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No Credit Suisse isn't on the brink

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The Swiss bank has enough capital, but volatile markets have deepened worries and raised the costs of its restructuringNo, Credit Suisse Isn't on the Brink - Bloomberg

Credit Suisse Group AG is in a tight spot, but it isn’t “on the brink,” as the fevered typists of social media imagined over the weekend. The Swiss bank, however, is going through its darkest hours at exactly the worst time, when markets are volatile and everyone is nervous about what’s around the corner. Disappointment is still more likely than disaster.

The terms of trade in financial markets are worsening for all players. This is a new era of higher volatility as policymakers raise interest rates to battle inflation, increasing trading costs and risks. It’s a time when missteps by politicians or central banks can suddenly expose surprising concentrations of risk — just look at last week’s entanglement between the UK government bond market and Britain’s pension funds.

Unfortunately for Credit Suisse, this is going to encourage companies, investors and savers to do more business at banks with the strongest balance sheets and most stable business models, making speed crucial for Chairman Axel Lehmann to complete the bank’s strategic review and get its restructuring underway. On the one hand, the Swiss lender is just suffering a more exaggerated version of the travails of its peers. But the collapse in its share price and sharp rise in the cost of buying insurance on its bonds are making its turnaround harder. And there’s another three weeks until it’s scheduled to tell investors how it will cut back its investment bank to focus more on wealth management.

The bank has more than enough capital to run its business. It just isn’t making good enough returns. To change that picture quickly, it needs money to pay for a restructuring — analysts estimate potentially $4 billion through asset sales or capital raising. Without that, the less it can change and the longer its troubles will last. The weaker it appears, the costlier it’ll be to raise any money and the harder it will get squeezed by potential buyers of any of its assets. Markets feed on desperation, and you’ll find fewest friends when you’re most in need.

But this is a story of relative decline, not one of bank runs or existential crisis. This is well known to investors and analysts who follow Credit Suisse but not so much to the broader market. That’s why the sharp rise in the cost of protecting Credit Suisse bonds against default in derivatives markets spooked some finance professionals as well as social media.

Senior Credit Suisse executives spent time reassuring clients and counterparties over the weekend about the health of its balance sheet, the Financial Times reported. In the US, some investors began to fret about contagion to the banking system there from problems at a large European bank. Citigroup Inc. banks analyst Keith Horowitz was moved to pen a note to clients reassuring them that the “current situation is night and day from 2007.”

Investors and traders are jittery because the cost of protecting bank debt against default using credit default swaps (CDS) is rising everywhere. Some are starting to see a harbinger of bank failures, but that’s wrong. A lot of this rise is a function of how banks manage the risks of trading with each other — and of how their clients also manage that risk.

When banks trade with each other, there is always a risk that one bank fails to fulfil its side of the bargain – that is called counterparty credit risk. The world of over-the-counter derivatives, those that aren’t traded on an exchange or through a clearinghouse, are one big source of counterparty risk. Just how much is involved depends on the size of your trading book but also how volatile is the underlying market. High volatility often means more — and more frequent — collateral calls, as Britain’s pensions industry showed last week.

Banks (and their clients) also need to look at the financial strength of their trading partners as they work out what risk they present: Credit Suisse’s collapsing share price makes it look riskier than some rivals. This is a real problem because it makes the bank a costlier counterparty and less competitive. Deutsche Bank went through a similar thing around the final months of 2016, when its capital base was weak and it faced a potentially existential fine from US authorities. Credit Suisse isn’t in such dire straits as Deutsche Bank was then, but losing revenue will still be painful.

There is a further nuance worth noting that explains why the headlines about Credit Suisse are worse than the reality. Without laboring the technicalities too much, many European banks have two kinds of CDS that refer to senior debt: One is riskier and less widely traded than the other. These exist because different creditors get different treatment under bank resolution rules: Depositors and derivative counterparties typically are more likely to get their money back if a bank gets wound up than are bondholders.

Long story short, and slightly simplistically: There is a CDS for senior bonds and a less risky CDS for counterparty credit risk. The former version is often more volatile, the latter is more important for competitiveness and revenue. For Credit Suisse, it’s the more volatile, riskier version that has gone wildest in recent days and become a popular chart for Twitter’s excitable storm chasers.

Credit Suisse is still priced as a riskier counterparty than Deutsche Bank or Barclays Plc, for example, but it’s not in existential peril today. It is at a business disadvantage and faces another hurdle to its restructuring . Nothing that has happened in markets or been communicated by the bank since it launched its review in the summer has been helpful. Financial markets aren’t getting any friendlier. The quicker that Credit Suisse’s board can complete its strategic plan and end the uncertainty the better.