Is there any more miserable spectacle in global business than that of Europe’s lenders? A decade after the crisis they are stumbling around in a fog of bad performance, defeatism and complacency. European bank shares have sunk by 22% in the past 12 months. Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank are conducting merger talks with all the skill and clarity of purpose of Britain’s Brexit negotiators. Two Nordic lenders, Danske Bank and Swedbank, are embroiled in a giant money-laundering scandal. The industry makes a puny return on equity of 6.5% and investors think it is worth less than its liquidation value. Amazingly, many European banks and regulators are resigned to this state of affairs. In fact it is a danger to investors and to Europe’s faltering economy.
The banks make two excuses, both of which are largely rubbish. One is that it is not their fault. Unlike America, where banks have a return on equity of 12%, Europe does not have strongly positive government-bond yields, or a pool of investment-banking profits like that on Wall Street, or a vast, integrated home market. All this is true, but European banks have been lamentably slow at cutting their costs, something which is well within their control. As a rough rule of thumb, efficient banks report cost-to-income ratios below 50%. Yet almost three-quarters of European lenders have ratios above 60%. Redundant property, inefficient technology and bloated executive perks are the order of the day.