Austria was one of the eleven founding members of the Eurozone in January 1999 but the Austrians never quite put their money where their mouth was: Austria is the only euro country where households flocked to take out foreign currency loans. About three quarters of these loans are coupled with repayment vehicles. Unfortunately, the Austrian authorities have known for more than a decade that the repayment vehicles add risk to the already risky FX loans: the crunch time for domestic foreign currency loans will be in 2019 and later when 80% of these loans mature. – This is the saga of authorities that knew full well of the risks and yet allowed the banks to turn households into carry traders.
Foreign currency loans are “… not suitable as a mass market product” – This was the lesson that the Austrian Finance Market Authority, FMA, had already in 2008 drawn from the extensive foreign currency, FX, lending to Austrian households; only in 2013 did the FMA state it so clearly. Long before these risky loans shot up by 10-15%, following the dramatic Swiss decap from the euro in January 2015, the risks were clear to the authorities.
From 1995, Austrian banks had turned a finance product, intended only for specialised investments, into an everyman mass-market product. Contrary to other founding euro countries, the euro did not dampen the popularity of the FX loans, mostly in Swiss francs, CHF. Austrian banks expanded into the neighbouring emerging markets, offering the same product there. Consequently, Austrian banks have turned households at home and abroad into carry traders.
From the beginning, the FMA and later also the Austrian Central Bank, ÖNB had been warning the fast-growing financial sector, with kind words and kid-gloves, against FX loans to unhedged households. The warnings were ignored: the banks raked in fees, FX lending kept rising until it topped (on unadjusted basis) in 2010, not in 2008 when the FMA claimed it banned FX lending.
FX loans in Austria are declining: in 2008 270.000 households had FX loans, 150.000 in March 2015. In February 2015 the FX loans to households amounted to €26bn, ca 18% of household loans. With maturity period of ten to 25 years serious legacy issues remain.
Further, three quarters of these loans, ca. €19.5bn, are coupled with repayment vehicle, sold as a safety guarantee to pay up the loans at maturity. Ironically, they now risk doing just the opposite: according to FMA the shortfall by the end of 2012 (the latest available figure) stood at €5.3bn. An FMA 2013 regulation to diminish this risk will only be tested when the attached FX loans mature: 80% of them are set to mature in or after 2019.
Added to the double risk of the domestic FX loans and the repayment vehicles are FX loans issued by small and medium-sized Austrian banks in the Central European and South-Eastern European, CESEE (the topic of the next article in this series). All this risk is susceptible to multiple shocks, as the IMF underlined as late as January 2014: “Exchange rate volatility (e.g., CHF) or asset price declines associated to repayment vehicles loans (RPVs) could increase credit risk due to the legacy of banks’ FCLs to Austrian households.”
Consequently, as stated by the ÖNB in April this year, seven years after the 2008 crisis FX loans “continue to constitute a risk for households and for the stability of the Austrian financial system” – a risk well and clear in sight since Austria became one of the founding euro countries in 1999. There are still significant challenges ahead for Austrian Banks. Nonperforming loans are rising – Austrian banks are above the European average, very much due to Austrian banks’ operations in CESEE.
Add to all of this the Hypo Alpe Adria scandals and the Corinthia guarantees and the Austrian hills not alive with the sound of music but groaning with well-founded worries, to a great extent because Austrian authorities did not react on their early fears but allowed banks to continue the risky project of turning households into carry traders – yet another lesson that soft-touch regulation does work well for banks but not for society.
Kid-gloves against a mighty and powerful banking (and insurance) sector
There are over 800 banks in Austria, but the three largest, Erste, Raiffaisen and UniCredit Bank Austria, “account for almost half of total bank assets” according to the IMF, which in 2013 pointed out that the financial system, “dominated by a large banking sector,” faces “significant structural challenges, especially the smaller banks.”
Six Austrian banks, three of which are Raiffeisenbanks in different parts of Austria, were included in the ECB Asset Quality Review in October 2014. As expected, the Österreichische Volksbank, partially nationalised, did not pass but the others did. However, the Austrian banks require an additional loan provisioning of €3bn.
The size of the banking sector as a ratio of GDP has been rising, at 350% by mid 2014. The expansion of small Austrian banks in CESEE, where non-covered non-performing loans in these banks’ operations are high, is a serious worry. As is the sector’s low profitability, seen as a long-term structural risk, as is a domestic market dominated by a few big banks and large CESEE exposures.
Theoretically, unhedged borrowers alone bear the risk of FX loans but in reality the risk can eventually burden the banks if the loans turn into non-performing loans en masse, which make these loans significant in terms of financial stability as the IMF has been warning about for years.
Intriguingly, already in 2013 the IMF pointed out that Austria needed to put in place a special bank resolution scheme and should not await the formal adoption of the EU Directive on bank recovery and resolution. It should also pre-empt the coming EU Deposit Guarantee Scheme Directive and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) Core Principles for Effective Deposit Insurance Schemes as minimum standards. However, the progress in this direction has been slow.
Austrian FX loans: from a specialised product to everyman mortgage
In the mid 1990s Austrian households cultivated an appetite for FX loans, unknowing that they were indeed turning into carry traders without the necessary sophistication and knowledge. The trend started in the 1980s in Vorarlberg, the Bundesland in Western Austria where many commute for work to neighbouring Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
At the end of the 1980s 5% of household loans in Vorarlberg were in FX, compared to the Austrian average of 0.2%. From 1995 there was a veritable Austrian boom in FX lending, with borrowers preferring the CHF, and to a lesser degree, the Japanese yen, to the Austrian Schilling. This trend only got stronger as the interest rate differential between these currencies and the Schilling widened.
Quite remarkably, the introduction of the euro January 1 1999 did not dampen the surge: the Austrians kept their faith to the currency of their Swiss neighbours. At the end of 1995 FX loans to individuals amounted to 1.5% of total lending; in 2000 this had risen to 20%. The popularity of the FX loans was clear: in December 2000 82% of household loans issued that month were in FX. Even though the CHF appreciated by over 6% in 2000 it did not affect the popularity of the FX loans. The FX selling machine was well-oiled.
Since household debt in Austria was fairly low, Austria being among the lower middle group of countries as to the debt-to-equity ratio, the ÖNB was relatively relaxed about these changes – but not quite: already in its first Financial Stability report, published in 2001, it underlined the risk of FX lending and borrowing.
FX loans issuance to Austrian households continued to increase. In 2004, 12% of households reported a mortgage in FX. The trend topped in 2006, after which the demand fell. By the end of 2007 the FX loans, measured in euro, amounted to €32bn, i.e. almost 30% of the volume of loans issued. Here it is interesting to keep in mind that with the exception of few months annual growth rates of FX loans to households have always exceeded the growth of household loans in the domestic currency, until late 2006.
FX loans in Austria are declining: 2008 270.000 households had FX loans, 150.000 in March 2015 but the size of the problem is by no means trivial: in December 2014 “18.9% of the total volume of loans extended to Austrian households was still denominated in foreign currency;” in February 2015 the FX loans to households amounted to €26bn.
There are also indications that because the FX loans seemed cheaper than the euro loans households tended to borrow more. The ÖBN has pointed out that the growth in household borrowing in 2003 to 2004 “can to a large part be attributed to foreign currency loans.” As I have mentioned earlier, the fact that FX loans seem cheaper than loans in the domestic currency, lends them the characteristics of sub-prime lending, i.e. leads to households borrowing more than sensible, thus yet fuelling the FX risk.
This FX lending boom did not only signify borrowers’ taste for carry trade but also that financial products, earlier only on offer for large-scale investments had now become an everyman product, as was ominously pointed out in the first ÖBN Financial Stability report 2001.
Why did (only) Austrians turn into a nation of carry traders?
Nowhere in Europe were FX loans to households as popular as in Austria, as the ÖBN noted in its first Financial Stability report in 2001. At the introduction of the euro, FX loans had been popular in various European countries. Around 2000 Austria stood out but so did Germany where FX loans were being issued at the same rate as in Austria. But only in Austria did the trend continue.
The question is why Austrian households favoured FX over euro loans.
A study in the December 2008 Financial Stability report sketched a profile of Austrian household borrowers, based on an Austrian 2004 wealth survey of 2556 households. The outcome suggested “that risk-loving, high-income, and married households are more likely to take out a housing loan in a foreign currency than other households. Housing loans as such are, moreover, most likely taken out by high-income households. These findings may partially assuage policy concerns about household default risk on foreign currency housing loans.” – This profile only tells who was most likely to choose FX loans over domestic loans, not why this group in Austria differed from the same social groups in the other euro countries.
As I have explained earlier, FX loans often characterise emerging markets, as in the CESEE, where Austrian banks have indeed promoted them, or in Asia in the 1980s and the 1990s. FX tend to gain ground in newly liberalised markets, as in Australia in the 1980s. Then there is Iceland where the banks, fully privatised in 2003, expanding and borrowing abroad, hedged themselves by issuing FX loans, also to households.
FX loans are often an indication of instability where people try to bypass a fickle domestic currency, the apparition of bad policies and feeble politicians. In addition, there are interest rate margin, which may look tempting, if one ignores the fact that currencies rarely have a stable period of more than a few years, making them risky as an index for mortgages, normally runnig for ten to twenty years or more.
None of this is particularly fitting for Austria or any more fitting for Austria than the other mature European economies.
As always when FX loans turn into a problem, the banks blame the borrowers for demanding these highly risky products. If this were the case it could only happen because banks do not fulfil their duty of care, of fully informing the clients of the risks involved. As an Australian banker summed up the lessons of the Australian FX lending spree in the 1980s: “…nobody in their right mind, if they had done a proper analysis of what could happen, would have gone ahead with it (i.e. FX loans).”
According the ÖNB’s December 2008 Financial Stability report banks did claim there was so much demand for these loans that in order to be competitive they had to issue FX loans. But Peter Kolba from the Austrian Consumers Association, Verein für Konsumentinformation, VKI, disagrees that the demand came from the customers: in an information video he claims the loans were very much peddled by the banks, which reaped high fees from these loans.
It is indeed interesting that from 1995 to 2000 Austrian banks experienced a veritable fee surge of 75%, part of which the ÖNB attributed to the increase in FX lending. For the banks there was an extra sugar coating on the increased FX lending profits: “the interest rate and exchange rate risks are borne largely by the borrowers. However, the risk of default by debtors has increased the risk potential of such operations” – the possibility of a default did of course expose the banks to a growing FX risk.
There is one aspect of the Austrian FX lending, which seems to have greatly underpinned their popularity: the loans were widely sold by agents, paid directly for each loan, thus with no incentive to inform clients faithfully about the risk. In addition, the same agents often sold the repayment vehicles, thus reaping profits twice from the same customer.
As summed up by ÖNB’s spokesman Christian Gutlederer (in an e-mail to me) there were specific Austrian structural weaknesses: “Presumably, the interplay of the role of financial service providers, extensive media coverage and rational herding behaviour would offer the most plausible explanation for the popularity of such products in Austria. Tax incentives provided one additional layer: payments of life insurance premiums (the most important kind of repayment vehicle loans) and, in some cases, interest payments for mortgages can be deducted from the tax base.”
The above caused an Austrian FX loans surge, contrary to other euro countries. In addition, the fact that the authorities were so timid in clamping down on the risky behaviour of the banks is worth keeping in mind: the lesson for policy makers is to act decisively on their fears.
Lessons of domestic FX loans: “not suitable as mass product”
Being so aware of the risk the ÖNB and the FMA, have over the years taken various measures to mitigate the risk stemming from the FX lending, though timidly for the first many years.
Already in 2003 the FMA issued a set of so-called “Minimum Standards” in FX lending to households but this did little to dampen rise in FX loans to Austrian households. In 2006, the FMA and the ÖNB jointly published a brochure for those considering FX loans, warning of the risk involved. At the time, businesses were less inclined to take out FX loans: whether the brochure or something else, there was a decline in FX loans 2006 but only temporary.
Andreas Ittner, ÖBN’s Director of Financial Institutions and Markets worried at the time that “private borrowers in particular are unaware of all of the risks and consequences.” FMA Executive Director Kurt Pribil found it particularly worrying that “people seem to be unaware of the cumulative risks involved and of the implications this might have, especially if you consider the length of the financing.”
Though contradicted by the rise in FX lending to households, the two officials emphasised that restrictions put in place in 2003 were working. There was though a clear unease at the state of affairs: “At the end of the day, any foreign currency loan is nothing more than currency speculation.”
On October 10 2008, during turbulent times on the financial markets, the FMA “strongly recommended” that banks to stop issuing FX loans to households. The FMA has since repeatedly claimed FX loans were “banned” in 2008 but that was not the wording used at the time. Funnily enough there is no press release in the ÖBN web archive from this date related to the October restrictions. In its 2014 Annual Report it talks of the autumn 2008 measures “de facto ban” on issuance of new FX loans to households.
According to the IMF, in 2013, the measures “introduced in late 2008 to better monitor and contain FC liquidity risks, by encouraging banks to diversify FC funding sources across counterparties and instruments, and lengthen FC funding tenors.”– There was no ban, not even a “de facto ban.”
FMA’s 2003 “Minimum Standards” for FX lending were revised in 2010. By then, the FMA and the ÖNB had been warning about the FX loans for a decade or longer. In spite of the “non-ban” 2008 measures, it was only in 2010 that Austrian banks “made a commitment to stop extending foreign currency loans associated with high levels of risk, in line with supervisory guidance provided to this effect (“guiding principles”).” In January 2013 the FMA issued revised the “Minimum Standards,” also taking into account recommendations by the European Systemic Risk Board, ESRB.
All of these warnings are in tip-toeing and kid-glove central bank and regulator speak: there is no doubt that behind these Delphic utterances there were real concern. All along, Austrian authorities have underlined that these standards were not rules and regulations, more a kind advice to the banks to act more sensibly.
The IMF has over the years voiced concern in a much stronger tone and language than the Austrian authorities. As late as January 2014 the IMF underlined the possibility of multiple shock: “Exchange rate volatility (e.g., CHF) or asset price declines associated to repayment vehicles loans (RPVs) could increase credit risk due to the legacy of banks’ FCLs to Austrian households.”
It was not until 2013, five years after the crisis hit and, counting from 2000 when the FX lending had soared, numerous currency fluctuations later that the FMA finally had a clearly worded lesson for the banks and their household FX borrowers: “foreign currency loans to private consumers are not suitable as a mass product…”
Another dimension of FX lending risks: other shocks accompany exchange volatility
In the FMA’s latest regular FX lending overview, from December 2014 it points out that following initiatives to limit the risk on outstanding FX loans, as well as what it there (as elsewhere) calls ban in 2008 on new loans, the volume of borrowings has been falling: outstanding FX loans to private individuals, as a share of all outstanding loans end of September 20014 is now at 19.1%; 95% of these loans are denominated in CHF, the rest mostly in Japanese yen.
Correctly stated, the FX lending is declining but the devilish nature of FX loans is that the principal is affected by chancing rates of the currency the loans are linked to. The number of loans issued may have been declining – the ÖNB points out FX loans to Austrian borrowers have indeed been declining since autumn 2008 but the real decline in the FX lending has been “offset by the appreciation of the Swiss franc.” As seen from ÖNB data the loans did indeed not top until 2010 (see Table A11).
The ceiling set by the Swiss National Bank, SNB, in late summer 2011 helped stabilise the exchange rate – but this stability ended spectacularly in January this year.
What further adds to the risk of FX lending is that it is easy to envisage a situation where banks and borrowers are not hit only by a single shock wave stemming from currency fluctuations but by other simultaneous shocks, such as a slump in asset prices; again something that the ÖNB has underlined, i.a. as early as in the bank’s Financial Stability report April 2003.
If several private borrowers would become insolvent due to rising exchange rates, “the simultaneous and complete realization of the above-mentioned collateral would considerably dampen the price to be achieved.” Thus, banks with a high percentage of foreign currency loans incur a concentration risk, which would endanger financial stability in the region, if the collaterals needed to be sold. It is an extra risk that the banks with the highest share of FX lending were small and medium-sized regional banks in Western Austria; in some cases up to 50% of total assets were FX loans.
Repayment vehicles = no guarantee but an even greater risk
The fact that the majority of Austrian domestic FX loans comes with a repayment vehicle has often been cited as a safety net for FX borrowers and consequently for the banks. This is however a false safety and both the ÖNB and the FMA, as well as foreign observers such as the IMF have, again for a long time, understood this risk.
In order to gauge the risk it is necessary to understand the structure of the FX loans: almost 80% of the FX loans are balloon loans, i.e. the full principal is repaid on maturity: interest rates, according to the LIBOR of the currency and repriced every three months, are paid monthly. The FX loans can normally be switched to euro (or any other currency) but at a fee; another aspect in favour of the bank is a forced conversion clause, allowing the bank to convert the loan into a euro loan without the borrower’s consent.
The repayment vehicle is usually a life insurance contract or an investment in mutual fund, paid into the scheme in monthly instalments. The majority of those who have taken out the FX loans coupled with repayment vehicle have done so via an agent, clearly an added risk as mentioned above.
Consequently, for borrowers there is a twofold risk attached to FX loans with repayment vehicle: firstly, there is the currency risk related to the loans themselves; second there is the real risk of a shortfall in the repayment vehicle, clearly born out by the volatility in 2008. As pointed out in the ÖNB’s Financial Stability October 2008 report the repayment vehicles “in addition to other risks, are exposed to exchange rate risk.”
The ÖNB had however been aware of the repayment vehicle risk much earlier than 2008. Already in its Financial Stability October 2002 report, the risk was spelled out very clearly: the repayment vehicles “usually do not serve to hedge against exchange rate or interest rate risk; rather, they add risk to the entire borrowing scheme.”
If the repayment vehicle does not perform well enough to cover the principal of the FX loan one may try to switch to other investments but at a cost. “If the performance of these repayment vehicles cannot keep up with the assumptions used in the provider’s model calculations, the borrower, who is already exposed to high exchange rate and interest rate risk, becomes exposed to even greater risk.”
In short: on maturity, there is high risk that the repayment investment will not cover the loan, i.e. the alleged safety net has a hole in it. In the present environment of low interest rates it is a struggle to avoid this gap.
Following a 2011 survey there was already a growing shortfall in sight, according to an FMA statement in March 2012. At the time, FX loans with repayment vehicle amounted to €28.6bn. By the end of 2008 the shortfall had been €4.5bn, or 14% of the loan volume. End of 2011 the shortfall in cover amounted to ca. €5.3bn, at the time 18% of the outstanding loans; the increase between 2011 and 2012 had been €800m, an increase in the shortfall by 22%.
In 2013 the FMA put in place regulation, which obliges the insurance companies to create provisions from their own profits should these repayment vehicles fail. This will however only be tested when the attached FX loans mature: 80% of them are set to mature in or after 2019; a “significant redemption risks to Austrian banks” according to the ÖNB in December 2014.
The ÖNB and the FMA are indeed paying extra attention to the interplay between FX loans and the repayment vehicles: the two authorities are conducting a survey in the first quarter of 2015 to uncover the risks posed by these two risk factors, the FX loans and the repayment vehicles. Somewhat wearily, the ÖNB points out that the two authorities have been warning against these loans for more than ten years. Though reined in and declining FX loans still “continue to constitute a risk for households and for the stability of the Austrian financial system.”
Austrian consumer action in sight
Following the Swiss decap in January the Austrian Consumer Association, VKI, has taken action to inform FX borrowers on their options.
The Austrian FX loan agreements normally have a “stop-loss” clause, seemingly a protection for the borrower to limit sudden losses because of currency appreciation. Sadly, following the Swiss decap in January many FX borrowers have discovered that this clause did not limit their losses. These clauses have been the cause of many queries made at the VKI. The FMA, claiming it can not act on this, has advised borrowers to bring the matter to the attention of the banks, but gave the end of February 2015 as a deadline; a remarkably short time.
VKI is also advising FX borrowers to try to negotiate with the banks regarding coast of converting CHF into euro loans or loss incurred from the FX loans compared to euro loan, arguing that these costs should not be carried by the borrowers alone but shared with the bank.
As elsewhere, the Austrian banks have taken fees for administering the FX loans, typically 1 to 2%, as if they had incurred costs by going into the market to buy CHF in connection to the FX loans. However, as elsewhere, the Austrian loans are CHF indexed, not actual lending in FX. In the Árpad Kásler case the European Court of Justice, ECJ, ruled that this cost was illegal since there were no actual services carried out. Consequently, this might be of help to Austrian FX borrowers; also that part of the ruling, which obliges banks to inform clients properly.
If these actions take off this could mean a considerable hit for the banks. After all, 150.000 households have FX loans of €25bn in total, not a trivial sum.
Given the fact that so many of these loans and the repayment vehicles were sold through agents their responsibility for informing clients has to be tested at some point: it is inconceivable that important intermediaries between banks and their clients bear no responsibility at all for the products they arrange to be sold.
As in other countries, Austrian FX borrowers have already been heading for the courts. So far, the cases are few but have at least in some cases been positive for the borrowers.
The question is whether Austrian politicians will be firmly on the side of the banks or if they will come to the aid of FX borrowers. But there really is good reason for political attention, given that the problem certainly is still lingering. It should also be of political concern that the ÖNB and the FMA chose to treat banks with kid-gloves lightly – though full well knowing that the products being sold to consumers were highly explosive and hugely risky both to the borrowers and the country.
* This is the second article in a series on FX lending in Europe: the unobserved threat to FX unhedged borrowers – and European banks.The next article will be on Austrian banks and FX lending abroad. The series is cross-posted on Icelog.