German Financialization and the Eurozone Crisis

Nina Eichacker

Nina Eichacker is a lecturer in economics at Bentley University. This blog post summarizes her recent Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) working paper “German Financialization, the Global Financial Crisis, and the Eurozone Crisis.” Her previous blog post, on financial liberalization and Iceland’s financial crisis, is available here.

Many studies of the Eurozone crisis focus on peripheral European states’ current account deficits, or German neo-mercantilist policies that promoted export surpluses. However, German financialization and input on the eurozone’s financial architecture promoted deficits, increased systemic risk, and facilitated the onset of Europe’s subsequent crises.

Increasing German financial sector competition encouraged German banks’ increasing securitization and participation in global capital markets. Regional liberalization created new marketplaces for German finance and increased crisis risk as current accounts diverged between Europe’s core and periphery. After the global financial crisis of 2008, German losses on international securitized assets prompted retrenchment of lending, paving the way for the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis. Rethinking how financial liberalization facilitated German and European financial crises may prevent the eurozone from repeating these performances in the future.

After the 1970s, German banks’ trading activity came to surpass lending as the largest share of assets, while German firms increasingly borrowed in international capital markets rather than from domestic banks. Private banks alleged that political subsidies and higher credit ratings for Landesbanks, public banks that insured household, small enterprise, and local banks’ access to capital, were unfair, and, in response, German lawmakers eliminated state guarantees for public banks. Landesbanks, despite their historic role as stable, non-profit, providers of credit, consequently had to compete with Germany’s largest private banks for business. Changes in competition restructured the German financial system. Mergers and takeovers occurred, especially in commercial banks and Landesbanks. German financial intermediation ratios—total financial assets of financial corporations divided by the total financial assets of the economy—increased. Greater securitization and shadow banking relative to long-term lending increased German propensity for financial crisis, as securities, shares, and securitized debt constituted increasing percentages of German banks’ assets and liabilities.

Throughout this period, Germany lacked a centralized financial regulatory apparatus. Only in 2002 did the country’s central bank, the Bundesbank, establish the Bundenstalt für Finanzdienstleistungsaufsicht (Federal Financial Supervisory Authority, known as BaFin), which consolidated the responsibilities of three agencies to oversee the whole financial sector. However, neither institution could keep pace with new sources of financial and economic instability. German banking changes continued apace and destabilizing trends in banking grew.

German desire for financial liberalization at the European level, meanwhile, helped increase potential systemic risk of European finance. Despite some European opposition to removing barriers to capital and trade flows, Germany prevailed in setting these preconditions for membership in the European economic union. Germany’s negotiating power stemmed from its strong currency, as well as French, Italian, and smaller European economies’ desire for currency stability. Germany demanded an independent central bank for the union, removal of capital controls, and an expansion of the tasks banks could perform within the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The Second Banking Coordination Directive (SBCD) mandated that banks perform commercial and investment intermediation to be certified within the EMU; the Single Market Passport (SMP) required free trade and capital flows throughout the EMU. The SMP and SBCD increased the scope of activity that financial institutions throughout the union were expected to provide, and opened banks up to markets, instruments, and activities they could neither monitor nor regulate, and hence to destabilizing shocks.

Intra-EMU lending and borrowing subsequently increased, and total lending and borrowing grew relative to European countries’ GDP from the early 1990s onward. Asymmetries emerged in capital flows between Europe’s core, particularly the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands, to Europe’s newly liberalized periphery. German banks lent increasing volumes to EMU member states, especially peripheral states. Though this lending on a country-by-country basis was a small percentage of Germany’s GDP, it constituted larger percentages of borrowers’ GDPs. In 2007, Germany lent 1.23% of its GDP to Portugal; this represented 17.68% of Portugal’s GDP; in 2008, Germany lent 6% of its GDP to Ireland; this was 84% of Irish GDP. Germany, the largest European economy, lent larger percentages of its GDP to peripheral EMU nations relative to its lending to richer European economies. These flows, more potentially disruptive for borrowers than for the lender, reflected lack of oversight in asset management. German lending helped destabilize European financial systems more vulnerable to rapid capital inflows, and created conditions for large-scale capital flight in a crisis.

Financial competition increased in Europe over this period. Financial merger activity first accelerated within national borders, and later grew at supra-national levels. These movements increased eurozone access to capital, but increased pressure for banks to widen the scope of the services and lending that they provided. Rising European securitization in this period increased systemic risk for the EMU financial system. European holdings of U.S.-originated asset-backed securities increased by billions of dollars from the early 2000s until shortly before 2008. German banks were among the EMU’s top issuers and acquirers of such assets. As banks’ holdings of these assets increased, European systemic risk increased as well.

European total debt as a percentage of GDP rose in this period. Financial debt relative to GDP grew particularly sharply in core economies; Ireland was the only peripheral EMU economy with comparable levels of financial debt. Though government debt relative to GDP fell or held constant for most EMU nations, cross-border acquisition of sovereign debt increased until 2007. German banks acquired substantially larger portfolios of sovereign debt issued by other European states, which would not decrease until 2010. Only in 2009 did government debt relative to GDP increase throughout the eurozone, as governments guaranteed their financial systems to minimize the costs of the ensuing financial crisis.

The newly liberalized financial architecture of the eurozone increased both the market for German financial services and overall systemic risk of the European financial system; these dynamics helped destabilize the German financial system and economy at large. Rising German exports of goods, services, and capital to the rest of Europe grew the German economy, but divergence of current account balances within the EMU exposed it to sovereign debt risk in peripheral states. Potential systemic risk changed into systemic risk after the subprime mortgage crisis began. EMU economies would not have subsequently experienced such pressure to backstop national financial systems or to repay sovereign loans had German banks not lent so much or purchased so many sovereign bonds within the union. Narratives that fail to acknowledge Germany’s role in promoting the circumstances that underlay the eurozone crisis ignore the destabilizing power of financial liberalization, even for a global financial center like Germany.

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