open up new opportunities for U.S. banks, which are opportunities that boards of U.S. banks may want to consider. For instance, European banks may begin to lend less in the U.S. and focus on preserving capital and lending in their home countries, which would present increased lending opportunities to U.S. banks (including through loan syndications).
- Doug McClintock & Sara Lenet, Alston & Bird
Yes. On an immediate basis, the problems with the calculation of LIBOR will result in a different rate, although how that may be calculated is unclear. Since the rates on many commercial and consumer loans are based on LIBOR, any replacement will at a minimum complicate the lives of both borrowers and lenders. For lending going forward, a bank probably should not use a LIBOR-based rate and may want to consider whether to base lending on any standard rate. More broadly, on a macro basis, problems in Europe inevitably spill over into the United States.
Even though the spill-over seems unlikely to cause a second recession here, any resulting slow down necessarily will have an adverse effect on the U.S. banking industry—a phenomenon we are already experiencing. The macro consequences of the European problems are beyond the control of any bank, but on an individual basis, a U.S. bank should have a deep understanding of its European exposure. This would include not only any direct exposures, for example in the form of bonds, but also exposures to commercial borrowers that may depend to a material extent on their European businesses. A bank should re-visit the use of any foreign instruments that it may use for hedging purposes. The use of foreign exchange also may require more careful monitoring.
- Dwight Smith, Morrison Foerster
Ongoing problems in Europe affect U.S. monetary and fiscal policies, especially in a presidential election year. Concerns over Europe have led to an influx in foreign investment in U.S. Treasury securities as a safe haven investment. This has reduced yields upon Treasury instruments, and TIPs (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) have even sold at negative rates. Lower Treasury rates adversely affect the yields on bank investment portfolios and compress margins on loans and other credit assets. This makes it more difficult for banks to generate returns on equity and funds available for dividends and repurchases of common stock. Current low interest policies may have created new systemic risks by encouraging investors to “reach” for higher yields in longer maturity securities with riskier credit quality.
All directors should be concerned about current levels of interest rates, potential future inflation, and interest rate risks resulting from these policies driven by European and domestic U.S. concerns. The regulators are especially concerned about interest rate risks and their future effects on bank balance sheets and earnings.
- Chip MacDonald, Jones Day
Yes. Boards of banks, regardless of asset size, must understand generally the business of their bank and the environment in which their bank operates. For example, it was not long ago that many bank directors had never heard of or made a subprime real estate loan. They quickly came to appreciate the many challenges to their banks that that loan product presented. The European Union is the largest trading partner of the U.S. Threats and the challenges presented by the second largest economy in the world (the combined economies of the euro zone) cannot and should not be ignored. Problems in Europe could have very real consequences for financial stability in the U.S. in areas such as employment and credit availability.
- John Bowman, Venable
Fortunately or unfortunately, the world in which we live is interconnected. What once appeared to be vast oceans now seem like small ponds (unless one is flying internationally in coach). With the current global economy, it is hard to avoid thinking of the Woody Allen quote, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Unfortunately, there are not many ways to inoculate our economy, and thus, the life blood of community banks from the contagion taking hold in Europe. Only if we as a country can get our own financial house in order will we be in a position not only to withstand, but to help the European economy to grow out of its problems.
- Peter Weinstock, Hunton & Williams
Obviously, boards at U.S. banks with European operations should pay close attention to country developments. However, boards at U.S. banks without European operations also should monitor Europe’s problems, because they have the potential for a major ripple effect if country initiatives are unsuccessful. A board should consider whether its bank has particular exposure to Europe and determine whether special contingency planning is necessary.
—Jean Veta and Michael Nonaka, Covington & Burling