Big banks' oil slick looks mostly fireproof

The bare numbers admittedly look worrying

  
The logo of Societe Generale is pictured outside the headquarters of the French bank at the financial and business district of La Defense at Puteaux near Paris, outside Paris, France, May 16, 2018.

The logo of Societe Generale is pictured outside the headquarters of the French bank at the financial and business district of La Defense at Puteaux near Paris, outside Paris, France, May 16, 2018.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

LONDON - Embattled bank chief executives can at least predict the first thing they’ll be grilled about on their next quarterly earnings call. With oil prices down by a fifth since the end of last week, investors will want to know how exposed lenders are to a possible wave of energy sector defaults. Luckily for the likes of JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon and his European peers, there’s a relatively reassuring answer.

The bare numbers admittedly look worrying. Dimon’s company, for example, had about $42 billion of wholesale credit exposure to the oil and gas sector, or roughly 5% of its total, at the end of 2019. That’s equivalent to more than a fifth of its common equity Tier 1, the main regulatory definition of capital. France’s Société Générale had roughly 20 billion euros of exposure, or 45% of its CET1, while Dutch bank ING’s equivalent figure was 82% of capital.

Investors will fear bankruptcies eating into lenders’ safety nets, imperilling shareholder payouts. The Thomson Reuters United States and European banks indexes are down 8% and 13% respectively since March 5.

Yet the figures need a few caveats. Big banks have shied away from extending too much credit to highly leveraged drillers in the Permian basin, who are most at risk from low prices. More than half of JPMorgan’s oil and gas exposure is rated investment grade. Its credit losses were manageable last time energy prices tanked, peaking at $222 million in 2016, or 0.6% of total oil and gas exposure.

It’s a similar story in Europe. Just 11% of ING’s 39 billion euro exposure to the sector is directly sensitive to commodity price swings, the bank says. That includes so-called reserve-based lending, where a loan is secured against undeveloped reserves of oil or gas. The rest is relatively boring - think revolving credit facilities for Royal Dutch Shell . French banks’ portfolios are probably similarly skewed towards providing general corporate funding for oil majors like Total. Jefferies analysts reckon less than a fifth of Credit Agricole’s gross exposure relates directly to commodity price swings.

That’s not to say that Dimon and his peers can rest easy. Investors will be hyper-sensitive to even modest bad-debt charges at a time when global growth risks grinding to a halt because of the coronavirus. The same goes for potential losses on banks’ trading books from holding the other side of hedges protecting drillers from falling oil prices. But wider macro risks should play a bigger role in investors’ thinking than energy price shocks, since banks’ large oil spills look mostly fireproof.

CONTEXT NEWS

- The Thomson Reuters Europe Banks Price Return Index fell 13% between March 5 and March 10, according to Refinitiv data. The equivalent U.S. index fell 8%.

- Brent crude futures fell by as much as 31% on March 9 to $31.02, their lowest since Feb. 12, 2016, after Russia and Saudi Arabia said they would increase production after the collapse of a three-year pact to limit supplies.

(Editing by George Hay and Karen Kwok)

© Reuters News 2020

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